WHAT IS BARACK OBAMA SAYING?

Friday, Barack Obama wrote a response to blogospheric criticism of his criticism from the Senate floor of advocacy groups which were condemning Senators who voted to confirm Roberts (Obama himself voted against confirmation). He makes some points I agree with, and some I don’t. Most frustrating, though – and all the more so given his gift as a writer – are the arguments which sound nice but whose meanings are difficult to tease out at all. Like this one:

My colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, spoke out forcefully – and voted against – the Iraqi invasion. He isn’t somehow transformed into a “war supporter” – as I’ve heard some anti-war activists suggest – just because he hasn’t called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He may be simply trying to figure out, as I am, how to ensure that U.S. troop withdrawals occur in such a way that we avoid all-out Iraqi civil war, chaos in the Middle East, and much more costly and deadly interventions down the road. A pro-choice Democrat doesn’t become anti-choice because he or she isn’t absolutely convinced that a twelve-year-old girl should be able to get an operation without a parent being notified. A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn’t become complicit in an anti-civil rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs. And a pro-union Democrat doesn’t become anti-union if he or she makes a determination that on balance, CAFTA will help American workers more than it will harm them.

There are several ways to read this argument:

One is that what matters is a politician’s values, and not individual votes, and so it’s wrong to call a politician “anti-civil rights” for casting votes which hurt the cause of civil rights. The problem with this argument is that we elect representatives to cast good votes, not to personally sympathize with us and our values.

Another is that none of us has the right to decide what these labels mean – that it’s arrogant and inappropriate for pro-choice activists to tell politicians what it should mean to be pro-choice. The problem with this argument is that there’s no point in working to advance the cause of “choice” in general if that excludes advancing a particular understanding of what is and is not pro-choice policy. While it’s arguable whether or not the movement would be served by more politicians claiming the pro-choice mantle without changing their policy positions, but it certainly be insufficient.

Another argument which could Obama could be making here is that is that immediate troop withdrawl from Iraq, opposition to parental notification laws, defense of affirmative action from “questioning,” and opposition to CAFTA are not in fact serving the goals of the anti-war, pro-choice, civil rights, and labor movements, respectively. In other words, he could argue against the positions he thinks Democratic senators are wrongly being held to on the merits. But if there’s any such criticism here, it’s only implicit (Obama, for the record, voted against CAFTA in the Senate, voted against parental notification in the Illinois Senate, and is not calling for an immediate withdrawl of all US troops).

Given that Obama seems not to be articulating that argument, he could be arguing that these particular issues are just not important enough to make a big deal of. But it’s hard to imagine the groups he names not putting up a fight over these issues, and it would be hard to believe that Obama would expect them not to. CAFTA was the first comprehensive trade deal to come before the Congress under Bush, crafted to erode worker protections which accelerating the race to the bottom. Parental notification policies are, along with denial of government funding, one of the major policy impediments to women’s substantive exercise of their right to choose.

A more spurious argument which Obama seems implicitly to be making through questionable word choice is that the problem with these left-wing advocacy groups is that they’re out to restrict elected officials’ freedom of expression by punishing them for not being “absolutely convinced” on parental notification or “making a determination” they don’t like on CAFTA. To the extent that advocacy groups criticize elected officials for critical public statements, they’re not chilling speech – they’re responding to it, and I’d say there are some criticisms which are deserved and others which aren’t. But phrases like Obama’s here aren’t really about speech – they’re about votes. To describe a pro-choice group as punishing a legislator for not being convinced of something conjures up Orwellian images, but what pro-choice groups are taking legislators to task for isn’t private thoughts – it’s how they legislate.

