1. Mistaking inclusivism for centrism.
To quote Ezra Klein:
But Obama's comfort attacking liberals from the right is unsettling, and if he does win Iowa, it will not be a victory that either supporters or the media ascribe to the more progressive elements of his candidacy. Instead, they will search for the distinctions he's drawn, and, sadly, a number of those distinctions point away from the heart-quickening progressivism of much of this race, and back towards the old politics of centrist caution and status quo bias.
Centrism is a policy thing. It is an agenda that consists of a mix of traditionally conservative and traditionally progressive policies. Bill Clinton's welfare reform bill was a centrist policy.
But Barack Obama's policies are not centrist at all. According to the National Journal, he was tied for the first most liberal Senator in the area of economic policy, and the 10th most liberal Senator overall.
Nor has he advocated policies on the stump that could really be described as centrist. The idea of a mandate associated with a private health care system (as opposed to a single-payer, government-run system) originated on the right rather than on the left, as it was recognized as an economically efficient form of corporate subsidy. Or take something like he's plan to remove the cap on social security taxation. What this amounts to is a way to make the tax code more progressive. What could be more progressive than that?
Instead, what Obama believes in is inclusivism; the notion that we can have a civil discussion with parties from all sides of the political spectrum included. But make no mistake: that's a discussion that he intends to win for progressives.
2. Mistaking rhetoric for strategy.
I mean this in two respects about John Edwards. The first respect is something of a cheap shot, which is that his track record in the Senate is mixed, and shows much more evidence of the true, "bad" kind of centrism of the very sort that Barack Obama has been roundly criticized for. I think you can look at John Edwards' candidacy, and his life's work, and decide that his Senate voting record deserves a mulligan. At the same time, to the extent that he has received less media attention than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, he has also received less scrutiny, and that his left his voting record rather underexamined.
However, I mean this in another, more important sense too, which is that we are mistaking fiery rheotoric for an actual, actionable theory of change. There is no sense from John Edwards about how we're actually going to get non-progressives on board with the progressive agenda. It's all "we're right, they're wrong, and we're fighting mad about it". Yes, we have every right to be bad about certain things. But raw emotion is not persuasive in the legislative arena, and in fact is generally counterproductive.
3. Mistaking populism for progressivism.
In watching the Republican campaign this year, it has been amusing to see them battle over the label of the "true" conservative. At various points, all six of the leading Republican candidates have tried to adopt this label. But at least the Republicans have some, relatively substantive differences in policy. The Democrats are advocating 98% the same agenda; and yet, John Edwards has been deemed worthy of the progressive label, while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have not.
The mistake, once again, is confusing the means for the ends. Populism is a form of discourse based on class conflict (and by the way, it's one that has generally not won elections). It isn't an end, which is progressive policy.
4. Mistaking the opponent.
This was the subject of my previous essay on John Edwards, from which I'll quote here.
f you accept my contention that Edwards has done a poor job of defining his enemy, it stands to reason that he is also likely to be unsuccessful in planning for battle against that enemy. However, even if we are more generous to him on the former question, how to engage this enemy is not quite clear.
For example, let's look at one of those universally agreed upon "special interests": the insurance lobby. There is no doubt that the insurance lobby is quite important in framing the debate over health care.
However, they are not actually the people we are engaged with. The people we are engaged with is the Republican Party, and the battleground is the Congress. And in fact, it is quite fortunate that we are not directly engaged with the insurance lobby, because they have absolutely no reason to compromise. John Edwards is right when he says (paraphrasing very slightly) "they're not just going to give their power away". On the other hand, it is not like we're going to beat their power out of them either.
No, the task at hand on health care reform is actually a lot more specific, and somewhat less daunting. To achieve health care reform, we must get an acceptable piece of legislation passed through both chambers of Congress, and signed by the President. This can be accomplished by:
1. Achieving a 60-seat Democratic majority, with no defections or
2. Changing the rules of the Senate or
3. Getting a sufficient number of Republican senators to join a Democratic majority to pass the legislation.
#1 is is largely out of the President's hands (although, it is another reason to think about the 'coattail' effects of electability). #2 is not an area that I have tremendous familiarity with, but I gather it's something that would take years, if not whole decades, to achieve.
So that leaves us with the third strategy. Republican senators may be beholden to some extent or another to the insurance lobby, but they are not absolutely beholden to it. The Republicans have other constituencies to worry about too, the most notable being the voters in their state. So the real question we should be asking is this:
How are you going to convince a sufficient number of Republican senators that it is in their best interest to ignore their insurance lobby constituency, and instead act on behalf of other constituencies -- like the voters in their district -- who might in fact want health care reform passed?.
5. Mistaking the fact that, deep down, we're right.
What I find most unsettling about John Edwards' philosophy is that it divides the world into two oppositional factions of good and evil. We can never negotiate with the other side because, apparently, they're not reasonable people. They are not capable of being persuaded.
The problem with this worldview is that it's deeply cynical. It does not permit real change to take hold in he hearts and minds of American people. It just assumes that "we're right, they're wrong, and they're never going to get it".
I believe that progressive thought can be persuasive. I believe that progressive agenda can become mainstream thought. In fact, on a whole host of issues, ranging from universal health care to the enviorment to Iraq, it already has become mainstream thought.
The only way to truly build consensus is to accept the proposition that the other side is reasonable.
Earlier in the week, I asked people to examine the origins of conservative thought. And the conclusion I came to is that conservatism is more like a brand than an actual political philosophy:
Perhaps the key thing to understand about Barack Obama's political philosophy is that it is not a gameplan to get us to agree with conservatives, but a gameplan to get conservatives to agree with us. It is an opportunity to redefine progressive positions and conservative positions in a way that is favorable to us. If partisan politics are conceived of as a matter of good and evil, or immutable concepts like class conflict, we may win some battles, but we are unlikely to win any wars. If, on the other hand, we can understand the origins of conservative identity and understand its fluidity, we stand some chance of being able to reshape it in our image.