It’s hardly surprising that analysis of Barack Obama’s sudden viability as a presidential candidate dwells on race. He is, after all, a black man whose main source of popularity at present seems to be with white voters. Like Colin Powell, moreover, he is often described as a black man almost perfectly engineered to appeal to white voters, at potential risk to the “authenticity” deemed essential to attact the African-American voters who are so important in the Democratic presidential nominating process, at leasts when it pivots beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.Peter Beinert has an article up on the New Republic site examining the Powell parallel in detail, suggesting that Obama represents an implicit repudiation of other, more “authentic” African-American politicians, which could create a backlash among black voters generally. And last week Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post examined African-American ambivalence towards Obama, as reflected in his little-known congressional primary loss to Bobby Rush in 2000.There’s also the simple data point that national polls currently show Hillary Clinton trouncing Obama among black Democrats, which makes his overall robust poll numbers that much more remarkable.But while fascinating, these race-based takes on Obama don’t come to grips with the genesis of his startling appearance on the national political scene in August of 2004, when few Americans knew much about his personal story, or had experienced his “charisma” or marveled at his political skills. Ever since his famous Democratic Convention speech, Obama has been articulating what might be called the Great Alternative Democratic Message, and it clearly has some clout.What is that message? It could be described as “The New American Patriotism,” or “The Politics of Higher Common Purpose,” or “Towards One America,” or even “Meeting the Big Challenges.” But whatever the precise rhetoric, its core is to suggest that Democrats can and will lift politics and government out of the slough of polarization, culture wars, smears and sheer pettiness characterized by the Bush-Rove era, transcending party and ideology to unite the country around an agenda that really matters.This was the meta-message Stan Greenberg urged Democrats to embrace in 2004 in his pre-election book, The Two Americas. It was the original theme of John Kerry’s campaign, until Bob Shrum convinced him to shift in the autumn of 2003 to a message focused on the candidate’s biography (with fateful, perhaps fatal, consequences a year later). It was then picked up (or perhaps, according to insiders, accepted as a gift from former Kerry advisor Chris Lehane) by Wes Clark, whose campaign never really got its act together. And it was echoed in some respects by John Edwards, though his “one America” aspiration drew much less attention than his neo-populist “two Americas” indictment of the status quo.But this alternative message never got a full test until Barack Obama, at the time still a state senator, made it the core of his “Red, White and Blue America” speech in Boston. And it’s still Obama’s distinctive message.That’s one important reason for the half-submerged skepticism about Obama in some precincts of the progressive blogosphere, where all his talk about unity and civility sometimes sounds uncomfortably like the much-despised “bipartisanship” of party centrists. But it still strikes a chord in the electorate, I suspect.Obama must, of course, soon begin to fill out a more detailed message and agenda that explains exactly what Democrats should do to transcend the counter-polarization of the 2006 campaign and expand the party base, without repudiating principles or sacrificing unity. His success or failure in doing that may in the end have a greater impact on his candidacy than his alleged role in some great national psychodrama about race and identity.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
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By Ed Kilgore
After a week of efforts to equate the controversial remarks of two particular members of Congress, I pushed back a bit at New York:
It looks like House Republicans are going to deal with outrage over their perennial problem child Marjorie Taylor Greene by finding a Democrat to punish. That would be Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, according to Politico’s Huddle:
“’I think that Ilan should receive the same type of punishment as Marjorie because if it’s good for one, it is good for another,’ Rep. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.), who voted to remove Greene from her committees, told me. ‘Anti-semitism is the same thing as anti-semitism. It’s just that Nancy is afraid …'”
There are others who want to push for Omar’s removal as well as those looking to censure her over her war crimes remarks — and a few Dems may join them.
The idea of equating Omar’s complaints about unequal treatment of countries in investigating military misconduct with Greene’s comparisons of mask and vaccine requirements to the Holocaust is deeply satisfying to a lot of people. Republicans can continue their now-ancient habit of waving away extremism in their ranks by claiming it’s more prevalent on the other side of the aisle. Nervous centrist Democrats can document their nervous centrism by firing thunderbolts left and right. And most of all, accusing both parties of harboring those prone to “false equivalence” appeals to the false equivalence many Beltway media folks want to draw between Democrats and Republicans, who are engaged in the mutually assured destruction of partisan polarization.
There’s only one problem: Treating what MTG and Omar have said as equal expressions of false equivalence actually is false, as any honest evaluation of their words quickly shows. Greene bluntly compared COVID-19 precautions to the Holocaust, analogized vaccine documentation mandates to the Nazi practice of making Jews wear yellow stars, and, for good measure, said Democrats are like Nazis because they are “socialists.” Omar said this in the midst of a virtual exchange with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken over investigations of the brief but intense war between Israel and Hamas:
“’We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,’ she wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.’”
Her point wasn’t to say the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban were equally culpable in their commission of atrocities, but that all should be equally subject to international investigation. I suppose there are superpatriots who would dispute the idea that America has ever committed “unthinkable atrocities,” though the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks, and of countless genocidal assaults on Native Americans, among many examples, suggest otherwise. But in any event, when challenged by Republicans and Democrats alike to make it clear she was not imputing equivalent culpability to these various nations and coalitions of fighters, Omar complied instantly:
“U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar said Thursday that she was ‘in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems … ‘
“’To be clear: the conversation was about accountability for specific incidents regarding [International Criminal Court] cases, not a moral comparison between Hamas and the Taliban and the U.S. and Israel.’”
MTG, meanwhile, kept doubling down on her comparisons of public-health measures with the slaughter of many millions by Nazi Germany, and finally, after more than three weeks and a tour of the Holocaust Museum, she issued an apology that betrayed little understanding of the full scope of the Holocaust, and then refused to apologize for the Democrat-Nazi analogy.
Looking more broadly at the two women and their records of controversial utterances, Ilhan made an unfortunate and erroneous reference to “the Benjamins,” in a gratuitous comment about support for Israel in the United States, for which she “unequivocally” apologized:
“Anti-semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-semitic tropes. My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole. We have to always be able to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack my identity. This is why I unequivocally apologize.”
Greene lost her committee assignments earlier this year after media focus on an almost incredible blizzard of incendiary statements she made on social media before coming to Congress (barely anyone even noticed her practice of brandishing an AR-15 when discussing her enemies in campaign ads). In February, she apologized for claiming that school shootings were fake and for promoting QAnon conspiracy theories. She never apologized for happily contemplating violence against congressional Democrats (including, very specifically, Ilhan Omar) and the Speaker of the House, or for her unusually aggressive support of Trump’s electoral big lie and the effort in January to overturn the presidential election results, or for her own subscription to very weird anti-Semitic claims.
If you cannot discern a qualitative difference between Omar’s “outrages” and Greene’s, and between the speed and coherence of their clarifications and apologies, it may be time for some remedial work in logic and rhetoric. These two members of Congress aren’t alike at all, and as much as I sometimes disagree with Ilhan Omar, treating her as a left-wing MTG is lazy and just plain wrong.