The final argument that I think could reasonably be read from this paragraph, is that advocacy groups shouldn’t expect politicians to vote the way they want all of the time. But why not? Certainly, it would be a poor tactical choice for such groups to predict that everyone they want will vote however they want all of the time. But given the premise that their positions are the right ones (and with the exception of immediate and total withdrawl, I believe they are, and Obama seems to as well), shouldn’t support of all of their positions be the standard against which they judge elected officials? Does Obama really expect the National Council of La Raza to make public statements like, “Sadly, the Senator is only 85% of the way to casting votes to extend rather than restrict civil rights at least 60% of the time”? Elected officials, locally as well as nationally, often revel in disparaging “activists” for failure to understand the necessity of compromise. The first problem with that critique is that too often, the compromises are bad ones. The second is that the way we get good compromises is by having leaders on our side who are willing to take strong stands in the face of opposition. Obviously, writing a politician off as not worth working with in the future because of a vote on a particular issue is just bad politics – if you’re not organizing them, someone else is. But there’s a difference between writing off politicians who cast bad votes and being willing to publicly point out that those votes are bad. Voting for CAFTA may not make an otherwise pro-union legislator anti-union for good, but those of us who believe voting against CAFTA is the right vote and the pro-union vote to cast are, it seems to me, obligated to regard a politician who votes for CAFTA as less pro-union than if she hadn’t. Otherwise, we might as well pack up and go home.

Or maybe all Obama was trying to say was that left advocates should soften their rhetoric. I don’t think describing a Senator who votes to confirm a nominee for Chief Justice as in some way “complicit” in particularly aggregious decisions that Justice makes on the court is in any way out of bounds (and yes, that means Russ Feingold, of whom I remain a big fan, bears some degree of responsibility for what Justice Roberts does on the court). And I don’t think the left or the country are well-served when advocacy groups whose fundamental mission is an ideological one, not a partisan one, hold their fire in taking politicians of one party to task for actions for which they would condemn members of the other. Is there some exaggerated, over-the-top, nastily personal rhetoric out there? Of course. But if that’s what Obama takes issue with, he could have found a clearer way to say it.

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THE WEEK IN RESTORING HONESTY AND INTEGRITY TO GOVERNMENT

If Roberts’ nomination was supposed to push perjury and the outing of an undercover agent off the front pages, it hasn’t been entirely successful. We now know that Ari Fleischer (don’t you miss him?) had the memo identifying Plame, that it was marked as secret information, and that he told the Grand Jury he never saw it. And we now know that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are both under investigation for perjury over their own Grand Jury testimony. And now Time is casting further doubt on claims that Rove heard about Plame from media contacts and reporting one official’s account of “general discussion with the National Security Council and the White House and State Department and others” about Plame.” But they’re not the only ones failing to tell the truth under oath on an issue of urgent public concern. Turns out John Bolton falsely disclaimed having been interviewed about the original Niger forgeries which inspired Rove and company to smear Joe Wilson in the first place. Bolton’s truth problem, unsurprisingly, seems not to have given any pause to President Bush in his plan to bypass the Senate with a recess appointment.

As for Roberts himself, looks like he’s been less than upfront about his role in litigating Black Floridians’ votes out of existence in the name of equal protection. Same goes for his Federalist Society membership, which makes you wonder what other groups he doesn’t remember joining. And most troublingly, he may have told Dick Durbin that he would recuse himself from casting votes to uphold laws or rulings in accordance with the constitution and opposition to his faith, an especially eerie argument in light of his callous, anti-pluralistic advice that students who don’t feel comfortable with sectarian religious observance at their graduations just stay home.

THE WRONG WAY TO HONOR THE 4TH

is to narrow Americans’ constitutional freedoms by amending the first amendment to ban unpopular symbolic speech. It’s disturbing to see the Senate within a few votes of following the House in passing the abysmal “Flag Burning Amendment.” And it’s disappointing to see so many Democrats (Bob Menendez, Sherrod Brown, and Loretta Sanchez among them) joining the pandering parade.

As I said in this piece (also here), crimminalizing flag-burning is a desecration of the flag and of our freedoms. As Hendrik Hertzberg once observed, it’s impossible to burn the flag, though some may choose to burn a flag or two. Trampling the freedoms for which that flag stands, however, is all too feasible.

That’s exactly how we should recognize the criminalization of a symbol based on offense at its content. After all, if the burning of a flag can be rendered illegal on grounds of outrage at the message it signifies, why not images of burning flags? Why not incitement to burn flags? Why not Dick Durbin’s insistence that torture is more befiting a despotic regime than the United States of America? There was a moment in this country’s history before the First Amendment when representatives on the floor of Congress had a constitutional right to free speech unavailable to regular Americans. It would be shameful for us ever to enter a moment after the unamended First Amendment in which the same is the case.

