Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Obama Comes to Kansas

Perhaps in more ways than one.

Senator Barack Obama's visit yesterday to El Dorado, KS, yesterday was historic. I don't mean historic in some sort of overtly, teary-eyed "meaningful" way; I mean it's simply an event out of the whole sweep of history that deserves notice. The evolution of our political system, and Kansas's politics as well, has resulted in a state of affairs that has made Kansas, as a state, as a sovereign and component part of the patchwork that is the United States of America, mostly irrelevant in the rarefied world of presidential politics, or at least presidential campaigns. The last time a president or presidential candidate visited anywhere in Kansas during an election season was 44 years ago, when Lyndon B. Johnson dropped by to say hello. There are probably more than a few other states that have gone through a similar drought, but none others, I think, that have come down so far from what was, at one time, a vitally important and radically unpredictable place in our national politics. So for Senator Obama to make a stopover here--and not just a stopover, but a genuine rally, complete the requisite inspiring speech and local connections--is one that'll go down...well, if not in the annals of presidential campaigning, then at least in some record book the Kansas Democratic party is no doubt keeping somewhere.

And not just an official record book of some sort, now that I think about it: it's probably recorded in a few hundred personal journals or Facebooks or blogs as well. John Buass, one of my favorite Kansas (indeed, Wichita) bloggers was there; I can't wait to read his reactions.

As for me...well, I'm divided. The Obama magic that so many people talk about hasn't quite happened for me; he's a fine speaker, sure, but I'm not captivated by his persona or packaging. As for his message, it's the usual mixed bag: some stuff I love, some stuff I like, some stuff I roll my eyes at and think is simply nonsense, and a couple of things that I'm profoundly opposed to. But that's not an unusual reaction, at least for me--when you've a crazy, not always coherent, populist/traditionalist/Christian socialist like I am, you're never going to find anyone in representative politics who isn't a mixed bag at best, whether on the local or national level. And after all, I've never before been a particularly strategic voter (this is the man who voted for Nader twice, remember); for me, it's always primarily--though not entirely--been about self-expression, or rather about expressing oneself collectively through a movement behind an idea or cause or a constellation of such. You're not going to like every and all parts of that constellation, and you're going to have dissents from and disagreements with parts of that idea or cause (or candidate); but that shouldn't stop you, if the magic strikes, from throwing yourself in and being heard, even if it's only by a few. For me, thus far this season, the only candidate who has seemed for me at least to have any of that magic--any of that odd alchemical combination of views and intentions that make me seem him or her as a thinker, as someone at least somewhat plugged into the real crises and opportunities that face us as a people--is Mike Huckabee. Which is certainly unexpected, at least for me; I've never before, when it all gets put together, seen a Republican candidate for president I've truly thought worth supporting, either intellectually or with my vote (as I've said several times, in my perfect world a slightly different--more culturally conservative, less single-minded--John Edwards would be leading the Democratic pack). Still, there it is: the admittedly imperfect Mike Huckabee does indeed manage, as Patrick Deneen almost ruefully admits, to occasionally say things and take positions that radical reactionaries and crunchy cons and all the rest of us "left conservatives" (all eight of us) cannot help but leap out of our chairs and scream "At last, the truth!" at. Obama has never made me do that, and I don't expect that he will.

And yet....

I think about my govenor's, Kathleen Sebelius's, response to Bush's final State of the Union address. Some of the smartest bloggers I know, on the left and the right, have ripped her speech to shreds, calling it banal or weak or pathetic or sleep-inducing. I didn't find it filled with memorable oratory or brilliant ideas myself. But still, I couldn't help but be impressed by her determination to follow through rhetorically on the inchoate but ever-present conceptual premise behind Obama, the person and candidate. (This was written and delivered before she announced her support for Obama at the El Dorado rally, incidentally.) Much of her supposedly post-partisan "heartland" talk doesn't really going anywhere near where I live, emotionally or intellectually, in my own little corner of the heartland, here in Wichita, and I found it wearying; but I could still admire her for believing in it (or in him?) enough to stick it into her response nonetheless. "A national call to action." "Leaders who, rather than asking what we can do for our country, ask nothing of us at all." "[To] focus once again not only on the individual good but on the common good." Obama the civic republican, the communitarian? Not likely; running through his list of positions, aside from an interesting glimmer here and there (what he has to say about promoting national service and attacking excessive CEO salaries, for example), there isn't much to suggest a vision of the American polity as anything other than a strong, liberal state. But her words reminded me of those of Peter Levine, another fine blogger and observer of the political scene, who assessed Barack Obama nearly a year ago:

Barack Obama so far represents a different strain of populism. He says that we American citizens should play a central role in defining and solving our common problems. We are in a "serious mood, we're in a sober mood," and we are ready to work together. "We are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven't done for some time.....we are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics....All of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate"....For Senator Obama, asserting our values means deliberating together as a diverse population and developing ideas that may be new and unexpected. In philosopher's terms, this is civic republicanism, and it's truly different from mainstream recent liberal politics. To make it work, Obama will have to overcome two challenges. First, he will have to develop an answer for grassroots Democratic activists who are furious at Republicans and consider the Bush administration to be our nation's central problem. Obama believes that both parties are responsible for marginalizing citizens, and what we need are broader public coalitions. The Senator will have to find a way to talk to Democratic primary voters who are not in the mood right now for non-partisanship and cooperation. Second, Obama will have to find a way to respect the voice of American citizens while also saying something concrete about issues such as health care and taxes. He needs to respect the public's voice but also perform the main duty of a candidate, which is to put ideas on the table.

