by Ralph Brauer | 8/29/2008 02:14:00 PM
The most remarkable part of the remarkable speech Barack Obama delivered in Denver last night was that he truly offered a real possibility of cutting the Gordian Knot that has become Washington politics. For decades now, not matter what the issue both sides have dug in and waged protracted trench warfare. That is why I refer to our current period as the era of Bad Feelings.

The result has produced political gridlock and doubts among many Americans about the ability of their government to function with either of the two political parties in power. Even more it has turned Washington into a city of zealots, who fill the op ed columns, talk radio and even television with vitriol that has poisoned the air so every day in DC feels like one of those humid July afternoons when you feel as though you can't breathe. When the tourists ride the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument and look over to the Capitol dome across the National Mall, they see not a symbol of democracy in action, but the rounded lid of a simmering pot that constantly seems to be boiling over.




Today it is impossible to turn on the radio, watch television or pick up a newspaper without finding an example of these partisan wars, which increasingly resemble one of those professional wrestling extravaganzas where two elaborately costumed, steroid-laden Neanderthals grope one another in a steel cage or pit full of mud. Any American could readily supply a top-ten list of examples.

In the nether reaches of the Internet, a wilderness punctuated by the tangled trails of emails and listservs where potshots come from the likes of "random," "ch2," and "coz," lie electronic Tombstones and Deadwoods featuring no-holds-barred brawling and a hair-trigger impulse to shoot from the hip at the first perceived insult.

My son spent a summer interning in DC and has lived there teaching for Americorps the past year, participating as his school's representative in several city-wide summits and he sees this first hand. During his time in Congress it seemed as though no matter what the issue both sides immediately moved to the extremes. Compromise became a dirty word. It meant that somehow your side had given up something vital, as if compromise was the equivalent of the famous parable of King Solomon cutting the baby in half.

In the ideological agenda pushed by the Republican Counterrevolution, the GOP viewed compromise as pragmatism and pragmatism was viewed as capitulation. Meanwhile on the other side of the aisle, values all but disappeared as the Democrats appeared to buy the media characterization of the Republicans as the party of values.

Instead the Democrats opted for something they termed triangulation, which was not even pragmatism, but a willingness to accept the GOP's larger world view and try to take a position just to the left of the other party. So the Democrats signed off on the Iraq War, tax cuts for the rich, the Patriot Act. The Democrats appeared to have no principles at all.

Throughout this campaign I have voiced a fear that Barack Obama could merely be another Clinton, Kerry clone devoid of values. There was a suspicion that the word "change" masked a tendency to triangulate every issue.

What I heard from Barack Obama last night was something truly remarkable; a speech that began with principles yet offered real solutions to help cut the Gordian Knot that has plagued American politics. First, Obama quite deliberately began with principles. Chief among them was a venerable Democratic Party value that goes back to William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech and characterized every significant Democratic leader of the American Century.

First Obama defined the Republicans, something this blog had urged in a previous essay:
For over two decades -- for over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy: Give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else.

In Washington, they call this the "Ownership Society," but what it really means is that you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck, you're on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You're on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don't have boots. You are on your own.

Perhaps because he had said it the night before when he congratulated Joe Biden, Obama did not include the alternative, which perhaps he should have. That night he said:
At the start of this campaign, we had a very simple idea: Change does not start from the top down. It starts from the bottom up.

Here is Franklin Roosevelt in his famous "Forgotten Man" speech referring to the efforts of World War I:
It was a great plan because it was built from bottom to top and not from top to bottom.

Here is Woodrow Wilson in his First Inaugural:
There has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great. Our thought has been “Let every man look out for himself, let every generation look out for itself,” while we reared giant machinery which made it impossible that any but those who stood at the levers of control should have a chance to look out for themselves.

Here is William Jennings Bryan in "Cross of Gold:"
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.


The second key principle Obama evoked was equity. In his first Inaugural Woodrow Wilson uttered the phrase that stands at the masthead of this blog. In a preceding paragraph he stated:
With the great Government went many deep secret things which we too long delayed to look into and scrutinize with candid, fearless eyes. The great Government we loved has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people.

Society must see to it that it does not itself crush or weaken or damage its own constituent parts. The first duty of law is to keep sound the society it serves. Sanitary laws, pure food laws, and laws determining conditions of labor which individuals are powerless to determine for themselves are intimate parts of the very business of justice and legal efficiency.