A Flag-Burning Amendment would still be outrageous if flag-burning was an everyday occurence in this country. But it’s worth noting that it isn’t. Not only was the pro-amendment Citizens Flag Alliance only able to document four incidents this year (three of them last month, while the Amendment was under debate and in the news), every single one involved people burning other people’s flags. However one ranks the wrongness of setting the local Public Library’s flag on fire relative to, say, denying healthcare to returning veterans, it’s already illegal.

What’s at issue is this: Living in a society with a robust Bill of Rights means that in some rare instance, some American may exercise the freedom granted under our flag to burn a flag in hopes of dramatizing a divide between a vision for this country and its present reality. The discomfort that’s inspired by a burning flag, or a confederate flag, is a small price to pay for liberty.

The right has been heaping outrage on Senator Durbin for saying this Tuesday night about an FBI account of torture at Guantanamo Bay:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, this is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course. The President could declare the United States will apply the Geneva Conventions to the war on terrorism. He could declare, as he should that the United States will not, under any circumstances, subject any detainee to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

It’s a shame that President Bush, Senator Frist, and the Right-Wing Blogospheric Noise Machine can’t summon the same level of outrage they’ve mustered over Durbin’s comments over the account he read in the paragraph before – or the countless others like it:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food, or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold…On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been ssince the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.

You won’t find that paragraph, unfortunately, in the news accounts of the latest from the GOP’s manufactured outrage machine. And don’t hold your breath for a word from Bush or Frist this week to condemn the use of starving and freezing as interrogation techniques.

Instead, they’re accusing Senator Durbin of comparing all of America’s servicemen and servicewomen to Nazis, a charge as willfully inaccurate as Frist’s claim that Durbin called Guanatanamo a “death camp” (that’s what happens when you get all of your news from the (Washington Times). While Durbin’s phrasing is awkward, his plain meaning is clearly not that America is a Nazi state but rather that torture is a practice which better befits an oppressive regime than the United States. Leaving people restrained without water in oppressive heat to defecate on themselves, Durbin reminds us, is a violation of the values of this country. The obvious question, then, for Durbin’s critics is this: Do you see leaving people restrained without water in oppressive heat to defecate on themselves as as expression of the values of this country. Only a truly perverse definition of patriotism would demand, when we see unamerican crimes perpetrated under the American flag, that we change our values as a country to justify our behavior rather than the other way around. There’s no need to mention Nazis in order to make this point. But there’s no justification for reading it as a smear of the US as Nazi Germany or men and women in the service as Nazis.

The latter – the accusation that Durbin attacked Americans in the military – is even more insidious than the accusation that he attacked America itself. The implication is that anyone who criticizes a policy military personnel carry out is expressing scorn, distrust, or murderous rage towards every American in the service (this is analagous to the strategy Thomas Frank documents in One Market Under God of dismissing criticisms of business as expressions of elitism towards the American consumer). It’s a strategy we saw in the Presidential debates, as Bush implied that criticism of our Iraq policy showed a lack of faith in our troops in Iraq. It’s a strikingly tendentious rhetorical move and a pox on a discourse we desperately need to be having as a nation.

Most of all, pretending to hear criticism of the policy as an attack on the troops is a show of incredible cowardice. Faced with much-deserved rhetorical volleys, George Bush is essentially dragging American soldiers in front of him as an unwitting buffer between himself and the rest of the American people. In this rhetorical draft, American soldiers are called to act as a symbolic first line of defense against justified outrage over the administration. Never mind the number of those soldiers and their families who share that outrage, or who have no interest in being drafted -voiceless – into ideological warfare on behalf of the chickenhawks and policies which lead to needless death. Critics of torture and critics of war are taking on our leaders, not our troops. That those leaders, rather than defending their choices, make a show of rising to defend the honor of the troops just shows how little shame they have.

