The Effective Skeptic: How to Use Your Skepticism to Advance a Progressive Agenda

Kate Harding wrote a brilliant post below, and you should go read it -- especially if you support Obama for the Democratic nomination, as I do.

I'll warn you, if you're a hardcore Obamaphile, you're likely to recoil, as Kate doesn't cut Barack any slack. But that's her point, and it's a good one to internalize right now, before anyone's nominated, before anyone's sworn in, before anyone's making any decisions: Barack Obama is not perfect.

Indeed, he's far from perfect. His health care plan is mediocre at best. His support for GLBTQ issues is half-hearted. He has a decent record on choice, but some of his statements have been less than heartening. In short, as Kate said eloquently, Barack Obama isn't progressive.

Kate's post is a call for skepticism, about Obama specifically, but broadly, about Your Candidate -- be it Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ralph Nader, John McCain, or Alan Keyes. This is an important call to skepticism, and one that those of us who identify as progressives should take to heart. Because whether our party's nominee is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, we need to recognize now that we will need to hold their feet to the fire from time to time. But choosing the right times and the right fires is important.

One of the keys as we move forward toward, hopefully, a Democratic win in November is that we push our candidate in the right direction. That means that it's important to attack them using progressive issues. This is something neither side has done consistently, and it is why both Democratic candidates have felt safe tacking rightward.

When Obamaphiles attack Clinton for being "too ambitious" or "power-hungry" or "too emotional," we're buying into the right-wing attacks on Clinton. (We're also buying into misogynistic attacks.) Using those right-wing memes to hit Clinton doesn't just hurt Clinton -- it hurts the Democrats as a whole, because it fits into the right-wing claims that Democrats just want to take over the government so they can steal your children, and fits into the myth that women are too emotional to lead, unlike, say, John McNasty.

When Clintonites rip Obama for being "elitist" or "out of touch," or attack Obama's church for being "angry," they're buying into the right-wing attacks on Obama, and the Democratic party
as a whole. They're saying, on the one hand, that Obama (like history's greatest monster, John Kerry) thinks he's too good for "real Americans," and on the other, that African Americans are still kinda scary, especially African American politicians.

Using right-wing memes to attack our less-favored candidates will inevitably backfire. Clinton, it has been argued, decided to support the Iraq war in part because she knew that a woman who opposed it would be painted as soft and weak. Obama has tried to soften and soften his opposition to everything, because he doesn't want to be viewed as the wrong sort of African American politician. And neither candidate is crazy -- say what you will about Clinton's vote for the war, but it's unquestionable that she'd be portrayed as a cross between Neville Chamberlain and Benedict Arnold if she'd voted against it. Say what you will about Obama crossing the aisle too damn much, but if he starts raising his voice and drawing lines in the sand, he'll be branded as the next Al Sharpton before you can blink.

No, if we are to use our skepticism to advance progressive causes, we must make sure that we are attacking from the right direction. That means that if you value GLBTQ rights, by all means, hit Obama for Donnie McClurkin and for his wishy-washy attitude and his craptacular Advocate interview. If you oppose the war, by all means, call on Clinton to firmly and fully repudiate her vote on the war, and pledge to support a new type of foreign policy, one that is not shoot first, ask questions later.

Push Obama on choice. Remind him that there are women who are grateful they had the right to legal abortion, and that saying nobody likes abortion is like saying nobody likes heart transplants. Push Clinton on race, and call her to account for her campaign's attempts to brand Obama as "the black candidate," a ridiculous assertion on its face. Assail Obama on his health care plan. Complain to Hillary about her hesitation at repealing DOMA* unwillingness to commit to full troop withdrawal -- and do the same for Obama. Denounce Obama's willingness to play with soft misogyny. Denounce Clinton's willingness to play with soft racism.

By all means, recognize that both candidates have failings, and push them to correct them, especially if they are the candidate you support. But make sure that you're doing it for the right reasons, and with the right goals in mind. If we push Obama or Clinton to the left, they will move to the left. But if we push them to the right -- if we attack them as elitist, soft, emotional, out-of-touch -- if we do that, they will move to the right. And that is not the direction we want them to go.

But push them. Push them. Push them. Should Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton take the oath of office in January, they will be President of the United States, and on many issues, we may agree with them. But we are not their subordinates. They work for us. And as progressives, we need to recognize that the issues we support are bigger than the candidates. We may have to compromise sometimes, to vote for an imperfect candidate. But that doesn't mean we have to pretend that imperfect candidate is really perfect. That way lies madness, or the Bush administration. But I repeat myself.

*Corrected, as Clinton does say she wants to keep DOMA on the books strategically.

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