Do NOT run from the liberal label!

Barack Obama is starting to concern me. He seems to be running from “liberal” label.

I’ve written before about how critical I think it is that liberals and progressives rescue the term “liberal”. It’s a first step toward re-legitimizing the entire liberal worldview.

I didn’t see the debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton last night, but from a transcript, apparently this exchange took place:

WILLIAMS: We are back from Cleveland State University. We continue with our debate.

The question beginning this segment is for you, Senator Obama.

The National Journal rates your voting record as more liberal than that of Ted Kennedy.

In a general election, going up against a Republican Party, looking for converts, Republicans, independents, how can you run with a more liberal voting record than Ted Kennedy?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, let’s take a look at what the National Journal rated us on.

It turned out that Senator Clinton and I had differences on two votes. The first was on an immigration issue, where the question was whether guest workers could come here, work for two years, go back for a year, and then come back and work for another two years, which meant essentially that you were going to have illegal immigrants for a year, because they wouldn’t go back, and I thought it was bad policy.

The second — and this, I think, is telling in terms of how silly these ratings are — I supported an office of public integrity, an independent office that would be able to monitor ethics investigations in the Senate, because I thought it was important for the public to know that if there were any ethical violations in the Senate, that they weren’t being investigated by the Senators themselves, but there was somebody independent who would do it.

This is something that I’ve tried to push as part of my ethics package.

OBAMA: It was rejected. And according to the National Journal, that position is a liberal position.

Now, I don’t think that’s a liberal position. I think there are a lot of Republicans and a lot of Independents who would like to make sure that ethic investigations are not conducted by the people who are potentially being investigated. So the categories don’t make sense.

And part of the reason I think a lot of people have been puzzled, why is it that Senator Obama’s campaign, the supposed liberal, is attracting more Independent votes than any other candidate in the Democratic primary, and Republican votes as well, and then people are scratching their head? It’s because people don’t want to go back to those old categories of what’s liberal and what’s conservative.

They want to see who is making sense, who’s fighting for them, who’s going to go after the special interests, who is going to champion the issues of health care and making college affordable, and making sure that we have a foreign policy that makes sense? That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s why, you know, the proof is in the pudding. We’ve been attracting more Independent and Republican support than anybody else, and that’s why every poll shows that right now I beat John McCain in a match-up in the general election.

Okay, I’ve heard bad things about the National Journal rankings, so there’s no problem in criticizing those. But why not just stand up to the blatant demonization of the word “liberal”? Fight the premise of the entire question instead of quibbling about details! Or how about fight the premise, and then basically attach all of those issues (universal health care, sensible foreign policy) to the word “liberal”?!

I think Obama has done a better job of deflecting this kind of before, as with the recent flap over his patriotism. Maybe his game was just off. Or maybe he decided – for whatever reason – the the “heartland” of Ohio wasn’t the place to take a stand. Or maybe more ground work needs to be done to legitimate the word “liberal” before a national contender can use the label. I can see the rationale for that argument, even if I don’t like it.

But I also want to say that I’m starting to see a worrisome pattern, if this report from MSNBC is accurate:

AUSTIN, Texas — In the shadow of the state capitol that provided the United States with one of the most conservative presidents in recent history, Obama last night railed against the charge that being “liberal” was a bad thing.

“Oh, he’s liberal,” he said. “He’s liberal. Let me tell you something. There’s nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics that is common sense. There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home.”

Continuing on his riff: “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure that everybody has healthcare, but we are spending more on healthcare in this country than any other advanced country. We got more uninsured. There’s nothing liberal about saying that doesn’t make sense, and we should so something smarter with our health care system. Don’t let them run that okie doke on you!”

Umm…huh? So, he’s definitely not liberal. I guess. Maybe I’ve just had the okie doke run on me. Sheesh. Look at this from the opposite perspective. I don’t exactly see John McCain running from the conservative label, even though his own party hates him and the conservative movement’s policies have proven disastrous. Chris Bowers at and Eric Alterman at Media Matters have also weighed in on this.

It appears we have a long way to go in creating cultural space for liberalism in our political discourse.

On a more hopeful tone for the long-term prospects of liberalism, I found this article at the Nation on transformational vs. transactional politics to be a great read.

On the Great Lakes beat

Check out this great post over at on the changing political complexion of Illinois.

I hate to criticize, but…

I think one of our prominent national liberal bloggers has it wrong. Well, slightly wrong.

I’ve been mulling the whole kerfuffle over Barack Obama’s “patriotism problem” for a couple of days. An AP article by Nedra Pickler jump-started much of this. Since then, the liberal blogosphere has lit up – quite rightly and more quickly than I have – at how stupid these attacks are and how quickly and uncritically the mainstream media pick them up. Glenn Greenwald has an excellent post here, and Jane Hamsher has another excellent one here.

However, I want to point out one thing Jane Hamsher says in that same post:

It’s incredible that a news source which purports to be legitimate would embrace and perpetuate this kind of stuff; common sense dictates that it should stay where it was birthed, in the right wing sewer.

