Stretching My Faith to the Breaking Point

I'm a progressive voter. That means, for a start, that I'm not well-represented by either of the two major parties, but I'm hell and gone better represented by the Democrats than by the Republicans; I've no illusions about perfect candidates, and I plan to (and want to) stand firmly behind any one of the Democratic candidates in the general election. Being a progressive voter who has decided to support the Democrats also means that I have a vested interest in making sure the Demcratic nominee knows how to successfully communicate ideas and defend him/herself.

Which is why I'm having problems with Obama at the moment.

Despite increasingly frequent charges to the contrary, I don't have it in for Obama. In fact, I have defended him against everything from not wearing a lapel pin to media smear jobs and commended him on everything from sponsoring good legislation to snappy comebacks. There is much to admire about him, and plenty to criticize, just as there is about Clinton and Edwards. Like I said, no illusions about perfect candidates. And though I have made no secret of my support for Edwards, I have spent a good deal of time criticizing and a good deal of time defending all three of the leading Democrats. But I'm having a hard time getting past Obama's communication problem, and his (and his supporters') admonitions to trust him. Have faith; he knows what he's doing.

But let me back up for a moment.

Josh Marshall elucidates the problem in his debate post mortem:

One observation stands out to me from this debate. Hillary can be relentless and like a sledgehammer delivering tendentious but probably effective attacks. But whatever you think of those attacks, Obama isn't very good at defending himself. And that's hard for me to ignore when thinking of him as a general election candidate.

In most of these cases — such as the Reagan issue — I think Obama's remarks have been unobjectionable but ambiguous and certainly susceptible to both misunderstanding and intentional misrepresentation. And if you're going to talk like that — nuance, as we used to say — be able to defend it when people play with your words. And I don't see it.
It is hard to ignore—and it serves no purpose to ignore it when we're trying to find the best candidate to win this thing.

While Josh notes Obama's problems defending himself against Hillary, Edwards hammered him, too; when he went after Obama's "present" votes in the Illinois state legislature, Obama's hommina hommina was painful to watch. Here's the transcript of the relevant section of the debate:

EDWARDS: ...I do think it's important, and I mentioned this about Senator Clinton earlier, to be fair, about Social Security. I do think it's important whether you are willing to take hard positions.

I mean, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are sitting in front of me right know they have to go to the floor of the House every day and vote on hard issues. And they have to vote up or down or not show up to vote -- one of those three choices. What I didn't hear was an explanation for why over 100 times you voted present instead of yes or no when you had a choice to vote up or down.


OBAMA: I'll be happy to answer it. Because in Illinois – in Illinois, oftentimes you vote present in order to indicate that you had problems with a bill that otherwise you might be willing to vote for. And oftentimes you would have a strategy that would help move the thing forward.

Keep in mind, John, I voted for 4,000 bills. And if you want to know whether or not I worked on tough stuff, I passed the first racial...

EDWARDS: I don't question whether you worked on tough stuff.

OBAMA: No, no, no. Hold on a second.

EDWARDS: I don't question whether you worked on tough stuff.

OBAMA: No, no. But you...

EDWARDS: The question is, why would you over 100 times vote present? I mean, every one of us -- every one -- you've criticized Hillary. You've criticized me for our votes.

OBAMA: Right.

EDWARDS: We've cast hundreds and hundreds of votes. What you're criticizing her for, by the way, you've done to us, which is you pick this vote and that vote out of the hundreds that we've cast.



EDWARDS: And what -- all I'm saying is, what's fair is fair. You have every right to defend any vote. You do.

OBAMA: Right.

EDWARDS: And I respect your right to do that on any -- on any substantive issue. It does not make sense to me -- and what if I had just not shown up...

OBAMA: John -- John, Illinois...

EDWARDS: Wait, wait, wait. Wait, let me finish.

OBAMA: Hold on a second.

EDWARDS: What if I had just not shown up to vote on things that really mattered to this country? It would have been safe for me politically. It would have been the careful and cautious thing to do, but I have a responsibility to take a position...

OBAMA: John, you...

EDWARDS: ... even when it has political consequences for me.


OBAMA: You asked for the -- most of these did not have political consequences. This -- most of these were technical problems with a piece of legislation that ended up getting modified.

