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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Poetic License

NOTE: This is a guest post by Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute.
It’s said that truth is the first casualty of war. But truth, and realism, also take a pretty good beating in politics—especially in nominating contests.
Consider what’s happened to two of Sen. Barack Obama’s brainiest advisors: Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power.
Goolsbee, a widely respected economist who teaches at the University of Chicago, is the Obama campaign’s top economic advisor. (Full disclosure: Goolsbee has also worked with PPI and is a friend). He was muzzled after accounts of his meeting with Canadian government officials were leaked to the media (apparently by the Canadian Prime Minister’s staff). According to these accounts, Goolsbee reassured the Canadians that Obama, if elected president, would probably not follow through on his campaign promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Running hard in economically stressed Ohio, Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign pounced immediately, citing the reports as proof that her loathing of NAFTA is more sincere than Obama’s, even if it was her husband who signed the treaty into law back in 1993.
Goolsbee insists he was misquoted. But even if he didn’t actually tell the Canadians that Obama’s anti-NAFTA bark is worse than his bite, that’s probably the truth of the matter. After all, Canada is America’s biggest trading partner, Mexico is our third-biggest. With or without NAFTA, trade with our neighbors is only likely to grow. The idea that either President Obama or President Clinton would begin an historic, change-oriented presidency by picking a gratuitous fight with Canada and Mexico over a 15-year-old trade treaty is preposterous. And that’s not just the opinion of this pro-trade Democrat: the stoutly liberal John Judis has a new piece out today arguing that both candidates are using NAFTA as a symbol of globalization that misses the treaty’s genuine positive and negative aspects.
Samantha Power, author of a Pulitizer Prize-winning book on the Rwanda genocide, A Problem from Hell, resigned as a top Obama foreign-policy advisor for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster.” She promptly apologized and quit the campaign. But the flap obscured another, far more substantive Power utterance, namely a remark she made to the BBC in which she characterized Obama’s promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months as “a best case scenario.” She added:

You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009. He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator.

Here, Power was telling the truth, and a very reassuring truth at that. Of course, it exposed Obama to charges from the Clinton camp that he doesn’t really mean what he says about pulling out of Iraq, any more than he means what he says about renegotiating NAFTA. In a speech last week at George Washington University marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, Clinton had this to say:

Senator Obama has said often that words matter. I strongly agree. But giving speeches alone won’t end the war and making campaign promises you might not keep certainly won’t end it. In the end the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches.

Fair enough, except that Clinton is also promising more than she can deliver on Iraq. “Here’s what you can count on me to do: provide the leadership to end this war quickly and responsibly,” she said at GWU. And she reiterated her pledge to start bringing troops home within 60 days of taking office, at a rate of one to two brigades a month, according to consultations with military leaders.
The problem is, you can end America’s involvement in Iraq quickly, or you can end it responsibly. You can’t do both. Consolidating the recent security gains in Iraq, keeping relentless pressure on al Qaeda in Iraq, working to reconcile feuding ethnic and religious factions, training Iraqi military and police forces, and pressing the Shiite-Kurdish government to integrate the Sunni Awakening movement into those forces– all these tasks are going to take time, and they’re going to require a substantial and sustained U.S. military presence. As a candidate who claims superior foreign-policy experience, Clinton should know that.
The voters get it. A recent Gallup poll found that more than six in 10 Americans think the United States is obliged to remain in Iraq “until a reasonable level of stability and security has been reached.” And while voters want candidates to have withdrawal plans, 8 in 10 say they are against immediate withdrawal.
At the same time, more than 60 percent of Americans say the Iraq war has not been worth the costs. Such sentiments, however, have not kept Sen. John McCain from playing the overpromising game from the other side. Returning last week from a trip to Iraq, McCain announced that America and its allies “stand on the precipice of winning a major victory.” Such triumphalism may be catnip to hard-core conservatives, but it probably grates on the nerves of a war-weary public that has just marked five years of occupation which have claimed 4,000 American lives.
What gives? Have all our presidential finalists momentarily lost touch with the reality principle?
There’s something about nominating contests that seems to suspend the standards of veracity candidates are normally held to. Apparently, all’s fair in the fight to identify with the inflamed emotions of core partisan or “base” voters, or, in the case of NAFTA, with Ohioans who feel that trade has somehow cheated them out of well-paying manufacturing jobs. In tailoring their message to party activists and local constituencies, candidates too readily indulge in a political version of poetic license, in which accuracy and realism yield to simplistic gestures and symbolism.
Thus, bashing NAFTA becomes a way to show solidarity with working Americans anxious about the impact of global competition on their jobs and incomes. These anxieties are real enough, and voters are right to demand vigorous new responses from government—a new social contract that includes a comprehensive system of worker training, universal health care, portable pensions for all workers, a fairer and more generous college-aid system, and more. But all that is complicated and costly, and let’s face it, such worthy prescriptions don’t pack as much emotional punch as refighting the battle of NAFTA all over again.
So, at least until the primaries end, we’re likely to be stuck with candidates insisting on 100 percent fidelity to crowd-pleasing positions they must know, deep down, they will have to modify in the general election—at which point, one hopes, reality will make a welcome and overdue reappearance on the scene.
Somebody does, however, need to tell John McCain that the primary season is over, and he no longer needs to thrill conservative audiences with promises of “a major victory” in Iraq.

