A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray, Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh
In summer 2012 I took a horse and buggy ride through Lexington, Virginia. As we moved around the town, the lady leading the tour pointed to the houses and buildings which Union soldiers had burned in 1864. And she was still pissed about it.
I’ve never quite understood her attitude, but now at least thanks to Murray and Hsieh I know why the damage occurred. It was a distraction operation under General David Hunter, to draw Confederate eyes away from Grant’s main thrust, while also helping to bring the war to the people of the rebellion.
While I’ve read several accounts of Lincoln and the war, my military knowledge of it is admittedly weak. Despite my profession, I tend not to read military history. Too often I find the genre focused on the actions of incredible, but insignificant individual soldiers. Which is fun in the same way an action movie is, but the real meat for me has always been the politics of conflict. Namely the interplay of strategy, leadership and logistics upon which wars —not just battles— are won or lost.
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“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onuf
Let us count the ways in which thou art blessed. For Thomas Jefferson, this injunction could take all night. For the book Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination it is unfortunately a much shorter task.
Thomas Jefferson is a charming and contradictory figure. An ‘American Sphinx’ as one biographer described. I’ve probably read a half dozen books on Jefferson over the years in a bid to understand him; such that this task is ever possible. So I was excited to get a copy of this book, given the reputation of the authors and the advanced praise for this book.
What I find most interesting about Jefferson is clearly not what the authors do. To me, he is a man of philosophy, prose and politics. All three are occasionally illuminated through this book’s lenses of his role as a patriarch. This book brings together the latest research on Jefferson, showing just how much new we have learned in recent years. But less engagingly, most of this has to do with the more mundane aspects of Jefferson’s life.
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A good academic book will usually have two stories contained inside. First, it needs an academic contribution that helps explore with careful logic and substantial detail a specific aspect of world affairs. The second story is the public/policy implications. That is, an attempt to say why this matters, and how the refined understanding of the ideas and issues in the first story, can translate into a clear path forward that completes the second.
The Global Village Myth is a persuasive, fascinating, important, and extremely well written book. But unfortunately its two stories don’t quite balance each other. The policy story unfortunately tends to dominate the academic one, which in turn limits the power of the analysis, which then constrains the power of the policy recommendations.
Porter’s thesis, and one I broadly accept, is that thanks to globalisation and technology we have seen a consensus emerge that the world has ‘shrunk’. This however has not helped the nerves of security analysts. Rather, the tyranny of distance has been replaced by the peril of proximity. To those who accept this view, security requires a global approach. No threat can be left alone, no bad guy untouched, no distance sufficient to give breathing ‘space’. And so perpetual war needs to be waged to have perpetual peace.
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What is the value of an edited book? Or perhaps more precisely, how do edited books achieve the most value? It’s a question that has been on my mind recently as I finished my second edited book (this time a textbook) and as I wonder how I can convince myself to read more of them.
In theory edited books are the best of all worlds. Deep analysis across a broad spectrum of issues, in a format that few single authors could hope to achieve. For academics they’re also seen as a quicker and easier way to both produce and consume a careful analysis of an important topic. Like many academic theories however, reality begs to differ.
Some editors manage to get closer to this mean, and William Tow and Douglas Stuart fit in that category. Tow in particular has produced a range of edited volumes in recent years which are fresh and insightful, packed full of great authors and often very well edited. His ‘Regional-Global Nexus’ is a deserved classic. While this book, ‘The New US Strategy Towards Asia: Adapting to the American pivot’ doesn’t quite hit that high mark, it still meets the measure of what an edited book should be.
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The Heritage Foundation’s latest world ranking of economic freedoms shows the U.S. falling farther than any other large economy in the world. The foundation says the TARP Program, the auto industry bailout and the stimulus package, among other factors, have caused in the country’s economy to go from “free” to “mostly free.” […]
Factors like business regulation, the labor market, monetary stability, property rights and corruption are used to determine the rankings.
Terry Miller, director of the Center of International Trade And Economics at the Heritage Foundation, says the U.S. ranking may continue to fall.”Certainly looking at the government policies that have been followed over the last year, since our last data cut off, I’m very concerned,” Miller told TPM, adding that health care reform was likely to further hurt our economic freedom.
Heres the top ten on the right for your quick viewing. But it’s an odd list. New Zealand, Canada and Australia all have significantly greater regulations in economic sectors (and weren’t we glad of that in 2008). Likewise all offer true universal healthcare delivery as well as insurance (as opposed to the USA’s just passed universal insurance) and it is hard to argue that property rights and the labor market are in general more regulated in the USA than in Australia.
