A Talk with Gail Collins on Obama

07/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bob Ostertag Composer, Historian, Journalist, and Professor of Technocultural Studies and Music at UC Davis

"We have to have a talk about Barack Obama," says Gail Collins in her NYT op-ed today. She is directing her comments squarely at people like me:

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... So you're withholding the love. Also possibly the money.

That's me all right. I have vocally advocated that for the month of July Obama supporters who are angry about his FISA cave-in should donate money to Senator Feingold instead of Obama.
Well, Gail, I couldn't agree more that we need to have a talk about Obama, and there is no one I would rather talk with than you, one of my favorite political writers. So let's talk!

You suggest that Obama's more progressive supporters have willfully ignored his call for a new political coalition based on good government and the common ground of rational policy. They have simply had their hands over their ears, have no one to blame but themselves for their current unhappiness.

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?

Certainly there are some who are not prepared to leave their quarantined space in "left field," and who will balk at the compromises necessary to broaden the playing field. But not me.

I am excited about Obama's project of building a new coalition based on finding rational common ground on controversial issues. The question is this: common ground with who?

Common ground with young evangelicals who are more concerned with climate change than homophobia, and think social justice is a bigger deal than partisan politics? Hooray! I have been an early and consistent champion of Obama's outreach to evangelicals (see this post among others). Just last week I was a guest on Air America, defending Obama's evangelical outreach to an audience of skeptical progressives.

Common ground with younger Cuban Americans who are longing to get beyond the politics of their parents? Wonderful!

Common ground with blue collar workers (Reagan Democrats) who are being pushed to the wall by globalization and recession? I'm there!

I know that a new coalition that includes these groups will involve many compromises I will be uncomfortable with, on touchy issues like abortion, guns, and foreign policy. But I am ready for that. In fact, I am so fed up with the politics of the last 30 years I can't wait! How are we going to address something as urgent and massive as climate change if we remain bogged down in the same old fights.

But common ground with the telecommunications lobby? Common ground with the Bush administration? If the answer is yes, then Obama's "common ground" program turns into yet another smokescreen for corporate politics. Not only is it not divisive or disruptive to oppose moves in that direction, Obama supporters who have any sense of commitment to democratic, bottom-up politics must do so or risk finding themselves unwittingly locked inside a Trojan Horse for corporate power.

Look at issue of today's Times, the same issue your column was in. The lead sentence in the lead story on the front page reads:

The Senate gave final approval on Wednesday to a major expansion of the government's surveillance powers, handing President Bush one more victory in a series of hard-fought clashes with Democrats over national security issues...

The story continues:

Even as his political stature has waned, Mr. Bush has managed to maintain his dominance on national security issues in a Democratic-led Congress. He has beat back efforts to cut troops and financing in Iraq, and he has won important victories on issues like interrogation tactics and military tribunals in the fight against terrorism...

Debate over the surveillance law was the one area where Democrats had held firm in opposition... But in the end Mr. Bush won out, as administration officials helped forge a deal between Republican and Democratic leaders that included almost all the major elements the White House wanted.

The issue put Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, in a particularly precarious spot. He had long opposed giving legal immunity to the phone companies that took part in the N.S.A.'s wiretapping program, even threatening a filibuster during his run for the nomination. But on Wednesday, he ended up voting for [the bill}... Mr. Obama's decision last month to reverse course angered some ardent supporters, who organized an Internet drive to influence his vote... Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton... voted against the bill.

Gail, is that really the sort of common ground you heard Obama talking about in the primaries?

And wasn't there a third piece in the Obama appeal: building consensus, smart politics, and... integrity? Obama was often short on specifics of his policies in the primaries. FISA was one of the few points on which he was crystal clear.

"Senator Obama unequivocally opposes giving retroactive immunity to telecommunications... Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill, and strongly urges others to do the same."

Ahem. Forgive me, but caving in to the Bush administration's fear racket and the lobbying power of telecom corporations was not ever, anywhere, part of Obama's shtick.

In your desire to protect Obama, you twist some facts:

Putting some restrictions on the government's ability to wiretap is better than nothing.

You know better than that. The alternative to the legislation was NOT "nothing." The alternative was going back to the wiretapping laws that we have lived under for 30 years.

Gail, you began by saying that people like me wanted to like Obama so much that we ignored what he actually said, but you are on the verge of wanting to like Obama so much that you ignore what he has actually done.