Friday, June 13, 2008

The Obama Coalition

I thought David Brooks, of all people, had a good column today, that addresses how Obama rides his coalition.

Brooks discusses how Obama has managed a two-horse team on education policy. The two, often-opposing camps in education policy is a division between those who emphasize the need for additional resources to do what we are already doing (what Brooks calls the "status quo camp") and those reformers, who want to change the structure of what we do and how we do it, emphasizing measurement and accountability.

Though Brooks doesn't intend to, he highlights the key to Obama's campaign: Obama affirms both positions, without resolving the contradictions between them. He doesn't resolve the contradictions, because he doesn't have to: McCain does not offer anything to either camp.

I think much the same is true among the economists. There's been controversy over Obama's choice of economic advisers, including criticism, say, from Unions, over whether some of these relatively conservative economists have been anti-Union or too ready to "reform" Social Security. In some ways, this reflects some discomfort within the Democratic coalition over how broad Obama's support in the country is. Obama has, deliberately made himself appealing to conservative-leaning independent voters, and this openness to conservative views and conservative support, makes Progressives nervous. What it ignores, though, is the extent to which this expansion of the Democratic tent is a gift from the Republicans.

The Republicans, under Bush, have painted themselves into a corner, where they are just evil and empty and pointless. No progressive would support the Republicans, of course, but no principled conservative would, either. McCain's economic proposals for more insane tax cuts and larger deficits and more magical thinking has no appeal for any knowledgeable or rational person. (Greg Mankiw, former adviser to Bush, of course, supports McCain. Go figure.)

If America had a fully functional, rational politics, Jason Furman and Austan Goolsbee would be advising the Republican candidate, and Galbraith and Bernstein (and Max Sawicky!) would be advising the Democrat. And, natural moderates like myself would be scratching our heads, and mumbling, "Choices, choices . . . ???"

We don't have a fully functional, rational politics, in case you folks haven't noticed. We have Bush and McCain and the Republicans in Congress. The Republican Party is dominated by political and economic nutcases, who advocate, in essence, national bankruptcy as the path to prosperity.

So, all the sensible people are crowding into the Democratic Party, the conservative wing of which is being transformed fairly radically by the infusion of new people and activism.

The old Democratic conservatives -- the DLC, the Blue Dogs, and, yes, the Clintons -- could be a fairly noxious bunch, not least because they reached for power by allying themselves with Republicans, while dissing their fellow Democrats.

So, I can understand the anxiety surrounding the Obama campaign's big tent. It is not that I don't find the prominence of some of these conservatives in the Obama campaign somewhat troublesome and suspicious. Because I do.

But, for the moment, I prefer to hope that this electoral coalition can become a governing coalition, that conservative Democrats can learn to reach for power by allying themselves with progressive Democrats.

I look forward with guarded hope to an Obama administration and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, where Democrats compromise productively with each other in order to govern and legislate, reasonably, rationally and productively.

The right question to ask about Obama is not, which adviser is he "really with"? The question to ask, can he manage the coalition?

I wish there were enough, pure-of-heart progressives in this country to win an election, and too few plutocrats to stop them, but such is not the case. What we have, instead is a Democratic Party, whose support is swelled by conservative refugees from the corrupt and crazy Republican Party. I'll take what I can get, and be glad of it.

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