While Government Spending must be seen as part of the mix, its weighting here seems to utterly distort the figures. You’d therefore have therefore to suspect some ideological politics is at work. The (Conservative) Heritage Foundation gets a 1-2 day headline downgrading the USA as ‘mostly free’ instead of ‘free’, but the long term effect of this is going to damage the credibility of the list. This type of index gets a lot of work in academic circles as a handy reference point, but that’s going to drop off once people start suspecting more than just world view, but domestic politics is interfering with the results. Hardly a worth while pay off.
I’m currently reading the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. If Roosevelt is known for anything these days, and it’s inescapable in his book, it was his enthusiasm for the active life. He was a solider, hunter, naturalist and mountaineer, constantly pushing himself to keep going throughout life. In 1913, 5 years after leaving the White House, and aged 53 he went on a 1000km exploration charting rivers through the jungles of South America. He died some years later in part due to ill health caused by the trip, but no better marker of his identity in the publics mind can be found than the comment by the US vice president at the time that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” Roosevelt’s political and philosophical legacy isn’t that relevant anymore (though an early conservationist and he supported Health Care reform in his ‘Bull Moose’ run for the White House), but he still excites the imagination of many because, he offers a link to that original tribal idea of the leader as owed to the toughest, biggest man in the village. Yet how relevant is this idea of leadership today?
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An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:
Do Asians have a sense of humor?
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.
I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
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Discussing the pro’s & con’s of Democrats passing the health care bill in the US, Reason.com’s Peter Suderman writes
the choice for Democrats may actually be whether they want they want to be portrayed as so single-minded in their determination to push their unpopular agenda on the public that they are willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery they can come up with to get it passed, or whether they want to be able to make the argument that they responded to the public’s clear concerns and backed off an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation when they had the chance.
Suderman of course doesn’t want the bill to pass, but his reasoning is an all too clear example of the fear the political class have of a voter backlash for their actions. Indeed the political class and Center-Left wing politicians, especially in the USA are almost paranoid in its worry about appeasing the voters, to the extent it ends up doing a much poorer job & therefore looking much less competent than it should otherwise. To fix this, left wing leaders need to take a leaf out of conservatives like Reagan, Bush and Howard and have the courage of their convictions. The media and political class will always be jumpy, but our leaders ought to know better. Obama seemed to promise this at the start, but the fear seems to have crept in of late.
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I supported Obama during 2007, 2008 for the skills he represented, far more than the position he held. I was always prepared to be disappointed, he is not my national leader, he was the most conservative of candidates, and yet his strategy of clinging close to the congressional leadership had led him closer to Health Care Reform than any man before him, Republican & Democrat. While believing every man deserves his due support, over the last few months, my enthusiasm has wained, along with his seeming political skill. Yet here, post-Massachusetts, in the depths of despair I find this, the very statement I have been wishing for him to make for the last few months:
“So here’s the good news: We’ve gotten pretty far down the road. But I’ve got to admit, we had a little bit of a buzz saw this week. (Laughter.)
Now, I also know that part of the reason is, is that this process was so long and so drawn out — this is just what happens in Congress. I mean, it’s just an ugly process. You’re running headlong into special interests, and armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics that’s aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And then you’ve got ads that are scaring the bejesus out of everybody. (Laughter.) And the longer it take, the uglier it looks.
So I understand why people would say, boy, this is — I’m not so sure about this — even though they know that what they got isn’t working. And I understand why, after the Massachusetts election, people in Washington were all in a tizzy, trying to figure out what this means for health reform, Republicans and Democrats; what does it mean for Obama? Is he weakened? Is he — oh, how’s he going to survive this? (Laughter.) That’s what they do. (Laughter.)
But I want you — I want you to understand, this is not about me. (Applause.) This is not about me. This is about you. This is not about me; this is about you. I didn’t take this up to boost my poll numbers. You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything. (Laughter.) That’s how you do it. You don’t offend anybody. I’d have real high poll numbers. All of Washington would be saying, “What a genius!” (Laughter.)
I didn’t take this on to score political points. I know there are some folks who think if Obama loses, we win. But you know what? I think that I win when you win. (Applause.) That’s how I think about it.
