Thursday, July 10, 2008
The Audacity of Listening
New York Times Op-Ed
by Gail Collins
We have to have a talk about Barack Obama.
I know, I know. You’re upset. You think the guy you fell in love with last spring is spending the summer flip-flopping his way to the right. Drifting to the center. Going all moderate on you. So you’re withholding the love. Also possibly the money.
I feel your pain. I just don’t know what candidate you’re talking about.
Think back. Why, exactly, did you prefer Obama over Hillary Clinton in the first place? Their policies were almost identical — except his health care proposal was more conservative. You liked Barack because you thought he could get us past the old brain-dead politics, right? He talked — and talked and talked — about how there were going to be no more red states and blue states, how he was going to bring Americans together, including Republicans and Democrats.
Exactly where did everybody think this gathering was going to take place? Left field? [emphasis added - ed.]
When an extremely intelligent politician tells you over and over and over that he is tired of the take-no-prisoners politics of the last several decades, that he is going to get things done and build a “new consensus,” he is trying to explain that he is all about compromise. Even if he says it in that great Baracky way.
Here’s a helpful story: Once upon a time, there was a woman searching for a guy who was ready to commit. One day, she met an attractive young man.
“My name is Chuck,” he said, grinning an infectious grin. “I’m planning to devote my entire life to saving endangered wildlife in the Antarctic. In five weeks I leave for the South Pole, where I will live alone in a tent, trying to convince the penguins that I am part of their flock. In the meantime, would you like to go out?”
“I have just met the man I’m going to marry,” she told her friends. She had been betrayed by poor listening skills, which skipped right over the South Pole and the tent. Of course, after five weeks of heavy dating, Chuck flew away and was never heard from again.
A year and a half of campaigning and we still haven’t heard Obama’s penguins, either. It’s not his fault that we missed the message — although to be fair, he did make it sound as if getting rid of the “old politics” involved driving out the oil and pharmaceutical lobbyists rather than splitting the difference on federal wiretapping legislation. But if you look at the political fights he’s picked throughout his political career, the main theme is not any ideology. It’s that he hates stupidity. “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war,” he said in 2002 in his big speech against the invasion of Iraq. He did not, you will notice, say he was against unilateral military action or pre-emptive attacks or nation-building. He was antidumb.
Most of the things Obama’s taken heat for saying this summer fall into these two familiar patterns — attempts to find a rational common ground on controversial issues and dumb-avoidance.
On the common-ground front, he’s called for giving more federal money to religious groups that run social programs, but only if the services they offer are secular. People can have guns for hunting and protection, but we should crack down on unscrupulous gun sellers. Putting some restrictions on the government’s ability to wiretap is better than nothing, even though he would rather have gone further.
Dumb-avoidance would include his opposing the gas-tax holiday, backtracking on the anti-Nafta pandering he did during the primary and acknowledging that if one is planning to go all the way to Iraq to talk to the generals, one should actually pay attention to what the generals say.
Touching both bases are Obama’s positions that 1) if people are going to ask him every day why he’s not wearing a flag pin, it’s easier to just wear the pin, for heaven’s sake, and 2) there’s nothing to be gained by getting into a fight over whether the death penalty can be imposed on child rapists.
His decision to ditch public campaign financing, on the other hand, was nothing but a complete, total, purebred flip-flop. If you are a person who feels campaign finance reform is the most important issue facing America right now, you should either vote for John McCain or go home and put a pillow over your head. However, I believe I have met every single person in the country for whom campaign finance reform is the tiptop priority, and their numbers are not legion.
Meanwhile, Obama has made it clear what issues he thinks all this cleverness and compromising are supposed to serve: national health care, a smart energy policy and getting American troops out of Iraq. He has tons of other concerns, but those seem to be the top three. There’s definitely a penguin in there somewhere.