Friday, February 22, 2008

Obama Substance

Obsidian Wings
by hilzoy

I, too, endorse Obama for President, to no one's surprise. Since Katherine has already written a lot of what I would have wanted to say about his rhetoric, and since I've already talked about one of my most important reasons for supporting him, namely the fact that he got Iraq right from the outset, I'll say something about the peculiar idea that Barack Obama is all style and no substance.

I came to Obama by an unusual route: as I explained here, I follow some issues pretty closely, and over and over again, Barack Obama kept popping up, doing really good substantive things. There he was, working for nuclear non-proliferation and securing loose stockpiles of conventional weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles. There he was again, passing what the Washington Post called "the strongest ethics legislation to emerge from Congress yet" -- though not as strong as Obama would have liked. Look -- he's over there, passing a bill that created a searchable database of recipients of federal contracts and grants, proposing legislation on avian flu back when most people hadn't even heard of it, working to make sure that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were screened for traumatic brain injury and to prevent homelessness among veterans, successfully fighting a proposal by the VA to reexamine all PTSD cases in which full benefits had been awarded, working to ban no-bid contracts in Katrina reconstruction, and introducing legislation to criminalize deceptive political tactics and voter intimidation. And there he was again, introducing a tech plan of which Lawrence Lessig wrote:

"Obama has committed himself to a technology policy for government that could radically change how government works. The small part of that is simple efficiency -- the appointment with broad power of a CTO for the government, making the insanely backwards technology systems of government actually work.

But the big part of this is a commitment to making data about the government (as well as government data) publicly available in standard machine readable formats. The promise isn't just the naive promise that government websites will work better and reveal more. It is the really powerful promise to feed the data necessary for the Sunlights and the Maplights of the world to make government work better. Atomize (or RSS-ify) government data (votes, contributions, Members of Congress's calendars) and you enable the rest of us to make clear the economy of influence that is Washington.

After the debacle that is the last 7 years, the duty is upon the Democrats to be something different. I've been wildly critical of their sameness (remember "Dems to the Net: Go to hell" which earned me lots of friends in the Democratic party). I would give my left arm to be able to celebrate their difference. This man, Mr. Obama, would be that difference. He has as much support as I can give."

Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard people saying that Obama wasn't "substantive". It was exactly like my experience in 2004 when, after hearing Wes Clark for the first time, I went and looked up his positions on a whole host of issues of concern to me, and only then started reading media accounts of him in which I "learned" that no one knew what his positions were.

As some of my students would say: I was like, wtf?

I was also surprised ...

... by the number of people who said: well, all this bipartisanship stuff sounds very nice, but how do we know it actually works? Isn't this just happy talk that will evaporate in the face of reality? Or, alternately: doesn't this sort of thing involve selling our souls to our supposed partners in compromise? Curiously, Obama has an actual legislative record, and so it is possible for us to see both how he approaches bipartisan cooperation and what results it yields. And it turns out that Obama does achieve results by working with Republicans, and doesn't tend to compromise on core principles.

Last year, I considered some of his bipartisan initiatives in the Senate -- notably on nonproliferation and ethics reform -- and concluded that what Obama actually does has nothing to do with the sort of bipartisanship that people rightly object to:

"According to me, bad bipartisanship is the kind practiced by Joe Lieberman. Bad bipartisans are so eager to establish credentials for moderation and reasonableness that they go out of their way to criticize their (supposed) ideological allies and praise their (supposed) opponents. They also compromise on principle, and when their opponents don't reciprocate, they compromise some more, until over time their positions become indistinguishable from those on the other side.

This isn't what Obama does. Obama tries to find people, both Democrats and Republicans, who actually care about a particular issue enough to try to get the policy right, and then he works with them. This does not involve compromising on principle. It does, however, involve preferring getting legislation passed to having a spectacular battle. (This is especially true when one is in the minority party, especially in this Senate: the chances that Obama's bills will actually become law increase dramatically when he has Republican co-sponsors.)"

Consider a different example:

"Consider a bill into which Obama clearly put his heart and soul. The problem he wanted to address was that too many confessions, rather than being voluntary, were coerced -- by beating the daylights out of the accused.

Obama proposed requiring that interrogations and confessions be videotaped.

This seemed likely to stop the beatings, but the bill itself aroused immediate opposition. There were Republicans who were automatically tough on crime and Democrats who feared being thought soft on crime. There were death penalty abolitionists, some of whom worried that Obama's bill, by preventing the execution of innocents, would deprive them of their best argument. Vigorous opposition came from the police, too many of whom had become accustomed to using muscle to "solve" crimes. And the incoming governor, Rod Blagojevich, announced that he was against it.

Obama had his work cut out for him.

He responded with an all-out campaign of cajolery. It had not been easy for a Harvard man to become a regular guy to his colleagues. Obama had managed to do so by playing basketball and poker with them and, most of all, by listening to their concerns. Even Republicans came to respect him. One Republican state senator, Kirk Dillard, has said that "Barack had a way both intellectually and in demeanor that defused skeptics."

The police proved to be Obama's toughest opponent. Legislators tend to quail when cops say things like, "This means we won't be able to protect your children." The police tried to limit the videotaping to confessions, but Obama, knowing that the beatings were most likely to occur during questioning, fought -- successfully -- to keep interrogations included in the required videotaping.

By showing officers that he shared many of their concerns, even going so far as to help pass other legislation they wanted, he was able to quiet the fears of many.