So if I was trying to take the path of least resistance, I would have done something a lot easier. But I’m trying to solve the problems that folks here in Ohio and across this country face every day. And I’m not going to walk away just because it’s hard. We are going to keep on working to get this done — with Democrats, I hope with Republicans — anybody who’s willing to step up. Because I’m not going to watch more people get crushed by costs or denied care they need by insurance company bureaucrats. I’m not going to have insurance companies click their heels and watch their stocks skyrocket because once again there’s no control on what they do.
So long as I have some breath in me, so long as I have the privilege of serving as your President, I will not stop fighting for you.”
On Friday last week I couldn’t even pick up David Plouffe’s book ‘The Audacity to Win’, such was my disappointment at Obama. If he can however make this speech his widely known creed over the next few weeks & months, then he may indeed be the one we have been waiting for.
In Obama’s inauguration speech there was a line that stood out:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.
If one of the defining characteristics of adult hood is the ability to accept defeat and setback and carry on (such as in If by Kipling) then it seems clear that neither US political party has taken that step. Both the Republicans over the past year, and the Democrats over the past 24 hours are showing what bad losers they are.
I’ve never been one to decry hardball politics, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find in the post war period a group as mendacious and arrogant as the Republican party has been since the election loss in 2008. Abusing a rare senate rule, they have declared that Obama has no mandate for any legislation whatsoever, and not even entitled to most of his administration team. While still yet to account for any of the errors of their own period in power, they make demand after demand without the slightest idea of policy proposals to achieve these ends (& vetoing opponents policy that would help).
But just as you can be a bad loser by denying the loss ever happened, you can also be a bad loser by breaking down, and jumping into self-pity as the Democratic party seem to be doing. Democrats lost by just 100’000 votes in a special election, with a god awful candidate in a country of 300 million, and Obama & the democrats still poll above republicans nationally. The option to pass the health care bill is still there (but only by passing the senates bill), along with many measures to make life better for Americans (and show that Republicans are unwilling to aid doing so)
Yet they seem to be giving up, crawling into a ball and telling the people they “heard the message” that they should never do anything ever again, or stand for anything ever again.
Its remarkable really, even in the depths of the ALP’s crisis under Howard or the Liberals under Rudd we saw nothing like that level of arrogant or cowardly behaviour. Only Fraser’s scheming to dismiss Whitlam in 1975 somewhat fits for bad sportsmanship.
Since the 19th century, US political parties have depicted themselves as Elephants and Donkeys. Right now, the brainless Scarcrow and a cowardly Lion seem a better fit. Let’s hope these two listen to Obama’s message and grow up. (Speaking of which, the President himself strikes me as somewhat similar to The Wicked Witch as seen in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (novel behind the hit musical) I.e. possessed of a noticeably different skin colour & slightly grating demand for public morality, who eventually moves from a lack of understanding into being hated by the public without either side quite knowing why.
In three days time, Obama will mark his first full year in office. Cue a deluge of historical lookbacks, comparisons and other efforts to get a handle on just what Obama’s presidency means and where it’s going. Today’s SMH.com.au effort by Professor Geoffrey Garrett “Shadow of Past Looms for Obama” is a pretty fair minded (if negative) effort by the chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney except for his choice of analogies:
Outsiders looking for reasons to trust a system they don’t feel part of and insiders looking for innovative solutions to complex issues, don’t often invest their emotional energies in the same politician. But they did in Obama, just as they did in John F. Kennedy half a century earlier – once-in-a-generation leaders capable of capturing the hearts and minds of not only America but the world.
A year later, Obama seems more like Jimmy Carter than JFK. Jimmy Carter may or may not have had the right stuff to be the next JFK but the one-two punch of stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis doomed him. Obama still may inherit the JFK mantle but a lot is riding not only on managing down the fallout from Islamic extremism but also on the speed and strength of economic recovery.
In the annuals of great figures of history, JFK is right up there, and I’m sure Obama wants to join that team one day. But right now that future rests on first being a great president, and Kennedy wasn’t one of those.
In foreign policy, Kennedy’s strongest area, alongside his support for containment and staring down the Russians over Cuba was his stumble into Vietnam. Domestically Kennedy however was almost invisible. The great progressive social changes, in the Civil Rights act, and the Great Society Agenda were both the work of his former VP & successor Lyndon Johnson. It was Johnson’s knowledge of the senate and ability to wheel and deal to get things done that make the 60’s a progressive highlight, and this is something Obama, with his choice of men like Rahm Emanuel is making a priority.