Live-blogging the debate:

0:01 “A few” things is all you want to change about the PATRIOT ACT? Gonna be a long night…

0:03 Bush doesn’t see how you can lead this country if you change your mind…I think a lot of Americans are coming to realize you can’t lead the country so well if you never change your mind…

0:05 Touting that 75% of Al Qaeda leadership captured figure was probably more effective before Condi admitted we don’t know how many Al Qaeda leaders there are. That must be some amazing math…

0:06 “I wasn’t happy when we found out there wasn’t weapons there.” I understand, electorally, why that would be the case, but on some moral level, shouldn’t that be a relief?

0:09 No, he didn’t say “we must pass a global test before we use force” – he said we must pass one after we use force. Not much to tout from that first debate for you, is there?

0:10 Kerry appealing to what voters see about Iraq on TV is much more effective, somehow, than Bush appealing to what he sees about Iraq on TV…

0:13 Bush saying he’s more optimistic than Kerry about Iraq: Effective rhetoric. Bush saying Kerry’s copying his plan: Not so effective rhetoric.

0:15 “I’ve made some decisions that have caused people not to understand the great values of our country.” What? Whose fault would that be? I mean, is that just because the great values of our country are really hard to understand?

0:17 True, people love America who don’t like America’s decisions. That’s why so many of them are hoping Kerry wins. But doesn’t acknowledging the difference between criticism and America-hating remove one of your justifications for ignoring the criticism?

0:18 Calling Bush on broken promises from 2000: Key. Keep at it. And combining that with the firing dissenters angle is a key move too.

0:19 “The military’s job is to win the war. The President’s job is to win the peace.” Amen. Stick it to him for claiming criticizing the policy demoralizes the troops.

0:21 “…Iraq, where there wasn’t a threat,” is probably a poor turn of phrase after repeating that you agreed there was a threat.

0:22 Nuclear proliferation in Russia – hammer on this one. And commititng to halt any kind of development of any kind of weapon during a Presidential campaign is, to Kerry’s credit, a more courageous move than some Democratic Presidential nominees have made.

0:23 So now being a partner to the world, according to Bush, means renouncing nuclear aspirations. Someone should tell that to, I dunno, maybe President Bush…

0:26 “We need to be lighter and quicker and more facile.” More facile? Well, Bush is doing all he can for that goal…

0:27 OK, Kerry, we get that you’ve got a lot of military support…

0:28 Reagan’s foreign policy? Come on.

0:28 George Bush sure does love Poland. Which is heartwarming, especially now that they’ve said they’re backing out.

0:29 Anne is really excited to be at this debate. And not to have been attacked by terrorists.

0:30 “What was it, 1993 or so?” Way to make the Democratic Party’s job harder.

0:31 Slam him on saying tax cuts for the rich are more important than security for everyone. Clobber him. Please. Yes. Keep going.

0:32 “We’re doing everything we can to defend the homeland.” Really?

0:32 “If Iraq were to fail it would be a haven for terrorists.” As supposed to now, when it’s a, well, a…

0:34 “…the tax cut for the middle class.” First-class chutzpah. Did you just say you’re only concerned about working Americans being targeted by terrorists?

0:36 If Bush is for generic drugs, does that mean he’ll be reforming his AIDS policy?

0:37 “The President just didn’t level with you right here again.” Yes. “…into the pockets of the drug companies, right out of your pockets.” Yes.

0:38 Somehow, one President who managed to erode Medicare isn’t an impressive comparison to one Senator who didn’t completely positively transform the Medicare system.

0:41 Is there really polling out there that says that the only Doctors women are concerned about are OB/GYNs? Cause these two sure make it sound like it.

0:42 Did you just call him Senator Kennedy? Much like confusing Saddam and Osama – is this a screw-up or a subliminal message? Or maybe my reception just isn’t so good.

0:43 If “defensive medicine” means being extra careful to stay within regulations, maybe there are worse things Doctors could do.

0:44 Compassionate conservatives: Neither compassionate nor conservative. Disucss.

0:45 “We have a deficit.” How in touch of you. But wait – it’s all Bill Clinton and Osama 0bin Laden’s fault.

0:46 Bush citing today’s economic report? I come from the school of thought that calls that chutzpah (also the one that says if you want to increase demand by giving people money, it has to be the folks who are low-income enough to change consumption habits based on the extra money).

