Saturday, June 7, 2008
"Politics, at its best, is about bringing people together for the common good."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, America: Our Next Chapter
For residents of DC, the contrast between the performance to be staged in this city tomorrow at the National Building Museum and the performance staged outside a Marriott in Woodley Park last Saturday is likely to be remarkable. Another piece, perhaps, of absurdist theater as a parting gift to what is left of the Democratic Party.
I am looking forward to the turning of the proverbial page. The analogies and metaphors employed to describe political campaigns aside, politics is not a sport. Sports are designed to produce winners and losers -- indeed, there would be no point to a contest if there was not, ultimately, a defined winner and loser (whether determined in a single match or determined by where you are on the table at the end of the season). Politics can certainly be reduced to such a calculus. Government can be used to reward one's allies and punish one's enemies. Ultimately, however, this is not the government envisioned by the civics and history classes that enfranchised most American school children. The belief in government derives from a deeply held American faith that, however flawed, the convening of disparate (sometimes warring) viewpoints within a structured form of republican government can lead, through some magic formula, to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The use of sport as a contextual tool to understand developments in political campaigns, then, demeans the process. Rather than focus on whether a particular candidate would be an exceptional public servant or whether a candidate will be able to effectively govern, we are immersed in analysis that tells us whether a candidate's campaign team has out-manuevered or out-performed their opponents' campaign teams. And certainly this is important -- after all, one must win an election to be an elected official -- but it is not the alpha and omega of campaigning.
A common derision aimed towards Senator Obama, particularly by supporters of Senator Clinton, is that Senator Obama has no record to support claims that he will bring a new style of governance to the White House. Scott McClellan's recent publicity (humility) tour for his recent book draws further attention to the criticism insofar as Mr. McClellan describes his disillusionment borne from an inexperienced political figure who promised widespread bipartisan appeal only to fail spectacularly and further drive a wedge between the two parties in this city. However, this criticism of Sen. Obama, I believe, is a creature of the failure to conceive of the Democractic party primary as anything other than sport. Chris Matthews famously harangued Texas state senator Kirk Watson over his inability to name Sen. Obama's legislative accomplishments in what was apparently brilliant television, but in the many hours that I have been subjected to Matthews' commentary, I have never once heard him try to inform his audience of Sen. Obama's accomplishments. That, apparently, is not brilliant television. It does not, then, seem terribly surprising that the conception that Sen. Obama is a blank slate, a political novice, has seen such widespread acceptance.
Reading Senator Hagel's most recent book, the Senator briefly discusses his work with Sen. Obama to enact nuclear non-proliferation legislation. Senator Hagel's discussion of the bill fills only a paragraph and while Sen. Hagel profusely praises Senator Biden in discussing a trip the two took to Northern Iraq, no similar fulsome complimentary words are thrown Senator Obama's way. Moreover, it is, perhaps, not remarkable that a Democrat is working with Senator Hagel, given his outspoken criticism of our current Administration. However, working with Senator Coburn, particularly on improving government transparency and accountability is remarkable. These two examples don't overcome the criticism of a thin record, but what they do is provide an indication of why some Republicans (like, for example, well, me) have crossed over and thrown their support behind someone who seems to be willing to listen to other viewpoints and, perhaps, bring people together for the common good.
Now, certainly, the sport coverage aspect of campaign coverage has been utilized masterfully by Senator Obama's campaign, as the underdog, david vs. goliath, narrative has controlled for the entirety of the primary season, increasing interest and the level of commitment in his campaign. But perhaps now is the time to spend some time for us to ponder how either of the two Senators running for President may govern rather than how they might win. But perhaps not.