August 4, 2008
The Sound of Concrete Cracking
Much has been made of how Barack Obama has tacked to windward since he locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, taking positions on gun regulation, domestic surveillance, the death penalty and, most recently, offshore drilling that are seemingly at odds with the liberal posture that won the primary campaign for him. Critics—and disillusioned supporters—call it cynical and ruthless. Devotees call it pragmatic.
In fact, however, Obama did not win the primaries and, ultimately, the nomination because he was the most liberal candidate in the race. Dennis Kucinich ran far to Obama’s left, Dodd substantially to his left and Hillary Clinton well to his left when she stopped running as heir apparent. It was not the purity of his liberalism that won Obama states like Missouri, Virginia, Utah and 63 of 72 counties in Wisconsin—counties, many of which were rural jurisdictions with few or no black voters. The real bastions of liberalism—New York, California and Massachusetts—went to Clinton.
What propelled Obama to the front of the field (in addition to the awesome fundraising and organizational capabilities that took Clinton and others by surprise in caucus states) was rather his promise to end the gridlock that has infected Washington politics over the last twenty years of divided government. It was that promise that drew Hillary Clinton’s most caustic rhetoric. “Now I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified,’” she said in Rhode Island (another liberal state in which she beat Obama), mocking what she and many others saw as Obama’s kumbaya politics. “’The sky will open. The lights will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.’”
Indeed, many Obama supporters wondered the same thing.
For at least the last two decades, both presidents and congresses have dug in their heels and refused to compromise deeply-held convictions to enact laws. The welfare reform legislation for which Bill Clinton and other Democrats now take credit passed only because a Republican-controlled Congress refused to pass legislation that Clinton could sign, and Clinton repeatedly refused to sign the legislation that Congress passed. Republicans and Democrats alike now routinely threaten to block legislation with filibusters, a tactic once reserved for last-ditch resistance to bills perceived to threaten the most deeply-held convictions.
Nor has gridlock been an artifact only of divided government—situations in which Congress was controlled by Democrats and the White House by Republicans, or vice versa. It was not Democrats but congressional Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, who threw the first President Bush overboard for violating his opportunistic and ill-advised “Make my day, no new taxes” pledge. It was not a Republican congress that sank Bill and Hillary Clinton’s health care legislation. Congress was controlled by Clinton’s own party, the Democrats, who couldn’t or wouldn’t compromise enough even to bring a bill to the floor of the House for a vote. When voters evicted Democrats from their congressional majorities in 1994, it was as much for fecklessness as liberalism.
It is against that backdrop* that many wondered, as they listened to Obama talk about how he would end gridlock in Washington, just how he would do that. How would he move people out of their entrenched and principled positions on highly-charged and deeply-felt issues? What would it look like?
Now we know. It will look a lot like what Obama has been doing the last couple of months or so. It will look a lot like being willing to accept the idea that the Second Amendment encompasses not only a generalized individual right to bear arms, but a right that prevails against a city’s desire to lower murder rates. It looks a lot like reassuring intelligence hawks by countenancing wiretapping without much in the way of probable cause. It will involve, as Obama recently told a (presumably unsympathetic) Florida audience, “compromis[ing] in terms of a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage. I don’t want to be so rigid that we can’t get something done.”
And what would it sound like? Ronald Reagan put it well when, as governor of California, he agreed to reverse himself and allow income tax withholding, an issue on which he had often declared his views set in concrete. When a reporter asked about the change in his position, Reagan replied, “The sound you hear is concrete cracking.”
It is a loud and disagreeable sound, concrete cracking, and not much more attractive to watch. But moving forward is impossible without it.