Missing from Garrett’s picture is the other post-WW2 Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Who got whooped in the first midterm elections, got nowhere on healthcare, and yet for his economic legacy will go down as a pretty capable president. Obama on the other hand is likely to get his healthcare (though absurdly much might depend on Tuesdays race for Ted Kennedy’s old seat), retain control* of both houses in the mid-terms, has already saved the US (if not the world) from a depression via the stimulus package and is showing far better foreign policy vision and determination. All he needs is some luck with economic recovery.
As I’ve said before, FDR is perhaps a better analogy for Obama, (though Peter’s Teddy Roosevelt analogy works too). If Obama is to enter the arena of great presidents he will need to learn from both men, and show the public that he fundamentally understands their anger. FDR regularly railed against the faceless business barons who were destroying capitalism and was willing to fight and lose against these groups to show the people whose side he was on. Obama’s new tax on wall street is a good start, but much more needs to be done.
* Because of the filibuster rule, 41 beats 59 in the US Senate. Therefore a loss in Massachusetts would remove the Democrats teneous filibuster proof 60 seat majority.
Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of reading Doris Kearne Godwin’s book Team of Rivals on the rise to power and administration of Abraham Lincoln. Not only a great read, it illustrates a point I’d been wanting to make for a while: Our current ‘one strike and you’re out’ culture in politics is historically unique and damaging to the quality of our governance and polity.
In 1860 when Lincoln ran for the Republican party nomination, he had spent a few years in both the Illinois legislature, and House of Reprsentatives, but lost his last two US Senate runs A very able though provincial lawyer, his political career was one of regular failure alongside a constant effort of putting himself forward for office. Likewise his primary challengers and later cabinet members, Seward, Chase and Bates were all career politicians who had failed regularly yet chose to continue running (some like Chase even following Lincolns election!).
Closer to home the same pattern emerges. The most successful leaders seem to have all suffered significant setbacks before rising to power. John Curtin lost his seat in 1931 in the disastrous Scullin Government, before returning to become PM by 41. His rise to power came with the humiliation of Robert Menzies who was deemed unsafe even by his own party to lead the war effort, yet Menzies would go on to become our longest serving Prime Minister. And of course his biggest fan, John Howard was written off by most after his disastrous 1987 campaign, yet he was undoubtedly a better leader for it by the time he became PM in 1996.
Politics has never been a game that offers mulligans, but today we have a media and political culture that offers no second chances either. Tony Abbott is now the 11th Leader of the opposition since 1990. Only one of those got a second shot (Beazley), with 2 going on to become Prime Minister. This compares to only 5 between 1960-80. (Though the case can well be made that Evatt, Fadden & Whitlam held on far too long!).
This is a trend which seems to be driven largely by the media, with the politicians nervously following behind. Witness the outright mockery of Tony Abbott for giving shadow cabinet positions to Kevin Andrews, Browyn Bishop and Phillip Ruddock positions (The last of whom had only an explicit advisory role as cabinet secretary). There seems an unwritten rule that politicians are only on the make or on the demise.
Those who have faltered such as Downer, Beazley, Crean, Latham, Brogden, Nelson, Turnbull, have been quickly cast aside by the press. Downer took years to re-gain credibility as Foreign Minister, while Beazley’s short term role as shadow defence minister under Latham was quickly dismissed despite his outstanding qualifications for the job. His later ascension to the leadership after Latham faltered, was undermined from day one by the media; not because of bias, but because they have seemingly decided that second acts are impossible in Australian politics.
For this we lose significant talent. Malcolm Turnbull has much to offer, as does John Brogden from NSW yet neither are likely to be taken seriously again as future leaders or even significant political figures.. When he loses next year, Tony Abbott too will face this relentless and ruthless principle. Likely he will take the Crean, Downer path of trying to hold on regardless but with significantly reduced credibility. If the person who succeed’s him tries to keep Abbott in their shadow cabinet, they will likely be punished by the media for not following the rule of incessant ‘generational change’.
Of course not all want a second chance (Latham being a prime example), but politics is a profession which takes as much if not more time to learn than any other. Not only do individuals have to be across great swathes of policy detail, they need high level skills in administration, management, media, and understandings of human nature. And yet our media treats them like fireworks, praising their burning lights as they fly up, but quickly looking away once they first seem to level off.
And we joe public are the poorer for this attitude. It reduces focus on the rest of the parliament, reduces the emphasis on experience and puts undue pressure on young career politicians to put themselves forward early, perhaps too early if they want media support. It also makes politicians far too reticent to risk any undue policy or political defeats, when sometimes it is advantageous in the long run (in the publics view) for a politician to fight and lose on an important issue to prove their real commitment.
