Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Root Cause Analysis: Why Obama Does Not Mean Hope

by Ken Houghton

Peter Dorman at EconoSpeak attempts to find the "intellectual roots of Obamaian Post-Partisanship."

The result pretty much explains my no-secret at all antagonism to seeing Obama as a purveyor of "hope":
Cass Sunstein. Sunstein has been cited as an advisor to Obama, and he has written extensively on the dangers of a world in which people only communicate with those they already agree with....

...I know how important it is to listen with an open mind to those whose point of view challenges your own. You do yourself and the quality of your thinking no favor when you live and converse in an echo chamber.

But there are two problems with the let’s-all-get-along school. First, there is the issue of power....

Second, what counts as moderation in America is often hopelessly skewed to the right, even by the standards of other capitalist countries. I generally distrust corner solutions—all this or all that—and look for blending and balancing, but if John Edwards is too far to the left to be taken seriously, I’m a speck on the thin edge of the political distribution, several sigmas out. In this respect, the Sunstein/Obama analysis is correct, but radically incomplete. We need to really extend the conversation to the vast regions beyond the pale of approved discourse. The resulting zone of consensus will be moderate by the standards of intelligent human thought but extreme with respect the political constraints we live under today.

So far I could have written this, if I could write that well. But he doesn't discuss Cass Sunstein's public statements, which in themselves exemplify the "partisanship" he studies. Sunstein on Obama in September of 2006:
As a member of the University of Chicago Law School community, where economic analysis reigns, he knows a lot about how markets work, and he is hardly committed to left-wing orthodoxies about either the economy or the culture.

Sunstein praises Obama at length, attacking Sean Wilentz for noting that
Dreams From My Father contains composite characters and other fictionalized elements—not exactly a portrait of sterling honesty or authenticity.

Talking about liberals with Salon, Sunstein says:
Liberals are sometimes defined as people who can't take their own side in an argument. I actually don't think there's a difference, though. I would say that there are many liberals who think that, in the last few elections, to vote for a Republican presidential candidate is just mindless, that there's no rational reason that people would vote Republican. If liberals are thinking that, there's probably a problem. I think many liberals think that to vote for Bush, some part of their brain is on fire and the rest of it isn't functioning, or that they've been fooled in some way, or that they're not paying attention. So I think that a lot of liberals are in an echo chamber where they share a set of views, some of which are probably wrong.

He attacks Wilentz for making the obvious connection (and not because its obvious):
In Wilentz' account, the delusional "Obama-awed commentators" have failed to learn the true lesson of the Bush Administration, which is that the last time America opted for intuition-based governance, it produced a "catastrophic presidency."

Sunstein, of course, was immune to that:
In contrast, in 2000 I had high hopes for President Bush. I thought he could be a very good president. I think he has failed terribly in part because his White House is [They started out somewhat open-minded on these issues, somewhat diverse, and after discussion the diversity was squelched and the extremism was increased.].

we have to wonder if this is the same man who told Salon
[S]avvy political entrepreneurs are creating the conditions of our experiment because they want to decrease internal diversity. Karl Rove could be described as a "polarization entrepreneur." [emphasis mine]

The evidence that they started out "open-minded" is notably lacking, which is why when Sunstein declares in his TNR piece that
Wilentz is right to say that some members of the press were excessively generous to Bush's candidacy, perhaps because they preferred him to the not-terribly-fun Al Gore. Many of Bush's supporters, in the press and elsewhere, have been disappointed, but they were hardly deluded.

we have to wonder what he thinks he himself was.

And, finally, we need to understand why we have to understand the other side:
As a law professor I would say, If you think there's nothing to be learned from Justice [Antonin] Scalia's opinions, then there's a real problem. Because some of his opinions are really good. And some of them are even right. And those that are wrong, you improve your thinking a lot if you grapple with what he has to say.

Great: my thinking will be improved,* even as my rights are further constricted. I believe this is what Sunstein means when he refers to Obama as "the visionary minimalist." So what is the case here? Much straw, little fire:
Unlike most Democratic senators, he acknowledges that large increases in the minimum wage might "discourage employers from hiring more workers," which helps explain his enthusiasm for the Earned Income Tax Credit, an anti-poverty policy with Republican roots that supplements wages but does not have disemployment effects. Rejecting the orthodoxy of many Democrats, Obama does not want to excise religion from the public sphere. He insists only that "[w]hat our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values." In 2005, Obama voted with Republicans in favor of the Class Action Fairness Act, which increases the rights of defendants in class action suits. After he received an e-mail from a pro-life doctor, Obama softened his website's harsh rhetoric on abortion, writing: "[T]hat night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own--that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me." [italics mine; emphases his]

For someone who talks a lot about reaching out to the other side, Sunstein fluffs a lot of Republicans, even from over thirty years ago.

Teresa has joined the list of those who are convinced Obama will be the nominee for the Democratic Party. So the answer to my semi-rhetorical question at the end of Caroline's endorsement on the basis of her pragmatism ("When did Democrats become Republicans?") appears more and more to be "when they nominated one."

Fortunately, either alternative is MUCH worse.

It will be nice, for the first time in eight Presidential elections, to be able to vote for a member of the Ancestral Party—even if he is passing.

*Can't I just outsource legal analysis to Scott or Bean, who actually spent time learning the background that Sunstein appears to prefer to actual consideration of the results of those decisions? Isn't Chicago the place where specialization is part of the Pentateuch?

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Two words: Mark Penn.

[Sound of terrified horses whinnying.]

Two more words: Terry McAuliffe!
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