Thursday, July 10, 2008

The FISA Affair: The Only Issue (Other Than, I Guess, Public Financing) That Barack Obama Has Truly Flip-Flopped On

Alright, so both the right and lefty blogospheres, along with the usual suspects in the MSM (that's mainstream media for blogophytes), have erupted with this whole Obama-is-tracking-to-right-for-political-expediency business. I have to say, I don't really see what the fuss is about (with one gigantic exception, which I'll explain below). The issues he's been accused of flip-flopping on are:

1. Public financing:

Obama initially elected to respect public financing, which basically translates into accepting taxpayer money (thus the "public" bit) with inherent limits attached to overall spending limits for the campaign. It promises a certain amount of essentially free money to a candidate, as long as said candidate accepts overall limits to spending. Obama, at first, pledged to respect it, if his opponent did.

Only one thing happened along the way: he discovered he was the greatest fundraiser - other than King Leopold - in human history, and what's more, he used slightly more humane ways than ol' Lepo, relying primarily on unheard of enthusiasm from grassroots supporters and slick and efficient use of the internet (one of the co-founders of Facebook, all of 24 years old, was in charge of Obama's website

Look. Let's say, on the one hand, you can have a halo around your head, and $85 million to spend. On the other hand, you can be a normal dude, and have $300 million to spend. Which would you rather be? Which would you rather your President be? Leaders need to be ruthless at times.

Ignoring all that, there's still two more important reasons this doesn't matter. First of all, I don't really understand how accepting taxpayer money is somehow more noble than being financed by largely small donations (less than $250) from grassroots people. Second, it's not like candidates can't be derailed by the infamous 527 groups - those organizations, which because of their official lack of affiliation with a candidate, are not subject to the same regulations as campaigns are. You will recall the extreme effectiveness of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a 527 that ran a vicious ad campaign against John Kerry in 2004, largely filled with lies about Kerry's military record in Vietnam.

So say Obama accepted public money, McCain did too, and some right-wing nutters launch an ad campaign against Obama labelling him a Black Muslim Communist Who Is Secretly Gay But Whose Fake Wife Also Happens To Hate 'Merica. Then what? Obama loses, and holier-than-thou Democrats sit at home. Alone. Again.

2. The war (the one on the left):

So Obama said the other day that he would continue to "refine" his policy on Iraq, particularly after meeting with military commanders on the ground. Obama, as you well know, has promised to end the war in Iraq and withdraw American forces in 16-to-18 months. The punditocracy, predictably, went insane. Dude had to call a second news conference to say exactly the same thing as he did before, but spell it out for the poor sods who constitute the media in the U.S. "Now, kids, do you see what this is? I'm holding an apple. Yeeesss. An apple. A for apple. Gooood. Also, there's a goddamn difference between strategy and tactics, you dipshits. You don't even have to have read Clausewitz to know that."

By the way, just to be clear, this doesn't necessarily mean Obama won't or can't change his position on Iraq later. All it means is that there was nothing in his remarks on that day that should have led anyone to believe Obama is shifting positions on Iraq right now for reasons of political expediency. It was entirely a construct of the idle media, which needs to fill airwaves for 24 hours but now finds with the brutal Barillery primary over that is has nothing to say about anything at all.

3. Secularism:

Obama recently announced that his administration would give money to faith-based groups, reforming but not dismantling George W. Bush's initiatives in this regard. "Lord, Almighty!" people cried. "Whatever will happen to the separation of church and state?" The restrictions that Obama would impose - that churches, synagogues, and mosques allow only secular services, and be subject to complete accountability - are all too easily glossed over. Moreover, critics miss the fact that Obama is putting into work his experience as a community organizer in the rundown South Side of Chicago, where churches playing an integral part in the uplift of various neighborhoods. This is the practical, problem-solving side of Obama - he's not an ideologue, and after eight years of a problem-creating-ideologue, a problem-solving-pragmatist should sound pretty good to most Americans.

