One thing blatantly obvious about this is that subtle debates cannot take place out of print. This roundtable came about because each person wrote an article. Westen first, Chait’s reaction blog piece, then Zakaria’s metacoverage coverage of the debate. All were very good reads. This back and forth in TV style isn’t very helpful/useful/interesting. It makes people sound like hacks. Everyone besides Zakaria. Man, that guy is smooth. Westen and Chait reverting to talking point-ish snips. Disappointed.
Westen’s original article – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/opinion/sunday/what-happened-to-obamas-passion.html?pagewanted=all
Chait’s reaction – http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/93323/drew-westens-nonsense
Zakaria’s snip (most is behind a paywall) – http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/08/11/defending-the-pragmatic-president/
On debate style: Chait showing why he’s a great writer: because he’s not great on TV. Zakaria playing the “wise man in the room” role, per usual. Not in a condescending way. He does it naturally with his accent and pacing. Westen came off as a little smarmy but also commanding and unwilling to backtrack on his assertion.
– Chait is one of the brightest bloggers around. He should stay off the television.
– Westen is right but wrong. He’s right in the way that a majority supports a Balanced Budget Amendment because it sounds good when you get asked it in a one sentence poll question. Westen’s argument passes the smell test and makes sense. But he’s wrong because he goes too far in his argument. “Obama should act like a Republican”? It might satisfy those that like that sort of thing, but he’d lose every pragmatist in the country, and that his is main base more than anything. His wrongness has been thoroughly discussed and fleshed out all week around the high brow political blogs. If they are the major leaguers, Westen proved himself to be a AA player.
– Only the type of people who watch things like Charlie Rose or read Chait and Andrew Sullivan each day would care about the minutiae-driven arguments about whether Westen is wrong. Most are annoyed with Obama, so the piece plays well, but many people are just annoyed because the economy sucks and wouldn’t care about the little things if the market was booming, making most of Westen’s assertions moot. However, Westen’s piece was published in the New York Times. He “wins” this argument by sheer volume.
As much as Westen’s argument is kind of naive and shitty, the larger point he makes is that if Obama keeps compromising in order to accomplish things instead of standing up for moral victories, what will happen is liberalism and the larger argument about the cause (and things like stimulus) will be weakened.
And it’s true.
I don’t think most
people Obama supporters care though. Many fierce liberals do. firedoglake extremists liberals do. But a significant portion of liberals and independents are pragmatists at heart, and I think Westen is overestimating the total gains that would have come from being more partisan. It would have been chicken soup for the activist soul, but I doubt it would have worked broadly. In fact, sometimes the worst thing a politician can do is not be themselves. (Exhibit A: Mitt Romney).
The sort of rhetoric/action Westen envisions works for Republicans because they like to follow politics like baseball teams. There’s a certain sense of loyalty and blind faith involved, that can’t easily be shaken by day to day speeches (therefore Republicans can do a bit more over the top attacking, because the base will look past it even if it seems to be an unfair attack to make). The also vehemently defend their own “team”, which differs from the liberal instinct to point out the problems in the other team instead of defend one’s self.
I don’t think it works for Democrats in the same way. They follow politics more like, perhaps, a television show. There is the same game-to-game/show-to-show interest in what is going on, but no one watching a TV show claps after every scene (or any). Each party has their own devotees, but whereas 40,000 of the 50,000 people showing up at yankee stadium are wearing licensed apparel, there are like 10 people sitting around watching The Office in Dunder Mifflin tshirts. And one crappy show is enough to derail a series, because there is much more continuity at stake than in the “baseball” style of things.
I’m not sure if this comparison is inspired or really stupid. The larger point is that Westen is correct about Obama needing to connect better emotionally, but he is wrong about how far Obama should go, because it wouldn’t work at the level Westen desires.
Towards the end of the show Fareed slams Westen as someone who has never “run for dog catcher” yet Westen thinks he knows better than the entire Obama campaign/messaging team. Ba-zing!