But let's talk about taking on tough votes. I mean, I am somebody who led on reforming a death penalty system that was broken in Illinois, that nobody thought was good politics, but was the right thing to do.
Eventually, he mananged to recover a bit, but it's flatly not good enough for a one-on-one presidential debate. And it's indicative of that tin ear again: Obama blows by giving a serious answer like the question doesn't even matter, or shouldn't. "Just a strategy in the Illinois legislature. But let's talk about something else." No, let's talk about that—because it's an issue that is of concern to the people who are considering whether to make you their nominee.

Not only does [Obama] hesitate to lead; he also regularly avoids votes on important issues, presumably lest his stand prove unpopular down the line one day in the future and come back to haunt him. (Either that, or he's too busy campaigning to be an effective senator for the state of Illinois—still an indictment of his leadership ability, though a different one.)

To wit—Obama's decidedly unimpressed constituent Paul the Spud compiled this list of recent votes that his senator has missed, in a frustrated email to me:

No vote on SCHIP (Although he did vote to reauthorize before)

No vote on No Confidence for Gonzo (Come on! How easy would that be?)

No vote on Student Loans and grants

No vote on Guantanamo Bay detainees

No vote on the implementation of recommendations of the 9/11 commission

No abortion votes, nothing on stopping the drum beat towards Iran, no vote on the ridiculous Border Fence legislation, no vote on bridge repair funding (!) ...

Remind me again why I should want to vote for this guy?
That's something that deserves an answer, not an impatient glossing-over with an implicit exhortation to trust him; he knows what he's doing.

Susie Madrak notes in her post-debate piece (emphasis hers):

It's still a sad reality of modern politics that black politicians rise through the upper ranks when they're considered "reasonable" and non-threatening. Reason may be the only tool Obama has - and as we've seen with Al Gore and John Kerry, it's almost useless against the Republican attack machine.

I'm not familiar with Obama's statehouse record, I don't know if he's ever been the target of a sustained opposition or media attack. But he sounds downright pissy if anyone dares to criticize him. That doesn't bode well for the general election campaign because (as it did with Gore and Kerry) it translates as an exasperated "I'm so much smarter than you, you'll just have to take my word for it."
"Trust me; take my word for it" is the same response to concerns raised about his supposed strategy to win the presidency by obliquely (or overtly) courting the right, at which point he'll covertly usher in a progressive agenda. Drum addressed the problems with this strategy yesterday:

Obama has clearly chosen his course, and there's really no way for him to give a wink and a nudge to folks like Matt and me to let us know that he's just kidding about all this kumbaya stuff. After all, it's part of his whole appeal to both independents and moderate conservatives, and his candidacy depends on that. So if you're a liberal in Obama's camp, you just have to cross your fingers and trust him.
Supporting a candidate shouldn't have to be a faith-based initiative, but blind faith is exactly what my support of Obama requires. I have to ignore that he voted to confirm Condi Rice as Secretary of State, that his reflexive framing to appeal to moderates alienates progressives, that he endorsed Lieberman, that he supports McCain's immigration plan, that he punted when asked about Pace's bigotry against gays, that he opposes impeachment because he doesn't think Bush has gravely breached his authority (despite claims to the contrary in letters to his constituents), that he has gotten muddled in softball interviews to terrible effect, that he shared a stage with an anti-gay bigot, that he's on the wrong side of the Social Security debate, that he's used sexist attacks (as have his surrogates) against Hillary, that he hasn't been rigorously vetted, that he sloppily invokes ideological opponents despite assertions that he doesn't like their policies, and that he calls for reconciliation without balance. That's a tall order for faith, friends.

And there's something else, tangentially related, that undermines my faith. Obama positions himself as transcending the ugliness of partisanship, but I like knowing that Edwards and Hillary hate the goddamned Republicans as much as I do. I love it when Edwards gets into his zone and talks about corporate greed with fury at the anti-American fatcats seething so clearly just below the surface. I love it when Hils talks about the GOP through gritted teeth and hides a snarl behind a smile when the name Bush passes her lips. I trust that. And I trust it because I can't imagine anyone who believes the things I do isn't that. fucking. angry. at the Republicans at this point. I want to see that anger. I want to feel it. I want to recognize and connect with it.

I want to see Obama at least as angry about Bush as he is about being questioned on his own voting record.

The ostensibly transcendent, politics-of-hope stuff is good, but I believe you can be optimistic and angry. My faith is pretty much built around exactly that.

I want evidence that Obama is the guy I keep hearing he is.

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