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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, originally published at The Daily Strategist on March 25, 2008.)
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.

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