4. The FISA bill:

Alright, this is an Obamanition (ha!...God, I've been dying to use that one for about eighteen months, and I finally found the opportunity). Truly, truly disappointing. If you want to read about this in an example of some really excellent blogging, hop over to Glenn Greenwald, who's been hammering away on this issue. The bottomline is that the bill grants immunity to telecom companies who cooperated with the executive branch well after the aftermath of 9/11, and extends the government's legitimate powers to eavesdrop on citizens correspondences. Obama promised during the primaries he would vote against the bill. He voted for it. So there you go. Barack Obama helped institutionalize the government's ability to legitimately and legally peer into the private lives of its citizens, without warning or cause. There's simply no excuse for it.

This whole issues comes at a very interesting time for me personally, because I'm doing some readings on democracy, democratization, and capital-L Liberalism. What's proving so cognitively dissonant for me is the teleological assumptions that are smuggled into many of the arguments. Many believe that democracy or capital-L Liberalism - limits on executive power, checks and balances among different facets of government, freedom from authority, freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, and so on - becomes embedded through what is admittedly a historically contingent set of circumstances (to cite two popular examples: prevalence of diseases in colonies that Europeans were not immune to in the case of Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, and initial land/labor/capital factor endowments in colonies in the case of Engerman and Sokoloff). Built into much of this literature - especially the Political Economy stuff and the formal stuff - is an assumption that once established and sustained, the checks and balances will work like clockwork, and other branches of government and the broader citizenry will work to preclude the aggrandizement of power in one set of hands. I see nothing either theoretically or empirically that should cause such smugness. Actors can be co-opted, citizens can ill-informed, side-payments can be made from rent-seeking behavior, God knows what else.

The point is, the FISA affair is a pretty stark representation - along with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and torture, no doubt - of the tension between these approaches and the assumptions they sneak in to their analysis. Right now, the legislative branch - in opposition hands by the way - has bowed to an already imperial and overstretched executive with a 28 percent approval rating (twenty eight percent!), and ordinary Americans couldn't really give a damn, I don't think.

The way I tend to think about it is fairly consistent with Hayek (and yes, this is the first and last time I will quote Hayek in agreement on this blog...promise), and that is the imperative need to disassociate democracy with liberalism. This is from page 103 of The Constitution of Liberty:
But if it [the word "democracy"] is used strictly to describe a method of government - namely, majority rule - it clearly refers to a problem different from that of liberalism. Liberalism is a doctrine about what the law ought to be, democracy a doctrine about the manner of determining what will be the law.

It really is quite amazing the extent to which this seemingly simple and uncontroversial proposition is completely ignored in the literature. Majorities, after all, can easily pass totalitarian laws, and they seemed to have done so here.

Anyway, back to Obama: he shouldn't have supported the FISA bill. It was weak and pathetic. End of story.


Anonymous said...

There are plenty of signs that his stance on Iraq is moving towards the center. (read a fuller version of his remarks in the first press conference and this March interview with Samantha Power) To dismiss these concerns as simply part of the McCain propaganda campaign is letting him off too easily, but that's exactly what his democratic supporters want to do. In general, the American Left's insistence that Afghanistan is the just and winnable war is pretty puzzling and I suspect is related to the media blackout related to covering it over the last few years. The whole thing reminds me of the history of the early Roman Empire -- everyone was endorsing one foray into Europe over another as a way of gaining cheap political points in Rome. No one actually gave a shit about the Germans they were taking over.

Ahsan said...


I just don't think Obama's position has changed. He's saying what he's *always* been saying. If people are now paying closer attention, then good on them. But anyone paying attention to his words over the last six to twelve months will find nothing new in what he has to say. He has always maintained that the withdrawal of troops remains a steadfast strategic goal, but the precise operationalization of that goal is a tactical matter that will be guided, in part, by counsel from military commanders. Interview after interview, time after time, this is what he has said.

