Tuesday, 15 January 2008

On standing above the fray

Tony Blair has described the notion of left- and right-wing politics as 'redundant'. In a speech widely seen as launching his campaign to become the first fully-fledged EU president, the former PM argued that 'Europe is not a question of left or right, but a question of the future or the past, of strength or weakness'. He added: 'It's about today versus yesterday. Less about politics and more about a state of mind; open as opposed to closed.'

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Barack Obama is being hailed as a 'liberal Reagan' who can unite Americans across party lines.  Here's Andrew Sullivan:

What has long been remarkable to me is how this liberal politician fails to alienate conservatives. In fact, many like him a great deal. His calm and reasoned demeanour, his crisp style, his refusal to engage in racial identity politics: these appeal to disaffected Republicans. He is particularly attractive to those on the American right who feel betrayed by the Bush administration's version of conservatism, just as many Democrats felt betrayed by Jimmy Carter's liberalism.

Others are less sanguine about Obama's strategy of standing above the partisan political fray. The Clinton campaign has interpreted his tendency to vote 'present' (rather than 'yes' or 'no') in debates in the Illinois State Senate as a way of sidestepping sensitive political issues and avoiding decisions that might come back to haunt him - in a presidential campaign, for example.

And writing in Dissent about Obama's book The Audacity of Hope, David Greenberg concludes that its 'dominant quality' is 'its caution, its painstaking desire not to offend':

Ideas are mulled, not argued, with a studied thoughtfulness conspicuously on display. Like a metronome, the line of reasoning shifts back and forth between one side of an issue and the other, alternative paragraphs beginning with 'Nevertheless,' 'Still', 'I don't want to exaggerate...', 'The critics have a point...' This diligent recognition of all sides of an argument usually leads Obama to moderate-liberal positions on the issues - most of them thoroughly inoffensive as policy prescriptions. It also locates him a high-minded tradition within Democratic politics, embodied by such men as Adlai Stevenson and Gene McCarthy, that prefers to transcend conflicts rather than win them.

As someone who rejoined the Labour Party when Tony Blair became leader, and who was a consistent if critical supporter of his premiership, I've always found his advocacy of 'big tent' politics rather unsettling. (And of course it's easy to parody those simplistic binary pairings: today not yesterday, forward not back, up not down.) In his approach to foreign policy, where I've been most supportive of him (not a common position, I admit), Blair's actions have belied this apparent belief in finding a compromise between opposing positions, and have instead been marked by passionate conviction allied to a determination to argue his case and persuade others of its rightness. 

I'm not sure yet whether Barack Obama is the same kind of conviction politician, prepared to take a risk and endorse an unpopular position if he passionately believes it's the right thing for the country. I can see the appeal, particularly after 8 years of divisive government, of a presidency that is able to unite people of goodwill in all parties. But as I've said before, I tend to think that 'consensus politics' is a chimera and that conflict, disagreement and persuasion are the essence of an open and democratic political process. 

Like many European liberals and social democrats I've been excited and inspired by Obama's campaign and wish him well. But at this difficult moment, the world needs an American president who has a clear sense of direction and the judgment to make difficult decisions, even if they are unpopular. I hope the remaining months of the campaign show Obama to be that person.

There's more on this from Snarksmith here.

1 comment:

Roland Dodds said...

Obama does not excite me at this moment. I would rather support a candidate that I know will further democracy promotion than one that may very well run from it.

It looks to me like Obama will take his parties nomination, and then he will have to make it clear where he stands on that issue. If he is willing to abandon the Kurds to be slaughtered yet again, I will hold my nose and vote for whatever religious conservative the Republicans are pushing.