Yesterday's Issues

Mickey Kaus on Obama:

... it's hard to believe we're about to nominate a Democrat who doesn't acknowledge the lesson of the 1990s--that voters are worried about issues like welfare because they are worried about welfare, not because "welfare" is a surrogate for "lack of national health insurance." Can a Dem who hasn't learned that lesson can be elected in a two-candidate general election? That's no longer unthinkable, but it would require not only that the old Carter-Ford-Reagan-Clinton issues like welfare, crime, etc. recede into the background (replaced by Iraq and the economy). It would also require Republicans who are too stupid to find a way to bring them back into the foreground.

For those Democrats worried about Obama's seemingly old-fashioned liberalism--sorry, progressivism!--the great hope has been that of course he'll pivot and turn toward the reformist, Clintonian center once he's got the nomination in hand. But what if The Pivot never happens (as David Frum, for one, has predicted)? That's a big issue--maybe the big issue--raised by Obama's "race" address. That's a big--maybe main--reason that it's a gaffe. Obama's honesty is bracing. But he honestly doesn't seem to be the sort of neoliberal politician who wins national elections.

Unless that paradigm no longer holds, and the success of neoliberal and neoconservative efforts on welfare and crime - manifest in falling welfare rolls and plunging crime rates - make it possible for a liberal candidate who doesn't really have anything substantive to say about crime and poverty policy to win a national election. Obviously, I'm hoping that Obama says something bolder about welfare than what he's said to date. But at the moment, I think the note he's hitting - acknowledging liberalism's past failures (i.e., his suggestion that welfare policies "for many years may have worsened" the state of the black family) while implicitly consigning those failures to the past - may be sufficient to inoculate him against conservative criticism. Crime and welfare are yesterday's issues, and while they may (and should) matter again some day soon, I can't imagine them playing anything close to the role they played in the 1970s and '80s in this election cycle.

The one place where Obama might be vulnerable to a neocon/neoliberal critique is immigration, and of course the GOP has proven itself utterly incapable of exploiting that issue effectively of late - and even if they could, John McCain isn't the standard-bearer to do it.