From Obama's debate intro Thursday night
Senator Clinton mentioned Barbara Jordan, somebody who ... said that what the American people want is very simple: They want an America that is as good as its promise. I’m running for president because I want to help America be as good as its promise.
And I marvel at this, because I'd been thinking a lot lately about Obama's promises, and a former Hooters waitress from Panama City Beach, Florida.
You may remember Jodee Berry, who was led to believe that the winner of her employer's regional sales contest would be awarded a brand new Toyota! After hustling her hot-pants'd buns off and winning the contest, a breathless Ms. Berry was blindfolded, escorted to the parking lot, and presented with her brand new toy Yoda!
The disappointed waitress brought suit for breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation, eventually settling for an undisclosed sum, but one clearly sufficient to cover the price of any Toyota on the lot.
[Cross-posted, as usual, from The Confluence.]
In this context, we review a curious set of instances in which Sen. Obama's counterparties came to believe that something had been promised, but when those promises stood to be fulfilled the Senator's position became ... something else again.
In our most recent case, Sen. Obama's fellow campaign finance reform advocate Sen. McCain thought they had agreed to abide by public financing restrictions in the 2008 general election, should they become their respective parties' nominees.
An earlier case involves the same Sen. McCain, who believed he had secured a promise by the rookie Sen. Obama to work jointly on bipartisan lobbying/ethics reform legislation.
A third and most serious instance involves Sen. Obama's answer to a question posed at the July 2007 YouTube Debate, and his subsequent increasingly nuanced interpretations of that answer.
Taken together, these cases suggest that Barack Obama may not recognize a promise when it passes his lips.
Or are the misunderstandings on the other foot, and are his argumentative defenses sufficient? Toyota or toy Yoda? You decide.
In the case of public financing, per this March 1, 2007 NYT lede:
Senator John McCain joined Senator Barack Obama on Thursday in promising to accept a novel fund-raising truce if each man wins his party’s presidential nomination.
... [Obama spokesman] Burton added that if nominated Mr. Obama would "aggressively pursue an agreement" with whoever was his opponent.
Now that the hypothesized predicate "if each man wins his party’s presidential nomination" seems within reach, and Obama's fundraising prowess has grown legendary, and Sen. McCain seeks to enforce the agreement -- Sen. Obama seems engaged in evasive maneuvers rather than aggressive pursuit.
Obama's prospective "out" in this case is to pull an ancillary condition out of the hat. He'll consider the pledge null and void unless McCain can guarantee a "a publicly financed general election" -- meaning no 527 expenditures by independent supporters of either party. This, of course, McCain cannot guarantee. (Nor can Obama. Nobody can. It's the law.)
Thus, from Obama's nuanced perspective, Obama's March 1 pledge is unenforceable -- now, and in any foreseeable sequel. Likewise, it was unenforceable when it was made.
This, then, was an empty promise. It advantaged Obama at the time (in media visibility and good-government credits), but didn't bind his future conduct in any way that might conceivably disadvantage him.
Consider next Obama and McCain's infamous public exchange of letters from February 2006. McCain:
I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere.
I confess that I have no idea what has prompted your response.
Obama had accepted McCain's invitation to the formative session of a bipartisan working group, and left the group with the impression he was on board. A press stand-up with Sen. Feingold seemed to confirm this commitment, and he sang from the hymnal of bipartisan reform at other public forums (in addition to which, Republicans still controlled Congress).
Nevertheless he signed on to a Democratic draft, a move that effectively pulled the legislative rug out from under McCain's efforts. Obama made this known to McCain in a letter released to the press.
One writer who used to play hoop with Barack says he has a wicked cross-over dribble. I'll bet McCain felt like he'd been faked out of his socks.
There are times in politics when you can't help crossing up one ally or another ... but the times a few and far between when you can't let them know where you're going, and why, face-to-face. Obama's letters seem clotted with mistakes and misunderstandings that might have been avoided in such an encounter. In the end, though, the central problem was that he did not realize what he had promised, and to whom.
Our third instance is of much greater portent. In the famed YouTube Debate, Obama was asked a very precise question:
In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since.
In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
[Note for accuracy: Sadat visited Israel in 1977, not 1982, and was assassinated in 1981.]
Obama answered without hesitation:
In subsequent discussion, this commitment becomes serially more nuanced.
- As a diplomatic term of art, "without precondition" does not mean "unconditionally" or "without prerequisite agreements" ... more like "without predetermined substantive outcomes or limits to outcomes". [As a rule, BTW, it's the weaker of the two parties who will seek preconditions, and the stronger who resists them. And divergent perspectives as to what's a precondition and what's not can delay substantive contacts interminably.]
- "You" doesn't necessarily refer to "President Obama". It could refer to lower-echelon emissaries or even third party intermediaries.
- "Meet" doesn't necessarily imply "meet", i.e., encounter in person. It could simply mean "communicate", though channels.
- And "I would" doesn't necessarily mean "I would". It has been whittled down to "I'm willing" ... with the clear proviso that "I'm willing" doesn't necessarily mean "I will".
Most of these qualifiers merely nullify boundaries between Obama's diplomacy and Clinton's -- or for that matter, Bush's. But the last item is a bombshell. How will President Obama receive the enthusiastic acceptance of a Chavez, (Raul) Castro or Ahmadinejad who gushes:
You're willing? Listen, Barry, you're not gonna believe this, but guess what? I'm willing, too! Isn't that a kick in the head? Hey, I'll be in New York next month at the U.N., I know a great little place across the river where we can meet separately, without precondition. Plus, the appetizers are out of this world, and you gotta see their regular bartender ... guy named Rico .. you name it, he can do it. Whaddya say Barry? ... Barry? ... Hello. ... Hello! ... Oh, hell.
Candidate Obama's answer will be perceived as extending a promise to other heads of state, conditional on his election. If that condition is satisfied, and it turns out that "I would" can mean "I'm willing, but I won't", President Obama will be perceived as having broken a promise. Misunderstanding could arise, leading to harshly worded letters ... perhaps even worse.
By the Laws of Politics, breaking a promise is a civil infraction ... but not keeping track of your promises is a felony. In all three instances, Obama does not seem to realize what he had promised.
And that's not counting Obama's BIG promise, the one his followers are iching to elect him for ... a promise so big, no serious aspirant to high office has made one like it, anywhere, ever.
We'll get to that one another day. Meanwhile, what's in your future? A new Toyota? Or a new toy Yoda?