Obama proved persuasive enough that the bill passed both houses of the legislature, the Senate by an incredible 35 to 0. Then he talked Blagojevich into signing the bill, making Illinois the first state to require such videotaping."

Getting legislation like this passed is a real achievement. Getting it passed unanimously is nothing short of astonishing. Mark Kleiman, who knows this stuff extremely well, put it best:

"1. Obama was completely right, and on an issue directly relevant to the more recent debates about torture. Taping interrogations is an issue that really only has one legitimate side, since there's no reason to think it prevents any true confessions, while it certainly prevents false confessions (over and above the legal and moral reasons for disapproving of police use of "enhanced interrogation methods").

2. Pursuing it had very little political payoff, as evidenced by the fact that Obama has not (as far as I know) so much as mentioned this on the campaign. Standing up for the rights of accused criminals in a contemporary American legislature requires brass balls.

3. Getting it through required both courage and skill. The notion that Obama is "too nice" to get things done can hardly survive this story: he won't face tougher or less scrupulous political opponents than the self-proclaimed forces of law and order. Yes, in this case the change was helpful to the cause of crime control, since every innocent person imprisoned displaces a guilty person. But that didn't make the politics of it any easier."


Similarly, people often wonder whether Obama's call for a new kind of politics is just empty words. Here again, I think he has a real record to point to. He has consistently worked for ethics reform. In Illinois, where he helped pass what the WaPo called "the most ambitious campaign reform in nearly 25 years, making Illinois one of the best in the nation on campaign finance disclosure." In the US Senate, he was the Democrats' point man on ethics, and was deeply involved in the ethics legislation passed this year. He didn't get all he wanted -- for instance, he and Russ Feingold couldn't get a bill establishing an Office of Public Integrity to deal with Congressional scandals. But he accomplished a lot, and wants to accomplish more.

Moreover, he is very interested in open government. The searchable database of government grant and contract recipients that I mentioned above is part of that. But Obama's proposals (pdf) go further. For instance, consider these proposals:

* Centralize Ethics and Lobbying Information for Voters: Obama will create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format.

* Create a Public “Contracts and Influence” Database: As president, Obama will create a "contracts and influence" database that will disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them.

* Expose Special Interest Tax Breaks to Public Scrutiny: Barack Obama will ensure that any tax breaks for corporate recipients — or tax earmarks — are also publicly available on the Internet in an easily searchable format.

* End Abuse of No-Bid Contracts: Barack Obama will end abuse of no-bid contracts by requiring that nearly all contract orders over $25,000 be competitively awarded.

* Sunlight Before Signing: Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.

* Make White House Communications Public: Obama will amend executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public.

* Conduct Regulatory Agency Business in Public: Obama will require his appointees who lead the executive branch departments and rulemaking agencies to conduct the significant business of the agency in public, so that any citizen can see in person or watch on the Internet these debates.

These are all proposals designed to allow public scrutiny of the business of government. As I read it, one of Obama's goals in introducing them is to permanently alter the incentives politicians have. As long as legislators did not have to disclose their earmarks, there was no way of finding out that the person who stuck a favor for an obscure casino in one state into an appropriations bill was from another state entirely. There was therefore no way for that person's constituents to wonder why s/he was expending political capital on people outside the district, and no way for reporters to see just who was doing that casino favors. Once legislators have to own up to their earmarks, however, that changes. It won't make abuse go away, of course, but it does make it a lot easier for people to notice and object to the fact that their representatives are doing inexplicable favors for people they have no obvious reason for caring about.

Likewise, if all bills had to be posted to the internet five days before they were voted on signed (oops), it would be much, much more difficult for Congress to sneak some appalling provision through in the dead of night. If all contracts over $25,000 had to be competitively bid, certain sorts of corruption would be a lot more difficult to carry out. And if there were a database of tax breaks and tax earmarks, not to mention a database of lobbyists, it would, again, be much, much easier to track who was doing favors for whom, and why. (And I haven't even started on Obama's proposals (pdf, p. 5) to strengthen FOIA: "Barack Obama would restore the tradition of free information by issuing an Executive Order that information should be released unless an agency reasonably foresees harm to a protected interest.")

I think of these proposals, collectively, as a means of empowering journalists, bloggers, and random citizens to discover corruption and the abuse of power, and to bring the power of shame to bear on politicians who practice it. This clearly isn't all that Obama means when he talks about changing the way politics is practiced in this country. But it's part of it. And I think it's pretty powerful.


I sometimes wonder why, exactly, people go on saying all this stuff about Obama lacking substance. Sometimes, I suspect it's just laziness, as in the case of this dKos story in which mcjoan, who is usually much better than this, lists a whole lot of questions she wishes the candidates would answer, apparently unaware that Obama (and, for all I know, Clinton), has already answered most of them. I suspect, though, that part of it might be the assumption that idealism is necessarily woolly and misty-eyed and all about singing Kumbaya, while realism is necessarily cynical and disillusioned.

I have never believed this. There are certainly hard-bitten, cynical people who don't think particularly clearly about the world (Dick Cheney leaps to mind.) More to the point, I can't see any reason why there shouldn't also be people who are both genuinely idealistic and hardheaded at the same time. I suspect Obama is one of them. I do not for a moment imagine that he is perfect. (Cough, clean coal technology, cough cough.) But I do think that he's one of the best candidates I can remember, and that's good enough for me.

& Andrew Sullivan 2.20.2008

& Charles Peters WaPo 1.4.2008

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