Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Notes on the Better Brownstein Trilogy

Part of what makes Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times an interesting journalist is his inconsistency. Pretty much the smartest of the mainstream journalists, Brownstein is capable of trenchant analysis. But he also puts out more than his share of blandly Broder-esque conventional wisdom.

Today's Brownstein piece in the National Journal is more on the trenchant side because he gives a sharply drawn version of the conventional wisdom concerning the governing styles being projected by the leading Democratic candidates.

Here is Brownstein's analysis of each candidate with my response.

According to Brownstein, John Edwards is adapting a confrontational populism rooted in his experience as a trial lawyer in North Carolina. Campaigning in Iowa, Edwards is now viewing himself as preparing his own life for the "epic fight" with corporate interests that would occur if he were president.

What Edwards doesn't recognize is that the American corporate sector is stronger than the presidency and that his presidency would be wrecked by any confrontation with entrenched corporate interests. If Edwards were elected president, he would find himself opposed by the business lobbies, think tanks, all of the mainstream media, the Republican Party, and much of the Democratic Party. Given his slim chances of succeeding, Edwards would be deserted by most of his friends as well.

Edwards believes that his experience in suing corporations and doctors as a trial lawyer shows that he can defeat the corporate interests as president. But courtroom success is not a good indicator of political success. In courtrooms, the money and prestige of the corporate sector has relatively few outlets other than the quality of their lawyers and sympathy from judges. Those are odds that a talented guy like Edwards can beat on his own. To the contrary, the political sphere provides a full range of opportunities for the corporate sector to employ their tremendous wealth to pursue their interests. The money they pay to lobbyists and think tank personnel; the money they contribute to politicl campaigns, and the money they pay for advertising campaigns all creates a tremendous amount of support for corporate interests in the political process. The presidency alone isn't enough to counter that money and an Edwards presidency would be like the Carter administration in setting progressive interests back for 30 years.

Barack Obama views himself in diametrically opposed terms. Born in Hawaii, initially raised in Indonesia, and forced to straddle racial and cultural boundaries all his life, Barack Obama poses himself as a conciliator who can rise above the bitter partisanship of the last fifteen years.

Obama is running as though he's never heard of the right-wing. He doesn't seem to recognize the extent to which Republicans in Congress don't want to compromise with Democrats like him and can't afford to compromise even if they want to. Congressional Republicans adapted confrontation as a strategy in 1994 with the Contract with American, ramped up their confrontationalism with the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, and responded to their defeats in 2006 by adopting threats to shut down the federal government as their primary political strategy. The more Obama wants to compromise and conciliate the more Congressional Republicans are going to play dirty with him. It's their only chance to win and the only game they know how to play anymore.

The last part of the Brownstein trilogy is Hillary Clinton who is posing herself as someone who has enough moxie to be both a conciliator and a fighter when necessary.

I have a lot of doubts that Hillary's approach is going to work either. The Republicans are that committed to ensuring that the federal government flounders when they're not in control. But I do believe that she will prove most adept at running the federal government in the context of nasty partisanship, perpetual Republican obstructionism, and continually rising pessimism. It's not a matter of what governing style will succeed, it's a matter of who can deal with the overall unworkability of the governing system at this time. In my opinion, Hillary's that person because she can play both offense and defense, because she's adept at working the angles, and because she's got a strong team.

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