I imagine many other liberals share this take on things, but speaking from my perspective in the Midwest, there’s nothing “common sense” about it.

The threat from this kind of “patriotism attack” is real to many progressives who don’t live in parts of the country where responses like this one are easily accepted:

(The blogger is responding a photo included in his post that carries a caption that says Obama’s lack of patriotism might be “exposed”.) Exposed as what exactly? Not wearing a flag pen is to be “exposed” for not adhering to the Fox News/Republican Party-version of patriotism, which means meaningless gestures like wearing a lapel pin are far more important than words and deeds?

I totally agree with this statement, but you see, these are not considered “meaningless gestures” in many parts of the country. Instead, it’s considered a noble act to publicly proclaim your patriotism in this way. It’s like that “Jesus fish” that some people put on their cars.

From my perspective, progressives have to stop being so dismissive of these attacks and treat them for the serious problem that they represent. It’s just one of many issues for which progressives need to develop better “comebacks” than simple derision. Some of those are:

  • Liberals are weak on national security.
  • Liberals seem to want the U.S. to fail in Iraq now that we’re there.
  • Liberals just want to take my money and give it to undeserving people.
  • Liberals just tax and spend.
  • Liberals are anti-religion.

There are others. And yes, they all line up neatly with conservative talking points. Let’s face it. Those conservative talking points work! They work in kitchen table conversations, in churches, in workplaces, in bars. They work in the real world where ordinary people are living their lives and don’t have a lot of time, energy, or inclination (let’s be honest) to think through how wacko the conservative movement is and how badly it serves them, their families, their nation, and the world.

There’s a gap in the communication efforts of the progressive movement. Elite discourse is fine. Web-based stuff is great, too. But the movement needs to find ways to arm its supporters – and people who would support it – with simple, clear, compelling arguments that help them defend themselves in the real world of their working and family lives. We need to win more of the kitchen-table conversations. And a first step toward that is by treating these kinds of attacks like the “patriotism problem” seriously.

Now, it seems that Barack Obama did a reasonable job of defending himself in this case. Here a couple of quotes from a CNN article:

Asked how he would fight the image of being unpatriotic, Obama said, “There’s always some nonsense going on in general elections. Right? If it wasn’t this, it would be something else. If you recall, first it was my name. Right? That was a problem. And then there was the Muslim e-mail thing and that hasn’t worked out so well, and now it’s the patriotism thing.

“The way I will respond to it is with the truth: that I owe everything I am to this country,” he said.


About not wearing an American flag lapel pin, Obama said Republicans have no lock on patriotism.

“A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans’ benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary?

“That is a debate I am very happy to have. We’ll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism.”

I thought this second one was better. Turn it around on the conservatives and give it back as good as they give it.

But perhaps most importantly about this, he did it without fear. Glenn Greenwald makes this point, too. Obama didn’t run cravenly from accusations that he wasn’t patriotic and start plastering flags on himself and everywhere. He simply came back with an explanation and turnaround – plain and strong.

Now just to be fair, let me say that Jane Hamsher also laid out a plan of attack and developed a way to stick it back to the mainstream media. I just want to make the point that we need to realize that the progressive movement’s communications need go beyond elite Washington and media discourse and beyond the Internet.

P.S. I voted for Barack Obama, but I’m not trying to shill for him. I think he also totally blew it in Texas with his defenseof the liberal label. More on that in another post.

More on guns

Following up on some earlier thoughts about guns, I found a couple of opinion pieces in the local paper, the “Peoria Journal Star“.

First, a piece on the lack of devastation wrought by Michigan passing a carry-concealed-weapons law a few years ago. I consider it mark of liberalism and the progressive movement to be “reality-based”. In other words, check our beliefs against the evidence provided in the world. We might still come back with our original beliefs intact, but they have to stand up to – and answer to – a certain amount of scrutiny. This is one of those cases.

Second, there is – as I mentioned before – that little Constitutional issue. Leonard Pitts has a good piece (but I didn’t see it on the PJS web site) on the realities of our current Constitutional situation and American culture.

Great Lakes state of mind

Another wrap-up of Great Lakes regional issues and news…

Great Lakes liberalism

E.J. Dionne has a nice column about how Senators Clinton and Obama seem to following in the footsteps of the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. We could all follow his example.

War profiteering comes to the Great Lakes

Kudos to the “Chicago Tribune”.

Make way for two-tier labor

So Detroit’s automakers will finally get their lower labor costs. Okay, now it’s time for them to put up or shut up. I covered the auto industry for seven years. It’s the knee-jerk response of most auto journalists, pundits, and analysts to blame the unions for the precarious state of the U.S. auto industry. It’s true that the U.S. automakers have higher labor costs. However, it’s also true that managers at the automakers had to agree to every contract that raised those costs. It’s also true that no one in the union actually tells the design and engineering folks at U.S. automakers to make boring and uncompetitive cars. That one rests at the feet of management, and most of the financial trouble of the U.S. automakers is their decades long inability to design vehicles that people actually want to buy in comparison to their overseas competitors. So now they have lower labor costs. Will we actually start seeing competitive automobiles?