Whether this is a "left" position or a "centrist" position is immaterial, to me anyway. I would simply argue that it is consistent - up to this point, of course. We may very well find that Obama substantively changes his position on Iraq in the coming weeks or months, or we may not. All I know is, those comments did not reflect a meaningful shift in Obama's thinking on Iraq.

By the way, I agree with you on Afghanistan. I certainly think the U.S. political class seems to think that "winning in Afghanistan" (whatever that may entail or require) is a lot easier than it will actually prove to be. They think that it is simply a matter of shifting resources from one theater of war to the other. In many ways, Afghanistan might prove to be harder to pacify, because the organizations that the U.S. would be fighting there have been around for decades doing what they've been doing, as opposed to the insurgents/militias in Iraq who sprung up relatively recently.

bubs said...

As always, I'm going to get straight to the most important issue at hand. Man, does that Glenn Greenwald ramble. As worthy as his writings are, he needs a good editor.

Over Rated said...

The fund raising thing was a no-brainer. Btw, i like the way you described the second press conference!!

Anonymous said...

"Leaders need to be ruthless at times." Yes. But this is not one of those times.

Ahsan said...


Why do you say that? Is it because of the violation of principles ("it's wrong") or because you don't think it's smart strategy (you think it will end up costing him more votes than it will gain him)?

goc said...

Honestly, I think many of the Obama supporters crying hell over the FISA bill are ... well to borrow from McCains campaign ... whining. Don't get me wrong, I do not agree with his position on FISA, probably b/c I am at a high risk for having my phone tapped (assuming it hasn't already). It is a legitimate point of disagreement. And posts like this one offer a balanced analysis of why that anger is legit. However most of those liberal bloggers out there creating a huff and puff about this like its the end of the world need to pull their head out of their asses. Anyone who actually listened to or read Obama's policy points should have known his centrist leanings on most things. Obama claimed to be a new kind of politician, which I think he is living up to. He is showing a ruthless practicality that is going to get things done. But he never said he was going to stop being a politician. I propose his supporters projected their desire for the perfect liberal non-politician politician onto Obama. Muslims hear his middle name and assume hes going to be the savior of everyone facing Islamophobia today. Black people see his blackness assume that he is running for the president of black america first and the USA second. Latte drinking liberals see his ivy league degrees and his bi-racial background and assume that he is going to deliver them a socialist leaning, "color blind" society so they can go to bed feeling less guilty about white privilege. The fact of the matter is that Obama might deliver parts of all that but not all of it all.

And frankly, all those No-FISA-or-bust people need to prioritize. If FISA is really is so important to you, that you are willing to risk 4 years of a McCain presidency (its not fear mongering, look what happened in 2000 and 2004. The US electoral system is fickle and republicans ruthless) I suggest that you get ready to explain yourself. Explain why FISA is so much more important than health care, the environment, education, and foreign wars that you have to beat the dead horse till a republican falls into the white house. You disagree. I get it. Obama has responded. Move on.

Ahsan said...


A few points:

1. I would never support McCain over Obama (I use the term "support" and not "vote for" because I am not an American citizen) simply because of FISA. But ultimately what I think disappoints many of his supporters is that he pledged - no more than a few months ago - to filibuster the bill, and then he changed his mind. And it's not that he changed his mind, it's that he changed his mind for nothing. How many votes does he (or do you) think that he would gain from voting yes on FISA? Not many, I would imagine, certainly not worth alienating the base, giving Hillary-or-nothing supporters more ammo, and the right more evidence for their inevitable flip-flopper smear. The bottom line is that his vote was not just wrong (in my view) on principled grounds, but also stupid on Machiavellian grounds (because he lost more than he gained, again in my estimation).

