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Tilting at Windmills

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December 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE EQUATIONS OF POLITICS....Walter Shapiro listens to the stump speeches of the three leading Democratic candidates and sums them up this way:

Edwards and Clinton are both playing traditional roles in the never-ending political drama of the outsider versus the insider. Obama is the wild card, as the 21st-century candidate trying to rewrite the equations that govern political math.

There's nothing original there, but it does get to the heart of the difference between Obama and the other two. The question is, do you believe that there's a "new politics" out there waiting for someone to grab hold of it and change the "equations that govern political math"? I gotta say, I'm skeptical — the same way I was skeptical when the dotcommers thought they'd rewritten the rules of stock valuation and the subprime lenders thought they'd rewritten the rules of risk evaluation. Call me cynical, but from where I sit politics doesn't look a lot different today than it did when I cast my first vote 30 years ago.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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Call me cynical, but from where I sit politics doesn't look a lot different today than it did when I cast my first vote 30 years ago.

You don't have any black friends, do you?

Posted by: Disputo on December 18, 2007 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Not quite on-topic, but the early dot-commers did make tons of money, and who can question the brilliance of the likes of the Merryl Lynch CEO who was forced to retire in disgrace with a few hundred million dollars in the package? What a glorious failure to predict the future!

Posted by: gregor on December 18, 2007 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

"...new politics" out there waiting for someone to grab hold of it and change the "equations that govern political math"

Not really.

Those who seek political office (with very rare exceptions) are looking for the same things they always have. PMS. (Power, Money, Sex). The system serves them, not the other way around.

The fact that they ['leaders'] act primarily in their own self-interest underlies most of the problems that the world faces at the political (and other) levels.

The only thing a society can do is upset the applecart enough to shake the maggots out for awhile... but over time they'll creep back in.

A few more 'rational' societies (Scandinavia?)have a higher ethical standard and this may give them a continual cleansing process... other political systems progress to states of collapse and revolution before change occurs.

Posted by: Buford on December 18, 2007 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

Jesus Kevin what'd you do take acid or something today.from where I sit politics doesn't look a lot different today than it did when I cast my first vote 30 years ago.Let's see Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford compared to Repubs and dems of today.

Posted by: Gandalf on December 18, 2007 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Kevin, here, I think. To a certain extent, politics is like drama: there are a few themes, and everything else is just riffing. Fundamentally, there isn't much going on in drama today that wasn't going on in Shakespeare or ancient Greece. Someone may come along and claim they've revolutionized it, but then it it turns out they're just doing Romeo and Juliet set in modern times.

That's how I feel about all the Obamarama drama. He's coming along and saying he's going to change everything, but then his health care approach involves sitting down with the drug companies and health insurance providers, just like we've always tried to do. Just like before, the drama will replay in the same way, and it will end in bad public policy. So other than being charismatic and making a good speech or two, I don't see what's innovative about Obama's approach.

Posted by: I voted for Kodos on December 18, 2007 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think it's magical. I don't think the stars fall out of the sky. But certain candidates rewrite the rules that usually govern our politics. Who would have thought Jimmy Carter would appeal to evangelicals? Who would have thought Reagan would have stolen away blue collar workers?

I'm just slightly younger than you, and things have changed in small and big ways during the last 30 years. Obama has more potential than most to be a change.


Posted by: wagster on December 18, 2007 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK

New politics -- pandering to the elderly, campaigning with homophobes, adopting GOP talking points, non-universality of health care.

He is teh awsooom!

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on December 18, 2007 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

Yes its so new I mean Obama does not at all sound like Bill Bradley in 2000.....

Posted by: Rob on December 18, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Politics differs today since the Republicans have learned that they don't need to win elections. They can steal them, as the Bush machine blatantly stole both the Florida 2000 election and the Ohio 2004 election.

And the Republicans have proved that the corporate media, and the flaccid Democratic Party, will let them get away with it.

They will do the same thing in 2008: the Democratic nominee will win the election, and the Republican nominee will be sworn in as President in January 2009.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on December 18, 2007 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Even if Obama is nothing but a moderate Democrat, that would be good enough. Americans don't have much use for intentional radicals. They like the ones who create reform as a response to necessity. TR, FDR and LBJ never ran as radicals, but they were willing to create changes to save the system.

The reason that Obama can work well as president is the reason that some in the black community don't like. His resume is about as mainstream as you can get. He's not here because he's a black leader. He's here because he's a leader. I don't think that being black is incidental to his life, but it isn't oppressively central to it, either.

I support Edwards today, but Obama is certainly a very strong second choice for me.

Posted by: freelunch on December 18, 2007 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

I don't buy the idea that Obama is the guy who's most likely to bring change. He talks about bridging the divide between the political poles, but every time that's been tried the past few decades the middle moves to the right. I see more of the same with Obama.

