Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Obama vs Hillary

In the debates that I have with my friends, it always comes down to: do we need someone who can unite this country, or do we need someone who can drive through some Democratic principles given the turbulent future (housing market bust fallout.)

Reading the GQ Obama profile by Ryan Lizza (TNR's only good writer remaining), I am reminded of what I like about Obama, about his start as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago:

He leans forward and becomes more animated as he speaks. “One of the dangers of movements is that they always want to be completely pure and have everything their way. But politics is about governing and making compromises. And so sometimes folks who come into politics with a movement mentality can be disappointed.”

As I listen, I realize I have never witnessed a politician so genuinely trying to fuse idealism and pragmatism. The theme runs through almost everything he says. “But the flip side of it is,” he explains, hinting at what divides him and Hillary, “if it’s all tactics and all politics, and there’s not the idealism, if it’s not touched by that sense of movement, then you actually never bring about change. Then it’s just pure transactions between powerful interests in Washington.”

What he says is absolutely accurate and crystallizes the differences between the two, and their way of running a campaign (and most likely how they would preside.) I know so many community organizers who are frustrated with electoral politics that they refuse to participate in it, or work on any elections. (this was a common refrain back in 2000, 2004.) These organizers see political staff and organizers as hacks, as those who are merely about the short-term gains and games, versus the long-term work of stubbornly creating change one person at a time, on a very individual retail (transformational) level versus the wholesale (transactional) politics of deifying a candidate who will bring change to the voters.

Watching Obama on the Daily Show last night, I couldn't help but see how tired he was, how low-key. He kept saying, "uhm. . . . um" and pausing to collect his thoughts. He didn't bring the rockstar enthusiasm, or the razorsharp wit. to be honest, watching Senator McCain (who was on earlier this week) trading barbs with Stewart in their mutual admiration society was more fun. It wasn't that he made any major mistakes or committed huge gaffes that could be rebroadcast over and over like the Dean scream, but instead he was flat. so I too bought into the inflated expectations of him. But what that interview reminded me was that Obama is just a man, albeit one who bears the double, no, triple . . .well, let's just say multiple burdens of representation. As a black man. As a man of mixed heritage. As a white man. As the child of an immigrant. As the anti-Hillary.

But we should remember that Hillary also studied organizing, esp. Alinsky in college, going so far as to write about the man and his tactics for her thesis. She even got to interview him, back in the heady days of yore. In a lot of ways, it's not surprising that Rove says the 2008 presidential campaign that most resembles his is Hillary's - she has always been a keen student of power. Also not surprisingly is her fund-raising gap in the beginning - she had focused solely on the most top bundlers, while ignoring smaller level donors (usually from constituency groups.) When the Obama fundraising juggernaut was revealed, she had to amp up and pay attention to the littler (ie, $1000+) donors. But being a quick study, she has already managed to decreased the fundraising gap between them in Q2.

Hillary's running the antithesis of the Dean campaign, even with her slightly loosened grip on the highest donors. Her messaging is ridiculously sharp and she has army-like precision and execution. Her staff are all deathly loyal and know how to keep gripes within the family. She is the closest thing to a flawless candidate that I have seen these past two cycles, on either side. But she lacks what I truly admired and loved about the Dean campaign - the very slogan of "You have the power!" that turbo-charged the Deaniacs and Democrats across this country. People who were long ago sick of Bush before it became popular, before a majority of the country regretted their votes in '04.

Before we leave the church, Obama sits down for an interview with the editor and publisher of a local alternative paper, and the conversation turns toward the subject of movement building, something Obama has studied and thought about for decades, first as a college kid obsessed with the civil rights crusade, then as a community organizer and leader of a voter-registration drive, and most recently as a candidate. He’s even written an article on the subject in an academic journal. He tells the reporter about the huge crowds he has attracted this year: 20,000 people in Austin, 20,000 in Atlanta, 12,000 in Oakland. “People are hungry for change,” he says, “and that wind at the back of any organization like this obviously is very helpful.”

But Obama also offers a cautionary note. He leans back in his chair and crosses his legs. “Movement without organization,” he says, “without policy, without plans, will dissipate. Howard Dean, one could argue, back in 2004 helped to engineer a movement, a movement in opposition to the war. But there wasn’t a structure there and a set of policies and plans that would then lead to governance.”

You know, it's funny because Vermonters were awfully surprised by the bulldog populism of Dean, since they hadn't seen much evidence of it when he was their Gov. I'm still looking for Dean in this election.

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