Speaking of Michigan

The Great Lakes state has the basket case economy of the region. Here’s one proposal to make it strong again. During those seven years covering the auto industry, I also followed the larger economy in Michigan. These proposals have been floating around for years. Will Michigan find a way to turn it around? I’m not so sure. The Northeast used to be the manufacturing capital of the nation, but what are big chunks of it known for now? The leaves turning color – a portrait of Michigan’s future if it doesn’t stop talking and get moving.

And as for our industrial heritage…

We’re going to be living with it for a long time, thanks to industrial waste, even if we don’t turn our manufacturing economy around.

And lastly, the Great Lakes are going wild

Look out for the cats.

That is all.

An embarassment of riches

Well, maybe it’s fair to say that I’m clearing out a backlog. I’ve found a number of things in the last few days, but I haven’t had a chance to post them. I’ll get through some today, and more in the next few days.

Liberal morals and story

Following up on my comments about the importance of story, I’ve just cracked open the book “Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People”. It’s starting out well, and I’ll talk more about it in the future, but in the meantime, here’s a review.

Along the same line, here’s a post that lays out how thinking about values and communication is helping Barack Obama.

Conservative fear-mongering

Glenn Greenwald over at Salon nails it, as usual, on conservatives’ use of fear-mongering to drive debate and implement policies that serve their interests. What I find so strange about this effort by conservatives to greatly expand unchecked executive spying power is how antithetical it should be to conservatives. Old-line conservatives used to advocate for individual rights, including the right not to have the government looking over your shoulder – unless it has a damn good reason to, as expressed through a court-granted warrant. Every once and awhile, I see some supposedly conservative commentator decry the folks pushing for this kind of authority as “big-government” conservatives. Why did I say “supposedly” conservative commentator? Well, I have a word to describe people who oppose these “big government” conservatives: liberals. We’re fighting the good fight.

Foreign policy – the good with the bad

Mixed news from Iraq – both together from NPR here. So, Turkey invades Iraq – bad – but Sadr decides to play it cool for a few more months – good. The conservatives should be thanking their lucky stars that Sadr has decided to keep helping the “surge” be a big success.

On economics

More from NPR. Big chunks of the edifice of traditional economics are based on the assumption that people act in their rational self-interest. Well, you know what they say about assuming something. Behavioral economics is a fascinating area that should have big implications for how we debate and design economic policies.

On campaign finance

Oh, heck, I can’t stop myself, more NPR! Here’s a great overview of the current state of money in politics. That’s it for NPR for today. I swear.

On guns

Having grown up in the Great Lakes region, I know that gun rights is a big deal. Progressive candidates around here simply can’t – and likely won’t share – the repulsion to guns that progressives in other parts of the country might have. That said, that doesn’t mean that the National Rifle Association is the only game in town. Check out this post from Daily Kos about a gunowners group called the American Hunters and Shooters Association. I don’t know much about them, but I hadn’t heard of them before.

As for me and guns, I don’t “like” them, but there is that tiny, little problem of the Second Amendment. If progressives nationally want to change the current interpretation of the Second Amendment, in my opinion, they should get busy using the legislative process outlined in the Constitution to change it – a longshot, for sure. Also, I would need to see more evidence about how and why gun violence actually occurs.

More to come

I have plenty more, but that’s all I can get to today. Have a great weekend!

The power of story

If you’re interested in the future of the progressive movement, I would urge you to check out this article from Paul Waldman over at the “American Prospect”.

He analyzes the success of Barack Obama so far and finds the key in Obama’s ability craft a compelling story about why he should be the next president of the United States. He also analyzes Hillary Clinton’s failure to do the same thing.

Story is critical. Story works. A good story cuts through the clutter, clarifies, and compels people to action.

And liberals have been sorely lacking for story for a long time.

You might or might not agree with Barack Obama’s story. That’s fine. But coming up with a story – a narrative – is a critical project for the progressive movement.

The conservative movement has its own basic story (“The nation was nearly destroyed by the decadent, permissive, radical 1960’s and 70’s, until Ronald Reagan led us to a new greatness, etc., etc.), and it’s ridden that story to great success for a long time. And it’s widely accepted. Scratch a conservative, and you’ll quickly get some version of this story awfully quickly.

What would a liberal or progressive say his or her story is?

I’m not quite sure yet. I recently finished Paul Krugman’s “Conscience of a Liberal”, and he presents one version. I’ll get to that in a separate post.

I’ll says this, though, whatever story the progressive movement comes up with, it’s got to tie into some basic values. It has to reflect the moral outlook of the progressive movement, too. I’ve done some writing about that on this blog, and I’m still looking into other sources. Right now, I’m reading “Framing the Future” by Bernie Horn. More on that in a different post.

By the way, if you want to read more by Paul Waldman, I highly recommend his book “Being Right Is Not Enough.”