The way to bring change is not to accommodate those on the right but to defeat them. Not every battle will be won, but it's important to understand where the battle lines are. Edwards (among the top three Dems) seems to be the only one to grasp that.

If you want change, Edwards is the guy.

Posted by: JJF on December 18, 2007 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Obama requires some but not complete suspension of disbelief. Maybe he will recapture the political debate from the Glibertarian/Christianist Captivity. That's his promise and if he delivers, he really is our Jesus.

But Kevin is right to be a tad skeptical. We can't predict these things so it might be a little more reality-based to say what you want up front and how you're going to achieve it. Politics requires good arguments, not just warm fuzzy feelings. And if there's no mandate for change, chances are the change that does happen will be entirely arbitrary.

Posted by: walt on December 18, 2007 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

KD: Call me cynical, but from where I sit politics doesn't look a lot different today than it did when I cast my first vote 30 years ago.
Disputo:You don't have any black friends, do you?

The difference between 1968 and 1978 - dramatic.

The difference between 1978 and 2008? not so much

Posted by: Kolohe on December 18, 2007 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

I think it comes down to what Andrew Sullivan said (in between hyperventilations he sometimes says smart things):

If you think the problems facing America and the world can be fixed by the traditional role-playing politics, than Hillary (or Edwards) is your candidate. They won't change the game.

But if you think that America and the world are about to head over a cliff and that a radical change in approach is necessary, its worth taking the risk on Obama.

I fall into the latter category. With Peak Oil, religious fundamentalism, a crashing economy, and on and on, I believe we are going into a period of crisis. The problems we will face will not be easily solved by the traditional solutions of the left or the right, although it will require massive governmental involvement, which will mean that the left will have to lead.

And in a period of crisis, it is essential to have a leader that the broad swath of the american public can trust. It is essential to have a leader that seeks to unite the country around bold action. Can I say for sure that Obama will be able to do this? No. But I see the potential there, and I think a lot of other people do to. And I think the historical moment demands that we take the risk.

Posted by: nathan on December 18, 2007 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

"but from where I sit politics doesn't look a lot different today than it did when I cast my first vote 30 years ago."

I'm not sure if I buy this. The GOP election model that has proven to be so successful -- don't even bother trying to promote your guy to undecided voters, just pump up the base and go overwhelmingly negative to kill the turnout of everybody else -- strikes me as a pretty recent development.

In 1980, the GOP seemed to really try to encourage people to vote for Reagan. In 1988, there was some demonization of Dukakis, but again, there was also some effort to convince undecided voters. Same in 1992. You really have to get to 2000 before you see campaigns where the GOP candidate is barely mentioned -- it's all about demonizing the other guy.

Posted by: Joe on December 18, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

I do think there is a 'new politics' out there, but none of the Democrats have grasped it. Certainly not Obama, who's 'new politics' of 'bringing the country back together' means telling progressives and liberals things he thinks they need to hear, like embracing corporate power, ending welfare and tolerating native racism.

The new politics would end the use of American hard power; end the need of a super military for national security. Call it the Sheehan Politics. The establishment does not want to hear it, and none of the front running Democratic candidates are willing to run on that. The amount of money spent on the military while the rolls of the homeless increase, even while homes are boarded up, combined with the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer, will sooner or later have to end with a new deal for the American people that concentrates on guaranteeing social welfare for the greatest number rather than guaranteeing the highest return for the few wealthiest.

Posted by: Brojo on December 18, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

but from where I sit politics doesn't look a lot different today than it did when I cast my first vote 30 years ago."

I agree that this statement is totally, glaringly, incorrect and strange and disappointing coming from someone whose job is to post thoughtfully on politics. The level of partisanship, the importance of the media and the 24 hour news cycle, the rise of consultants, the increasing importance of early money, the Gingrich revolution, the breakdown of institutional parity and the rise of the unitary executive. This is (in many respects unfortunately) not like 30 years ago.

Posted by: Pat on December 18, 2007 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

Voted for Kodos? As in Kodos the Executioner from Star Trek?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on December 18, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know if politics is any different today than it was in ancient Greece, but part of the cycle of politics is the periodic flourishing of a rhetoric of 'there is a better way and I'm it'. I usually don't buy it, as I am naturally skeptical, but in fifth grade I had a teacher make us learn to spell antidisestablishmentarianism and malaise (guess who was president?). The next guy elected was someone who talking about 'morning in America' (mourning?). And then there was a guy from Hope. I think the disaffection in the country right now means it is time for this rhetoric of inspiration to flourish again. The question is whether that is primarily what people are looking for. They might be looking for someone unabashedly realist. When Obama is on, he has what it takes to go the inspirational route and win. One thing worth noting: I think that 2008 promises low voter turnout. If the inspirational schtick gets voters involved again -- makes people feel enfranchised -- that is only a good thing. No matter how he does in the primaries, there should be a way of keeping him front and center, for that reason alone.