2. I agree with you on the point that if anyone had paid close attention to what he was saying, then they wouldn't be surprised at a lot of his positions. In that sense, one of Krugman's oft-cited criticisms was valid: that he was a lot more moderate than his supporters thought. Whether that's his fault (it's not, it's his supporters') or even necessarily a bad thing (not really), we can all decide for ourselves.

3. I also agree with you on the "he's a politician, not a saint" bit. *Of course* he's a politician. Dude came from nowhere, and got to the top very quickly. He's very smart, he's very talented, and he's clearly cunning too. Again, this doesn't surprise me (nor you, as your comments attest). If his supporters are disappointed that he's not the savior of humankind, well, then, they should probably lose some of that idealism (naivete?).

goc said...

Ahsan, on point 1):

I din't mean to imply that ppl enraged by the FISA debacle are actually switching their vote (or in our case support) from Obama to McCain. I understand where the disappointment is coming from. And there is a lot of opinions similar to yours that agree with the assessment that this was not a shrewd political switch, particularly for his base. Obviously Obama disagrees with that assessment. His video message made clear that he respects the dissent, but sticks by his decision. The reason I bring up the possibility of a McCain presidency is because of the current free-for-all going on amongst the online Obama base. Non-voters like you and I can analyze the situation from a distance, but the fact is that these liberal bloggers are directly effecting the possible outcome in November. Some could argue that they are merely reacting to Obama, but honestly I think it has by now reached childish levels now. There was a strong response to Obama's announcement, he HEARD them, responded to them directly. "I hear you and I respectfully disagree." Its been almost a month now. These people need to make a practical/adult decision now. Either his FISA vote is unacceptable and they are switching their support (to whomever). Or it is a decision they are deciding to live with, because the longer term goal of seeing a relatively sane person in office in 2009 is bigger than the FISA bill. The current almost complete obsession with literally "whining" about it 24/7 is not only unproductive in terms of putting Obama in office, it is harming his chances. Why is all that energy and anger not being directed to take on the republicans? In my opinion it ties into that idealism projected on Obama, and the revelation that hey he is a politician not a savior has sent them into an anger overdrive which I think has by NOW reached ridiculous proportions.

Ahsan said...

Fair point(s), but I think you overstate the case for the lefty bloggers having much of an impact on the final outcome in November. Think about it: how much is their "whining", as you define it, really going to affect the result of the election? If the netroots/Daily Kos/Huff Po crowd had the power to decide anything, Howard Dean would have been the nominee in '04 and John Kerry would have been the President. Neither happened.

Anonymous said...

GOC: By attacking the liberal bloggers' reaction to his policy on FISA you're attacking a symptom, not a cause. The cause is the brazen pandering to a sort of mythical centrist position (one that ultimately pleases no one) that has been practiced by Democrats in this country since 9/11. It's quite possible that his supporters feel that if they protest enough over the FISA issue he might change his approach and not take a Kerry-like tailspin in November.

goc said...

Ahsan: Considering how far the influence of blogging and internet organizing has reached since 2004, and the fact that organizing over the internet is one of the strengths of the Obama campaign, I think the bloggers definitely play an important enough role to make a difference in Nov. Hell, some even take partial credit (and rightfully I think) for Obama's nomination victory. I definitely think it is a very positive influence, however on this particular issue it has become unproductive by this point.

Anon: "It's quite possible that his supporters feel that if they protest enough over the FISA issue he might change his approach and not take a Kerry-like tailspin in November."
I agree that the strong protest by bloggers is very important. All I am saying is that Obama heard the protest. He responded to it. He respectfully disagreed. He has felt the pinch, particularly in terms of money raising etc. I think the point was made very strongly a couple of weeks ago. By now though, it has lost its productivity. The only reason I am attacking the "symptom" is b/c I see it spiraling into a full blown disease of its own. Democrats need to keep their eye on the prize. And maybe its the cynic in me talking (following paki politics can do that too people) when I say, the prize cannot be Obama in the white house with a completely clean soul. I wish it could be that way, but lets keep it real.