3 comments on “Political Poetic License

  1. Matthew Cowan on

    Your essay calls for America to achieve goals in Iraq, including relentless pressure on Al Qaeda, ending ethnic feuding. You then link to a write up about a poll titled: “Americans on Iraq: Should the U.S. Stay or Go?”
    Your essay says that the poll shows that six in ten Americans favor staying in Iraq until a reasonable level of safety and security is reached. The write up of the poll doesn’t match your claims.
    18% want immediate withdrawal and another 41% want a timetable for withdrawal. That’s a total 59% who, without any assurance of any results at all, want the troops to come home. There is nothing there that says troops should stay until safety and security reach a level.
    35% say they want troops to stay until the situation improves. Improve just means gets better. “Improve” doesn’t set a target, so the 35% who want troops to remain can’t be claimed as people who want a specific objective, like safety and security, met first. I’d say the situation would be improved if we could train enough Iraqis that they could deal with the mess.
    The other goals you list for the war don’t show up in the poll at all. If they were, only a segment about as large as the 18% who want immediate withdrawal would agree to keep the troops in Iraq for that as long as it took.

  2. TFisher on

    This comment is both overbroad and unfair to people on the two issues it discusses.
    NAFTA: It is possible that some people opposed NAFTA from the beginning. It is even possible that one of those people was the wife of the president who signed it. Whether Hillary Clinton supported or opposed it is a question that is generating some disagreement, but the fact that Bill Clinton signed NAFTA is not evidence of her position. In addition, it is possible to have supported NAFTA at the time, but believe that it has not accomplished its goals. One well-known economist, Brad DeLong has taken just that position:
    “Having witnessed Mexico’s slow growth over the past 15 years, we can no longer repeat the old mantra that the neoliberal road of NAFTA and associated reforms is clearly and obviously the right one.”
    Furthermore, it is unfair to characterize people who oppose NAFTA as against free trade. For many of us, the issue is what “free trade” means. As an example, some people oppose certain specific aspects of NAFTA and other trade deals:
    (Why We Miss John Edwards’ Voice on Trade and Globalization)
    Finally, some of us could be very impressed with much of what Barack Obama says about many subjects, while none too happy that the Chicago School of Economics has secured the plumb economic adviser position with the candidate. Count me as one person who hopes that a significant dose of Edwards “Populism” finds its way into an Obama administration. Otherwise, much of his domestic policy will be pointless.
    Saying that does not automatically mean that one is bashing NAFTA to show solidarity with American workers (though that does not strike me as much of a criticism)–people can bash NAFTA because they genuinely think it needs revision. Or even because they think it was a bad idea to start with.
    Iraq: The comment on Iraq is actually worse, but its flaw is easy to point out. Many citizens disagree with the assumtions contained in the word “responsibly.” Mr. Marshall’s statement is “you can end America’s involvement in Iraq quickly, or you can end it responsibly. You can’t do both.”
    I doubt any pollster has asked whether people agree with that broad a statement or with Mr. Marshall’s use of the word “responsibly.”
    In fact, many of us opposed the Iraq war from the beginning and many of us believe that no matter what we do in Iraq at this point, we will make the situation no better, probably worse, and drive up the body count of our own soldiers and of innocent Iraqi citizens. If you agree with that, then getting out responsibly means getting out as quickly as possible while maintaining the safety of our departing troops.
    That certainly means we disagree with Mr. Marshall about Iraq. It does not mean we are irresponsible.

  3. Keith Roberts on

    In asking whether candidates take leave of their senses, Marshall overlooks a crucial factor in these campaigns; namely, the press, and in particular the press as led by Fox News. Fox News leads; the rest follow. Fox News uses “gotcha” journalism for its own reasons, but the other media, which don’t share those reasons, follow for lack of wit. Then, idiotically, when Fox unearths and trumpets the ill-considered comments of someone associated with the candidate, the entire press corps echoes the matter until it sounds worse than gratuitously starting a war.


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