Thursday, May 22, 2008

Obama vs. McCain as Centrists

A friend asked me to respond to David Brooks' recent column, "Talking Versus Doing," in which he charges that Obama is not really a centrist or a serious change agent because he voted for the pork-laden farm bill -- a bill McCain opposed.

I take this criticism seriously. I usually agree with this friend, and with Brooks. Brooks is a decent centrist -- he is only a "conservative" compared to the rest of the New York Times roster.

Brooks actually cited two cases of the corruption of the Washington system. The farm bill was one, and the energy bill was the other. I agree that both are bad bills, more of a sweetheart deal for the biggest agribusiness and oil companies. That they both passed Congress overwhelmingly is a sign of a deep corruption in our politics.

It is also a sign of the necessity of compromise in making legislation. McCain made his reputation as a maverick -- which he is quickly shedding. Obama made his reputation as a coalition builder, which entails voting for lots of bad legislation in order to get something done. These are two different ways of being a centrist.

What has impressed me from the outset about this primary season is that the electorate of each party has chosen, out of a large initial field, the candidate with the greatest appeal to independents. McCain won best in open primaries in which independents and Democrats could vote. The Republican way of doing primaries meant that he wrapped up the nomination early. If Republicans had had proportional primaries, McCain would still be fighting it out with Romney and Huckabee. Obama has won best in caucuses, where people have to take a public stand and offer some kind of reason for their choice. The reason they are most likely to give is that Obama is a uniter, capable of getting things done.

Any leader has to decide that some things cannot be compromised. McCain has his list - which used to include campaign reform, and still includes torture. Obama has his list, which includes the war in Iraq and his Obama-Lugar bill to control loose nuclear weapons. Leaders also have to decide which bad bills to support anyway, because the deal that made them included some worthwhile elements. Each voter will have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the leader's no-compromise list matches the voter's list closely enough.

I believe that Obama and McCain are about equally committed to getting things done. I also see each as being within half a standard deviation of the center. I liked McCain the best out of the Republican field as a potential president, and I am enthusiastic about Obama out of the Democratic field. Neither would be a terrible president.

Whether a Democratic or a Republican administration would be better for the country is another question.


Michael Kruse said...

Beau, I'm curious about why you think Obama is a centrist. I don't think Clinton and Obama are that far apart on issues but Clinton strikes me as slightly more to the center than Obama.

Obama seems to appeal to African-Americans (for understandable reasons) and higher income Whites. Clinton appeals to the working class blue-dog Democrat types. National Journal ranked Obama the most liberal voting member of the Senate last year. (See here) My perceptions are that he is the darling of the left, almost a left Ronald Reagan type.

Can you identify what it is about him that makes him a centrists to you? Not picking a fight. I just genuinely don't see it.

Gruntled said...

Issue one is ending the war in Iraq. He wants to do that as soon as possible so that we can pursue the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda with renewed vigor. That is not left peaceniking.

Issue two is health care for poor people. He wants to offer it to all, but not make it mandatory. That is more marketish than Clinton's plan.

His main appeal is that he makes people want to unite across old divisions to actually get something done. I think the Obama-Lugar bill is a good symbol of that reality.

SPorcupine said...

Obama is also tenaciously not of the cultural left. The faith, family, patriotism elements are the real deal.

At one level, those aren't positions on issues.

At another level, they can make a mighty difference on the issues. They separate him from the snarky left, from the people who would rather fuss than win on policy substance. Only a Democrat who is truly separate from that can build either the grass-roots coalitions or the Congressional majorities to get things done.

At a third level, those commitments really are like President Reagan. If you spend two or three hours on speeches and articles, you get a feel for the man, and after that, later information keeps confirming that sense.

(As for Senator Clinton, I no longer have any idea who she is. She's been a Goldwater girl, an intern in a law firm with actual communists, a disastrous egghead on health policy, and someone who won't listen to economists. She's campaigned for George McGovern and offered to bomb Iran in violation of the Constitution. If I tried to place her on a political spectrum, I'd have to assume that day after tomorrow she might relocate based on polling advice.)

Michael Kruse said...

Maybe the difference for me is what we mean by centrist. I think of a centrist as one who finds "policy" middle ground that may not be embraced fully by either side; or someone who is sometimes to the left but other but other times to the right.

Coalition building across divisions, to me, is a tactic to achieve your policy aims. Reagan was a right-wing policy coalition builder and I fully expect Obama would be left-wing coaltion builder. To me, neither man is a centrist because they do not build a policy porfolio that is centrist.

Said differenly, one takes their 51% out of the right have the continuum while the other takes their 51% out of left half. A centrist takes their 51% our of the middle.

Obama is a political liberal. He is using a tactic (inspiring and coalition building) that is natural to him. If elected, that still leaves you with a liberal policy agenda enacted at the end of the day, not a centrist agenda.

Gruntled said...

I expect that the outcome of successful bi-partisan legislation will be centrist, even if initiated by liberals or conservatives.

Michael Kruse said...

I'd hope so. I'm not sure most Democrats would agree that was the outcome while Reagan was in office. :)