Sunday, January 06, 2008

Debate shows Obama the organizer and legislator versus Edwards the attorney and litigator

I'm a fan of John Edwards. I like this platform and the populist language of his campaign. I'm voting for Barack Obama. And John Edwards' latest email blast helped explain why Obama's approach is superior than Edwards'.

Barack Obama is all about us. He wants to bet on the American people engaging in self-government to push power into the pragmatic, progressive policies that will make life better for all of us (cutting out corporate middlemen like health insurance companies, eliminating the huge tax breaks for the biggest corporations and using the money to fund investment in all of us, etc.). He talks about 'we' and 'us.'

John Edwards is all about 'me'. "I" will fight for you. This fight is personal to "me." Let "me" be your fighter in the White House so "I" can take on the special interests and the entrenched money interests.

John Edwards is right to point out that there are entrenched money interests that profit handsomely by impoverishing all of us (no money left for financial aid, because the oil companies don't pay any taxes on their billions of profit as an example).

But Barack Obama is more right (if you will) to point out that the way to beat back those money interests is with an engaged electorate, not with a fighter as the President. That's why, as he said in Iowa "I know you didn't do this [vote for Obama] for me" because one President, no matter how aggressive or intelligent, can beat back the parasitic interests. It's only when the nation demands a smarter, saner policy that we can implement the vision.

I think Senator Obama's insight (and John Edwards' lack of insight on this point) is based largely on their backgrounds.

Obama was a community organizer. That means his job was to bring people together around a common vision and wield power together. It was not his job to represent the community in battle and bring back the prize to them. Instead it was to mobilize, inspire and engage previously apathetic people to demand more from their government. And he did it well.

From that position, he became a legislator (first in the Illinois Senate, then in the U.S. Senate). His work in the Illinois Senate is more instructive, because he passed so many bills in Springfield than in Washington. In Springfield, legislative success comes from building consensus. It takes 30 people to vote yes in the Senate to pass a bill, not 1. Any successful legislator learns to engage and inspire others to work collectively in order to accomplish advances in the progressive agenda. Senator Obama learned that lesson well, initiating several progressive bills into law (including ethics reform, tax cuts for low-income workers, an expansion of government-financed health insurance for children and criminal justice reform to videotape all police interrogations). He was successful because he engaged with others to build consensus, not because he fought.

Trial lawyers like John Edwards are also agents of justice. They uniquely hold powerful institutions accountable. But they go it alone. They fight long, difficult and lonely battles against overwhelming odds. When they work, they work on behalf of, not with, the people. They don't need people to join with them in their fight. All they need is permission to fight on their behalf.

I can see that mindset in John Edwards campaign now: I will fight for you in a way that Barack Obama doesn't understand, because I have successfully fought the bad guys and I know they never negotiate.

Barack Obama's tactic is both more appealing (I want to be a part of something, not just a client of John Edwards) and also more powerful (organized money always loses against organized people).


Reed said...

I see your point, and it's a good one. However, in light of recent history, I am only so faithful in "us". "We" are the same people who vehemently endorsed an illegal war five years ago despite the fact that on its face, the argument in favor of the war was an inane one. I fear that "we" are easily misled, and if Obama depends on "us", given our fickle and often incurious nature, he could find himself forced to contend with a misled, impatient, and confused "us". If the economy gets worse before it gets better, as many believe, you don't think that Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, et al are going to blame the democratic president? Maybe that's a minor, anecdotal issue, but at some point, President Obama may be forced to rely on himself anyway.

For what it's worth, my support is currently torn between Obama, Edwards, and Kucinich. I have been very impressed with Edwards as of late, and find myself all the more conflicted.

Dan Johnson-Weinberger said...

Well, if you don't depend on 'us' -- then who do you depend on? Our wise and fearless leader? Who, after all, is selected by us. Ultimately, it's just us. And if we don't depend on us, then we're praying to a wise and just leader to bestow his grace on us -- because he is so much smarter than we are and only he can do the right thing in spite of the people. That way of interacting with our political leaders feels less like democracy and more like religion. That's fine for religion, but not so good for government -- particularly because it keeps too many people in *our* governing coalition disconnected from the constant task of convincing our fellow citizens to support progressive policies (after all, if we can just get the smart leader in a position of power as a president or a judge, who cares what those easily-misled, fickle and incurious people think?).