Here was Barack Obama last night:
Ours -- ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science, and technology.

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.

Finally there is the value that I have evoked again and again as the heart of Liberal America, the level playing field:
At the heart of liberalism lies the belief that government exists to do good for the people. It serves to level the playing field when those with power and money seek to tilt things in their direction, to assure that the votes are counted fairly, to maintain a free and open "marketplace of ideas," to stimulate our society to positive ends whether in the arts or research, and to provide an equal education so that every American not only starts from the same point, but also has the same opportunities every step of the way on into college and even professional school and work. Its values lie behind the ringing inaugural addresses of FDR and JFK as well as what is the single greatest American speech of the last century, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" masterpiece.

Barack Obama did not use those words--I wish he had because they make the issue clearer--but he did evoke the concept when he spoke about America and the role of government. This was the only soft spot in a remarkable speech, for Obama appeared to be trying to walk down the middle of the road, using the word responsibility, but in evoking the need for responsibility he made it clear the basis of that responsibility:
What -- what is that American promise? It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect.

It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.

That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper.

This may become Barack Obama's contribution to the legacy of Liberal America, for on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech he used Dr. King's biblical language to reframe the level playing field in biblical terms. "I am my brother's keeper." That is at the heart of what Bryan, Wilson, FDR, and Truman had said.

In this current climate those are the words that need to be evoked, for in framing the level playing field in religious terms ("I am my brother's keeper" is a concept common to all religions) he delivered two masterful blows to what the Counterrevolution had been saying for two decades or more: first, he coopted the so-called religious/values argument by evoking the most universal religious value of all; second, he exposed the hypocrisy of much that has transpired under the name of the Counterrevolution and its religious allies.

Obama then went on to steer a new course by specifically spelling out how these principles can actually be put into action. Yes. some of this was yet another list of programs that has characterized the Democratic Party for the last quarter century, but in the Obama speech because they quite deliberately followed the values section they become applications of those values.

Framed this way the programs become not what the GOP has accused the Democrats of being--a Party of special interests--but an actualization of values. As such they stand for something other than mere entitlements. In this sense Barack Obama's speech resembles Harry Truman's incomparable Kiel Auditorium speech.

But Obama went Truman one better, adding a third section to his speech which addresses the major issue of our time--governing. What the American people want to know is how will this President actually deal with an issue such as gun control? What will he do with the abortion zealots? How will he govern in the Era of Bad Feelings? Can he sever the Gordian Knot?

No politician of either party has had the courage to wade directly into these issues. Their positions have either been to stick to rigid ideology or obfuscate. What Obama promised was that we can bridge this ideological gridlock without descending into ideological warfare. This is the part of the speech that had me believing this man just might win in November. I quote this part of the speech at some length because no paraphrase could do it justice:
And Democrats, as well as Republicans, will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past, for part of what has been lost these past eight years can't just be measured by lost wages or bigger trade deficits. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose, and that's what we have to restore.

We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.

he -- the reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.

I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.

You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.

If Barack Obama can succeed in framing the election as he did last night John McCain will have an uphill fight. If he can take the values card away from the Counterrevolution and put it back in the hands of the Democratic Party, he will win. If he can show that government can play a role in keeping the playing field level he will win, If he can show that he can deal with ideological rigidity and still forge solutions not anger, then he will win.

Now we wait to see what McCain will do. His convention does not promise an auspicious beginning, putting none other than George W. Bush on stage the first night. With the memory of Obama's speech still fresh, the contrast should prove interesting. The man who helped to create the Gordian Knot will try to defend his tangled mess.

Crossposts: My Left Wing,The Strange Death of Liberal America

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1 Comments:


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/29/2008 10:49 PM:

I finally got around to watching the speech tonight, and I didn't like it as much as you did. I'd say it was merely adequate. True, I heard more fight from Obama than I've heard before, and true, he gave more specifics than he has before (which is actually a negative to me -- what's the point of giving specifics when your plan will be changed and rewritten by Congress anyway?), but what I didn't hear was the demand for scalps that I was looking for. The only line spoken at the convention that truly thrilled me was Brian Schweitzer's, when he said "the petro-dictators will never own American wind and sunshine." I would have liked to see a little more of that anger and defiance from Obama.

Of course, that's not who he is. But I think that's what we need.