0:48 Kerry channels Robert Reich’s argument that real patriotism requires sacrifice. Or rather, he dances around it. So close…

0:50 Kerry calls Bush on the broken promise of $5 million jobs. And Enron. Nice.

0:51 Kerry’s long stare at the camera to promise never to raise taxes on folks making $199,000 a year, even if necessary to get healthcare for those making a hell of a lot less, is anything but comforting to me. And, I suspect, to a bunch of the low-income folks I registered this summer to vote.

0:54 Has Bush read the jobs report he’s citing?

0:55 Funny thing is, actually he did, by statistical fluke, get named the most liberal Senator because he missed so many votes.

0:56 Bush is actually citing the “Clear Skies Act” as if it helped, you know, clear skies. And now the “Healthy Forests Bill”! He should be slammed for this in, say, 30 seconds.

0:58 Instead, Kerry’s touting how many Republican/Clintonian things he voted for. Oy. Now he’s slamming him though. Somewhat.

0:59 “The halls of Europe”? Wonder what those look like.

1:01 “How can the US be competitive in manufacturing and maintain our standard of living?” “A reviewed, muscular, transnational labor movement.” Sorry – just fantasizing.

1:04 If anyone doubted that Bush’s plan is for the US to compete with third world dictatorships for deregulation and exploitation of labor, well, why did you ever doubt that?

1:05 I’d say “That’s news to me” is one of those expressions Bush should be careful about using, joke or not – it’s a little close to home.

1:06 I really, really wish that we had a Democratic candidate who could do more to comfort the man who’s worried about his rights being watered down than the incumbent is doing right now.

1:09 Well, this is a somewhat better answer on the PATRIOT ACT than we got from Kerry at the beginning. And good call on not letting terrorists re-write the constitution. But when you mention Dick Durbin, my main thought is, “Shouldn’t he (or, say, Barack Obama) be running for President?”

1:11 “Parapeligic” shouldn’t be such a hard word for Kerry to say. But framing the research as a sign of respect for life is a good, George-Lakoff-approved move.

1:13 “Science is important, but so is ethics.” Since when is that the choice?

1:16 If by “allowing personal opinion to enter into constitutional process,” you mean allowing the constitution to enter into the constitutional process, then yes?

1:17 Dred Scott? Newdow is our generation’s Dred Scott? Screw you. And sorry to break it to you, Mr. President, but the mid-nineteenth century constitution wasn’t exactly ideal when it comes to equal rights for African-Americans. Nice to hear Bush doesn’t actually think property rights always have to trump human liberty though.

1:20 Good that Kerry’s tying abortion to class and to international family planning. Don’t particularly need him or his wife counseling me out of abortion.

1:21 If by “reduce the number of abortions in America,” you mean reduce access to safe and legal abortion, then yeah.

1:23 When Kerry explains the problem with Bush’s argument, and Bush responds by saying it’s actually simple and not responding to the criticism, I wouldn’t say straight-shooter is the term that comes to mind.

1:24 Is Bush’s biggest mistake an appointment he made?

1:25 So now, contra Cheney, there may have been little military mistakes made – they’re just not that important.

1:26 And it was apparently a mistake to appoint people principled enough to call him out on his mistakes.

1:27 Ah, the $87 billion. How we’ve missed hearing about it.

1:28 “He wants you kids to pay for it. I wanted us to pay for it.” True that.

1:29 Please don’t screw this up, John.

1:31 Well, no memorable sound bytes in that one for us or for them. And “respected at home and stronger in the world” still makes me groan. But optimism is recommendable.

1:33 Nothing so memorable from Bush’s closing either. Fitting, maybe, for a debate which had fewer “moments” than the two before or, likely, than the last one next week. My immediate reaction is that Bush failed to halt Kerry’s momentum going in. Bush was certainly much, much better than the last time – meaning he wasn’t a train wreck. But Kerry did more to respond to his opponent’s arguments, and to the audience’s questions, than Bush, and did so more effectively. Still, he missed a good share of opportunities – or dropped them half-way. And my last question before signing off would have to be: Right now, walking off the stage, is this the first time in the campaign that Bush is walking into a crowd he couldn’t vet first?