Change Is a Good Thing

Bob Kuttner has high hopes: "Three times in my political adulthood, we have seen the exhaustion of a conservative ideology and presidency." He also has concerns: "And twice, the electorate ousted Republicans only to get centrist Democrats, who ran more competent administrations but did little to redress the structure of financial inequality in America." So far, so good. This particular worry, however, seems way off-base to me:

No liberal can fail to be stirred by Barack Obama. Given the immense damage done by Bush and company, nobody would be better able to redeem the promise of America, both at home and globally. But though he is not yet the front-runner, Obama already has a touch of front-runner disease -- being distressingly vague about what he'd actually do. He is trying to be both a progressive and someone beyond conventional categories. Alas, there's no such thing.

Concern that Obama's been imprecise about his policy vision is fair game. I think, however, that liberals will be making a huge tactical and strategic error if we simply equate political figures who seek to portray themselves as "beyond conventional categories" as squishy moderates. Being perceieved as beyond conventional categories is, simply put, a useful quality in a politician. Similarly, I know a lot of liberals who are put off by Obama's complaints about "the smallness of our politics" -- viewing them as Broderish complaints about partisaship. The line, however, is perfectly consistent with Kuttnerish complaints about a certain kind of narrow technocracy standing in lieu of forcefully advocating change. And, indeed, it seems to me that if one is hoping to advocate forcefully for change it makes a lot more sense to portray said advocacy as an effort to move beyond the smallness of our politics than as a self-conscious effort to make politics more hard-edged.

What one needs to know as a political pundit is a bit more about the policy substance, not more red meatish rhetoric.