Thursday, May 28, 2009

Circling the Center: Recommended readings

I hope to get to more commentary on yesterday's post at some point, but for the time being, the Continuum's recommended reading for today consists of two articles by the WaPo's E. J. Dionne, Jr:

Obama's Center-Left two-step

Obama's Anti-Roberts

In the first, Dionne (I keep wanting to add "Warwick") analyzes Obama's governing style, and finds it to (thus far) be an updating of Bill Clinton's triangulation (though I think Dionne implies, but does not say, that Obama's strategic compromises more authentically represent his political philosophy compared to what was widely seen as Clinton's more calculating political, well, triangulation). Obama is trying to tack to the Left, in Dionne's estimation, but only just:
He is out to build a new and enduring political establishment, located slightly to the left of center but including everyone except the far right.

The problem Dionne finds with this is that the ObamAdministration is trying to do this in part through only slightly sub rosa message control, pitching different messages to different audiences, but in a sort of blatant way that I think took Dionne slightly aback:
Last Thursday afternoon, for example, the White House invited in journalists, mostly opinion writers, to sell them on the substance of the president's big speech on Guantanamo and the treatment of detainees.

Unbeknown to the writers until afterward, they had been divided into two groups, one more centrist with a sprinkling of moderate conservatives, the other more liberal. (I was in the liberal group.) The president made an unscheduled appearance at each briefing. As is his way, he charmed both groups.

The idea, as far as I can determine, was to sell the liberal group on those aspects of Obama's plan that are a break from George W. Bush's policies, and to sell the centrist group on the toughness of the president's approach and the fact that it squares with Bush's more moderate moves later in his second term[...]

[...] The disturbing aspect of Obama's effort to create his new political alignment is that building it requires him to send rather different messages to its component parts. Playing to several audiences at once can lead to awkward moments.

Besides to playing to different audiences leading to potential awkwardness, there's the possibility of trying to please everyone and instead pleasing no one (apparently not yet the issue, at least in the meetings Dionne discusses), as well as the vague dishonesty of it. My concern, at the least, is that Obama isn't and never has been particularly left-liberal. He really has kept much more of the Bush Admin era extra-legal Constitution-busting executive apparatus than I'd like (or, you know, would argue is right, just, constitutional, or in keeping with his promises). In short, I'm afraid not just of his pitching his message to different audiences, but in his triangulating to towards the Right of not just where his critics claim he is (Far Left), from where he's perceived to be (Leftist Wing), but from where he actually is (Center Left); when you start your position in the middle, your only direction to compromise to farther towards the right (since the liberal-left can be taken for granted, usually).


Dionne (not Warwick)'s other article talks about how Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is the most conservative choice Obama could have made, pointing out that conservatives should be pleased instead of fighting, and liberals should be vigilant, and while they (we) shouldn't oppose her nomination, nor should we be glad for it:

News accounts from the 1990s consistently described her as a "centrist" in her politics. Her lead sponsor when she was first named as a judge, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was hardly a conventional liberal. Obama may have found himself an empathetic judge, but she practices her empathy from the middle of the road.

A careful analysis of her record by Business Week, for example, concluded that she is a "moderate on business issues" and would fit the court's current alignment on such questions.

She also upheld a ban on federal funds going to family planning groups that provided abortions overseas. Sotomayor wrote that "the Supreme Court has made clear that the government is free to favor the anti-abortion position over the pro-choice position, and can do so with public funds."

Dan Gilgoff, on his excellent "God and Country" blog, points out that Sotomayor also ruled in favor of a group of Connecticut antiabortion protesters who asserted that police "used excessive force against them at a demonstration." He concludes that her "thin record on abortion is most likely a relief" to pro-life groups. In picking her, Obama sent another signal that he is serious about seeking common ground on abortion.

On how we should see this nomination, he continues
Liberals should not take the bait of the right-wingers by allowing the debate over Sotomayor to be premised on the idea that she is a bold ideological choice. She's not. But if conservatives succeed in painting this moderate as a radical, they will skew future arguments over the court. In fact, liberals should press Sotomayor on her more conservative decisions on business issues, an area in which the current court already tilts too far right.

Go read the whole thing.

Conservatives -- particularly those who run direct-mail outfits and want a big court fight -- would love the decision over Sotomayor to hang on Obama's call for judges who show "empathy." They would cast her as a dangerous activist willing to bend the law to produce the results she wants.

They want to turn Obama's argument on its head and claim that Sotomayor would show bias in favor of those who share her background -- and never mind that they dismiss such assertions when they are raised with respect to white, conservative, male nominees.
(emphasis added)
Three words for that observation: AMEN and DAMN STRAIGHT.

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