In an otherwise interesting article on the role of new media and the Rudd Government, George Megalogenis (is there a better journalist working today?) writes:
To paraphrase Keating, when the media changes, so does the government. The wireless age marked the transition from Ben Chifley to Robert Menzies at the end of the 1940s. The colour TV age covered the shift to Gough Whitlam in the early 70s and, more tellingly, from Malcolm Fraser to Hawke in the 80s. The talkback radio age saw Howard eclipse Keating in the 90s. Now we are in the digital age, which began in 2007 when the young nerd, Rudd, trumped the old nerd, Howard.
That’s right, but precisely backwards. It is the leaders ability to utilise media that shapes its importance and their own dominance. Menzies was an undisputed king of TV when it first came in, just as FDR was able to make radio broadcasts his personal domain. Talk Radio wasn’t a new technology for the 1990’s, Howard simply returned to it as a medium in which his natural skills worked best, and that drove attention to it. Contra Megalogenis I don’t think that Rudd has made great use of twitter/blogs/websites, however he has at least done a damn sight better than the conservatives, and that matters (Obama’s advisors on the other hand made his website a key element of their electoral strategy).
There has always been a very strong link between journalists and politicians. Not in a biased way, but as a shared interest in the media and medium. Our second PM Alfred Deakin was a journalist & correspondent his whole life, as was Henry Parkes, Chris Watson, John Curtin, Malcolm Turnbull and his successor Tony Abbott. Our current PM wasn’t a journalist, but he spent his years in opposition being available for (if not inviting) media interviews at any time day or night. Just as you can’t be a good carpenter if you can’t handle a saw, or a good surgeon if you can’t weild a knife, a strength in using emerging media forms is critical to political success. I don’t see anyone in the current parliament who has a great handle on the new technology (here I think blogs have more potential than twitter), but Turnbull and Rudd both show at least a keen awareness. (As does Kate Lundy & Joe Hockey) Whoever does, is likely to become the dominant figure of the next 20 years. Let’s hope Abbott has some good new media advisors, but given his twitter account has only 7 (utterly boring) entries since becoming leader, it doesn’t seem likely.
I’ve not paid much attention to Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the crotch bomber who tried to blow up a flight into Detroit if only because it was a failed attack. That men are out there in the thousands trying to kill civilians of all faiths and creed as part of an anti-modernist religious nihilism is one of the defining but also definable threats of the decade past. All of us over the last 9 years have at some point surely felt fearful of an attack on ourselves and those we love. Whether travelling or simply attending populated areas, the thought has surely creped in. This latest case is no more significant than any other. Only the sensational way in which he was stopped, American right wing demagoguery and a story starved press have caused his actions to be seen as significant. And just as looking deep into the abyss lets the abyss look into you, voices have sprung up in the US demanding that AbdulMutallab be tortured:
Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% oppose the use of such techniques, and another 12% are not sure.
….The vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him, “You have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.
I suspect (hope) the poll’s wrong and that those surveyed didn’t already know he’s already singing to the FBI, but what’s most interesting is the last line, “tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks”. Why does anyone think this guy knows anything ?
If the attack had gone to plan AbdulMutallab would be dead today, so why then would Al Qaeda tell him about upcoming attacks? Why would they entrust or even let overhear, sensitive details to someone who was so smart that he was incapable of setting off the crudely made device, and so obvious even his father tried to turn him in? Western special force troops with a decade plus of training and field work are still not told what missions other units are undertaking or if any are operating in nearby battlefields, so why would this guy know anything? What part of ‘terrorist cells working in isolation’ have they not understood as described in the literally millions of articles, journals, books and other publicly available analysis about the threat we are facing?
Richard Reid the failed shoe bomber was caught in December 2001 in a similar way, similarly ridiculed, and sentenced in a civillian court, and is now in jail for life. No different step needs to be taken in this case. Only given that this boys only real achievement was to ensure he can probably never breed again, a future-darwin award and extended mockery are his real reward. Attacks like this will probably occur for the rest of our lives, the only way to deal with it is serious sober police work and humor. I suggest more efforts like those below the fold (NSFW). Happy 2010.
From Talk Left:
I knew that his policy positions were like Hillary Clinton’s (or any mainstream Dem, as Kos puts it). But I thought, despite my disagreements with his political style, that the historic opportunity he was presented coupled with his immense political talent would lead him to become our FDR…
It seems pretty clear that I was wrong. Apparently, I was the only one. Everyone else knew what they were getting — small bore, incrementalist, Beltway centrism. Of course this is “better than Bush.” But I thought we would get something bigger and better. Yes, I am pretty darn disappointed.