Posted by: lisainvan on December 18, 2007 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

A lot of people here are making great points about how politics has changed in the last 30 years, but it's still fundamentally the same game. Even seemingly significant changes like

"The level of partisanship, the importance of the media and the 24 hour news cycle, the rise of consultants, the increasing importance of early money, the Gingrich revolution, the breakdown of institutional parity and the rise of the unitary executive,"
are really changes in pitch, not changes in tune. Having more partisanship, more news, more consultants, more early money, and more domination by the executive adds up to an adjustment, not a revolution. Thus, there shouldn't be any reason to consider candidates who have adjusted traditional roles outmoded (and thus my earlier analogy to updating Shakespeare: the more the setting changes, the more the characters remain timeless).

And even if we do need someone to revolutionize the roles, I don't see where Obama fits that description. Obama keeps telling me he's trying to change the partisan math or something, but when I look at the substance I just don't see anything to support it. As far as I can tell, his policies don't really involve anything innovative, it's just his persona that makes it seem that way.

Marge: I don't understand why we have to build a ray gun to aim at a planet I never even heard of.
Homer: Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos.

Posted by: I voted for Kodos on December 18, 2007 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

He just paraphrases Atrios' earlier (& brilliant) Shorter Candidates:

Obama: The system sucks, but I'm so awesome that it'll melt away before me.

Edwards: The system sucks, and we're gonna have to fight like hell to destroy it.

Clinton: The system sucks, and I know how to work within it more than anyone.

(at http://atrios.blogspot.com/2007_12_16_archive.html#2065480794031988135 )

Posted by: poliwog on December 18, 2007 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

Obama is the Peter Pan candidate.

Posted by: emmarose on December 18, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Edwards for President -- Leadership America needs!

Posted by: MarkH on December 18, 2007 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

Drum: The question is, do you believe that there's a "new politics" out there waiting for someone to grab hold of it and change the "equations that govern political math"?

Yes, but I'm not convinced that Obama is capable of delivering the shock to the political system necessary in order to change things.

That would take the ability to act more boldly - insert reference to Chris Dodd's recent stand against retroactive legal immunity here - than what Obama has shown in the Senate to this point...What Obama has shown is an ability to work cooperatively across party lines, handle himself very well in the political arena, and he comes off as being a genuine person, not afraid of telling you something you don't want to hear...All of which are admirable qualities, but not necessarily those qualities that make for someone who will "rewrite the equations that govern political math."

Posted by: grape_crush on December 18, 2007 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

Obama a radical? Ha ha ha. He is about as radical as...as...as...ah, chicken soup.

And about as interesting. His "let's all hold hands and make nice" is so feeding into the Republican mantra of how mean all those nasty liberals are...urk

Posted by: Carol on December 18, 2007 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

But the netroots HAVE rewritten the rules of politics--would the Dodd Fillibuster have occured without us? Would anyone have even noticed FISA without us? Or the US Attorney's Scandal?

Bringing power back to the people, so it's re-writing politics in the truest sense of re-writing, that is, copying something over that you already wrote and making it better.

Posted by: MNPundit on December 18, 2007 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

Great question, Kevin --

We definitely *do* need a new way of doing civic business, that's for sure (insert long list of national, global, and species-level problems here).

But maybe there's a useful distinction between "civic business" and "politics" ... becuase politics is never win-win-win. Some class or set of interests have to lose in the short-term. In the *long term*, maybe they can harmonize ... maybe. But in the short term, somebody is usually going to win and somebody is usually going to lose.

If you want to run the traffic light in the town square at will, the vast bulk of the town is going to want to arrest you and throw you in jail. That's a metaphor for a lot of politic issues, right there. Apply it as you will.

Posted by: Piehole on December 18, 2007 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

The change I see:
(my first vote was 30+ years ago.)

We're living thru the unquestioned worst administration ever. Corruption and incompetence has become concentrated in one political party unlike any time in any living person's memory.

People are desperate for change. That's why state parties-- like Michigan's-- are tinkering with the system. It's got to be seriously flawed to produce the results we got in 2000 and 2004.

To me any of the Dem candidates, and Dem control of Congress is sufficient. But, for many even that's not enough. Wonderful. A black man with an African name is viable. A woman candidate is viable. And, this at the same time a Hispanic is viable and a Mormon might head the GOP ticket. It almost seems anything is possible.

Your point about outside/inside is true, but I don't think the McGovern revolution, let alone the last 30 years, matches what we're about to see.

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