He’s made Hillary Clinton, with her wonkish, pragmatic approach to politics, seem uninspired. He’s made John Edwards, with his angry cries that “corporate greed is killing your children’s future,” seem old-fashioned. Edwards’s political career is probably over.--David Brooks
I think Brooks is right on both counts about the basic political perception, and I think that's why Edwards and Clinton can't in the long run compete with Obama. I've come round to seeing Obama's message of unity as being a more effective political strategy than Edwards' more confrontational anti-corporate message. People are more comfortable with Obama's message, and it's smarter politically. I don't mean to suggest that Obama is insincere; I think he's quite sincere. The question for me is whether his approach can be effective in dealing with the power coalitions that will oppose him every step of the way. At this point it looks to be an effective approach to get elected; it remains to be seen whether it's an approach with which he can govern. I think the reconciliation message works with individuals one on one, but I am skeptical it will work with the power blocs on K-Street and in Congress. I am, however, quite open to be convinced otherwise. Maybe Obama has the stature to pull it off. At this point I just don't know. I'd like to believe it, but I'm skeptical.
But in the meanwhile I think Edwards' approach, while politically less palatable, is closer to the reality of the situation the new president will face. Brooks is right, though, about his message seeming old-fashioned--so 20th Century. It doesn't matter if he's right; it's not what Americans want to hear. It's a message that does not broadly resonate because Americans have become resigned to accept corporate self-interest and the inequities caused by the market economy as the best possible system in an imperfect world. Most Americans believe in corporate capitalism. And while they recognize that there is much about the way the contemporary corporate system works that stinks, it pays the bills and supports the lifestyles that they have come to accept as normal reality. To rail against the corporation is to rail against normalcy, and that's uncomfortable. What could replace it, after all? Some form of state socialism? That idea gives most Americans the creeps.
So Edward's anti-corporate rhetoric comes across as a kind of pointless whining, like complaining about the weather. What's the point? What can you do about it? So stop whining and go to work--or start your own business. Corporations are just part of the deal, and in the public mind resignation is the only realistic attitude. But that doesn't change the fact that unrestrained corporate power and political influence is the single greatest factor currently undermining our democratic institutions and the public interest. It doesn't change the fact that the very powerlessness and resignation we feel about the "system" is rooted in the disproportionate power and influence corporations wield.
It stinks and its wrong, and it's corrupting root and branch. But I don't have a better system. But what I do insist on is that Americans wake up to where the real danger to their freedoms lies and that they fight to keep in place the tools that were developed in the last century to check and hold accountable otherwise unrestrained corporate power. We will otherwise devolve into a system of global economic warlordism reminiscent of the robber-baron era in the 19th century. That's the project promoted by movement conservatives starting at least since the Reagan assault in the 1980s on New Deal compromise between the market and the public interest. So at the very least, those protections must be defended.
There's a lot more to be said about this, but this isn't the time or place. But I would add one more thing. In light of this fundamental principle that a compromise between the market and the public interest needs to be struck, I think it desirable to make a distinction between "market" products and services and "public-interest" products and services. Most of the economy should fall into the first category, but others central to the well being of the commonweal should be removed from the vagaries of the market.
We already recognize the principle in the way we have set up our
police, military, emergency response and road systems, parks, water,
and to a lesser degree our energy distribution and public
transportation. These are public interest services and unless we are on
the nutty fringe of privatize-everything Libertarianism, we accept the
legitimacy of the tax burden on us to support them. Everything ought
not to be for sale. We can argue about how large or small the list of
products and services should be in the public interest sector, but
there should be no argument about there being such a sector.
And I would argue as a subsidiarist that universal healthcare needs to be on that list. Most Americans accept the legitimacy of the public-interest healthcare service the government now provides for the poor and the elderly. Now it's just a question of expanding the coverage. We've tried letting the market meet the need, and it has failed. Again, the subsidiarist principle requires first that problems be solved on the lower and local levels with minimal central government interference, but when those levels prove inadequate to the task, a solution has to be developed at a higher or more centralized level. Most of us accept the principle, even though we are unfamiliar with the name: FEMA steps in when the local emergency and disaster services are overwhelmed. Eisenhower sends troops to Little Rock to enforce a federal law protecting basic rights when the local government fails to. See here and here for more on the idea of subsidiarity and how it strikes the balance between law-of-the-jungle, laissez-faire economies on the one hand and top-down command economies on the other.
Quality, cost, and access are the central criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of any healthcare delivery system, and in the U.S. they are way out of balance. The market system promotes good quality, but fails miserably on cost and access. We need a system that performs well in all three and that continuously innovates to find ways to improve in all three. It's not one or the other; it's a question of looking for improvements across the board, and the market has shown that it has no interest in in controlling costs or increasing access. Subsidiarity requires that this failure be remedied at a higher centralized level. A surrender to the market for essential serivces of this kind is a surrender to barbarism.
Maybe Obama is better equipped than Edwards to tackle the American
healthcare disgrace, but the principals in the healthcare industry do
not strike me as having a frame of mind open to compromise. It will
take enormous political will and skill to accomplish anything
significant in this arena. The particulars of his plan don't matter as
much as whether he has the will to do something about it. Maybe he
does. That's what I'm not sure about. But if he could get that done,
get us out of Iraq, and roll back the Bush-era constitutional
travesties, he will be a president to be ranked with Lincoln and
Roosevelt. The task is for him would be almost as monumental. Anybody
think he's up to that? Anybody think one of the other candidates has a
better chance of accomplishing that. I'm gradually being convinced
that Obama has the best shot.
But I would settle for less. Since 9/11 Americans have been breathing in a foul wind blowing with the stench of fear, hatred, and parochial small mindedness. The first step before anything concrete can be done is to get Americans breathing wholesome air again. I don't know if he can do it, but given the field of choices, Obama has the best shot at making that happen. That's why I'm leaning away from Edwards and toward Obama. Obama has the better shot at making a difference.
UPDATE: Good Obama quote from the debate last night that shows he understands the need to change the direction of the wind:
"I think we're in one of those moments right now. I think the American people are hungry for something different and can be mobilized around big changes; not incremental changes, not small changes.... the truth is, actually, words do inspire, words do help people get involved, words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver health-care reform, to deliver a bold energy policy."
The Edsall/Stein article in which I found this quote goes on to point out that Obama contrasts the Clinton style, which was more about technical management of the system, with his style, which is to move the system in another direction:
In a compliment that amounted to a backhanded slap, Obama said "I actually give Bill Clinton enormous credit for having balanced those budgets during those years. It did take political courage for him to do that. But we never built the majority and coalesced the American people around being able to get the other stuff done."