While some such as Andrew Sullivans understudy Patrick Appel calls it a ‘quote from the cocoon’, I still think the analogy is pretty apt. For all the talk of a new camelot in the white house (Ie JFK only less womanising), FDR has always seemed a more potential analogy to Obama. Neither was a close fit to their base, yet immense political skills and historic times allowed them significant achievements. Their skills as strategists and writers also parallel at heights that Kennedy and Clinton’s don’t reach.
But perhaps the most interesting US political event of 2009 has not been the astoundingly dumb way health care has been debated, nor the tea baggers (or that they choose to call themselves tea baggers), but the lefts rapid desertion of Obama.
9/11 obviously throws things off, but the Republican party and voters largely stuck to Bush throughout his time in office. It was only from 2006 onwards that you had enough voters shift that the republicans faced any real electoral losses, and even by 2008 when independents and democrats couldn’t stand him, a majority of the right still supported Bush.
Yet Obama for all that he has achieved has been deserted by many on the left. That is despite overseeing a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, beginning to close Gitmo and transfer to traditional legal prosecutions, a successful stimulus package, and coming closer than even FDR on meaningful healthcare reform (the public option is dead but something will still be passed).
Of course, left wingers like everyone else have jobs and mortgages and are suffering in a sluggish American economy, but and some changes like Dont Ask Dont Tell and full exposure on Torture have gone begging with no good justification. Yet after the rigid party discipline of the Clinton and Bush years, a style of politics we are very used to in Australia (Rudd’s support ratings amongst ALP voters has barely moved in 2 years, and Howard’s even longer), it is significant how little the bond holds for Obama and the Left.
In part this is because I think many misread him. Yes this could mean the conservatives were right that some saw Obama as ‘the one’, but more likely they thought that he could convince congress just as he had convinced them. There was also a general policy ignorance that let many think his proposals were more liberal than centrist, which closer watchers wouldn’t have thought so. Bush had the same issue (being not as far-right as many boosters thought), but he included enough lines to appease the base that they thought they were getting what they wanted, something the more cerebral Obama has always been very reluctant to do.
The depression on the left also says much about the post 1960’s left’s inherent pessimism and at times infuriating lack of courage in their convictions. Obama consistently said during the campaign that this would be a long slow, tough process, yet after one year of pretty significant successes (though health care is what really matters), many have like the blogger quoted at the top simply given up. Which in turn weakens Obama, in turn reducing their support for him.
I also think its easy to over-read the electoral significance of this shift. When health care is passed, the economy picks up, and Obama hits the road again to campaign both for congressional elections next year and his own re-election in 2012, we can be sure that much of the enthusiasm will return. Secondly, there are still signs that the Organising for America organisation, (ie the volunteers who put Obama in the White House) are still in good shape and keen to get involved again. Obama when campaigning will return the energy many feel has been lost while Obama has been governing.
But it may also indicate a significant shift in the left more long term. Even though they have just taken power for at least 4, perhaps 8 years, the lack of a clear agenda other than fixing the Bush era mess, and bringing America into the 21st century (ie accepting globalisations changed their industries, fixing health/welfare to similar standards to the rest of the developed world), the Left lacks a clear agenda. And so when the individuals at the top get in trouble, it is all too easy to fracture and bitterly divide.
Until liberal/left/centre-left wing politicians, thinkers and writers, begin to coalesce around a clear vision of what society should be, then even the most skilled of smart, pragmatic politicians like Obama are going to have a very tough time keeping the group together. Rudd has only escaped it in part because of a weak opposition but now that the euphoria of victory is slipping away, the left is faced with the same question it was 2 years ago : What do we really stand for? Ie: What should society look for? What are the top 5, top 3 principles we want to see embodied in society? What changes are impossible now but should be advocated for eventual implementation? What does the good society look like?
You can still win elections without answering that fully as Obama and Rudd show (both ran as people to fix the current problems in a pragmatic way), but you’ll struggle to keep the energy and enthusiasm going long term. That vision of a better society was what led the conservatives both in and out of government to dominate politics in the Anglo-sphere for the last 30 years. If the Left wants to do similar it has to do more than just win elections, it needs to return to the books and decide just what it truly wants to use political power for.
Otherwise this is going to be a very short and rather forgettable decade of left wing power.