Senator Obama as not failed, or at least not yet entirely failed, to follow through on Peter's ideas here. He's put meat on the bones of his proposals; he's given the American people details, and he's drawn contrasts, sometimes very sharp ones, between himself and his opponents, both primary and general. And yet, for all that, he really does play down the anger and competitiveness on the campaign trail, so much so that you sometimes even hear his supporters admitting that there's probably some truth to the assumption that Senator Hillary Clinton and her people are the superior attack dogs out there, and thus more capable of defeating the Republican war machine. Obama, by contrast, speaks and acts as though he assumes that there is still real work that voters--as citizens--can do rather than just waste their time worrying about war machines, left or right. This is the point of the change he exhaustively talks about; this is the appeal--to the idea of politics as national and multiracial and still worth participating in--that made the Kennedys (still besotted with the myth of JFK and the brief, too-soon destroyed promise of his brother Robert) so greedily embrace him. This is what has moved James Poulos--no populist he!--to grudgingly admit:

For all his liberalism, Obama is unique in his ability to inspire the desire for that kind of respect and real political participation. Astonishingly, he can get rooms full of liberals to chant "USA! USA!" and "Race doesn’t matter!" There is a profound desire in the culture today to escape from politics and citizenship--to enjoy the feeling of togetherness rather than do the hard work that makes togetherness worthwhile. Obama’s style and substance tempts and rewards this desire. But it also tempts and rewards its opposite....Obama inspires people to not abandon politics to the experts, to recognize the goods of taking control of their own lives to common purpose. I may disagree with him on nearly all the issues, but I earnestly hope that the chance he presents, especially on the left, is seized before all the life of true citizen politics is drained away.

I don't disagree with Obama on nearly all the issues; as I said above, what I hope for, above all, is to be able to productively put my voice to use as a tool of expression. And expression something that at least hints a Laschian themes of "not abandon[ing] politics to the experts" or "recogniz[ing] the goods of taking control of their own lives to common purpose"....well, that's not the full package of cultural and economic sovereignty that I'm looking for--that indeed I tend to believe Kansas at one time expressed better than any other state--but it's not nothing, either.

Anyway, I have some more to say about the man, but mostly I'm going to be watching Obama closely, especially over this next week, before we have our state Democratic primary. With Edwards now dropped out of the race, I'm going to have to watch him very closely indeed.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Why Care About Huckabee?

Since last Thursday evening, I've been involved in several concurrent arguments--with friends and bloggers belonging to several different audiences--about Mike Huckabee, and about his win in Iowa and what it does (or doesn't, or might, or might not) mean for his candidacy, for the Republican party, and for the current range of political possibilities in America. Yeah, I know, the usual overload which makes far more of the Iowa caucuses and their results than they could ever rationally mean. Still, it's been a great series of arguments; Henry Farrell and Laura McKenna have weighed in, as have Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher and more, as well as a bunch of professional and personal friends who have a couple of bits to add. But as the New Hampshire primaries come upon us, I have to ask: is it all just a media-driven desire to speak and be heard, or really, is there something interesting about this man and his run for president? I mean, why care about Huckabee?

This is particularly relevant for me. I've never voted for a Republican candidate for president, and strongly doubt I would do so this year, even if Huckabee were the nominee. I carry a lot of social traditionalism and localism and religious conservatism around inside me, but I think I'm first and foremost an egalitarian and a social democrat; if the election were tomorrow, and I had to vote for a major party candidate (which I've only done twice in all the years I've been eligible to vote in a presidential election year), then it'd be a toss-up between Obama and Edwards, with Edwards probably getting the nod. Yes, yes, abortion and all that, but what about wages and health care and neighborhoods and schools? No Democrat--or Republican for that matter--is thinking about social justice exactly the way I would like, but there's a couple that are legitimately closer than others, and they aren't Huckabee. So why do I follow the man's campaign so obsessively?

Partly there's the religion factor, exacerbated by the fact that, in the last couple of months with a possibly angry Romney-Huckabee showdown looming in Iowa, this issue morphed partially into a "who will vote for a Mormon?" factor. I've said my piece on Romney's attempts to clarify his own position here; suffice to say that, unlike some of my co-religionists, I find it hard to credit Huckabee's success to him drumming up anti-Mormon fervor amongst presumably ignorant evangelical yokels. For one thing, Romney's hardly out of the race. I'll declare Romney over after he blows New Hampshire, South Carolina, and possibly even Michigan. I suspect that only then would the GOP establishment give up on him and turn to McCain if absolutely necessary to stop the--in their eyes--populist Christian moron that they think is Huckabee. So let's not go with the "the rabble have excluded a decent conservative Republican candidate solely for idiot anti-Mormon reasons" least, not yet. For another thing, while I'll grant that a bunch of evangelicals probably turned out for anti-Mormon reasons, I suspect a whole lot more turned out because Huckabee speaks their language--not just evangelical and Protestant, but vaguely populist and filled with up-from-the-bootstraps resentments and pleas, with a dash of hick culture thrown in. Meanwhile, Romney talks the language of a CEO's pet robot from Jupiter (thanks for the hat tip, Laura!).

Partly, and more importantly, it's the populism factor. Now, let's be clear about something: Huckabee's populism and anti-elitism is far more a matter of attitude than of policy. When we see Huckabee outside of the populist hothouse and he (and Edwards) created in Iowa—as he moves full force into NH and beyond—we’ll probably see him (as Ross Douthat has predicted and hopes) start talking about how he’s actually a mainstream conservative, and he’ll drop a lot of the ambitious, quasi-populist stuff that used to move blue-collar Catholics and others back in the good old days to vote with a passion. I consider this terribly unfortunate, but almost a surety nonetheless. And he wouldn't be acting in making such a pivot: Huckabee isn't a "capital-P" Populists, because the social and economic world within which the Populist Party platform was a possibility is...well, if not definitely gone for good, then at least gone from the realms within which electoral success on the national level is available--and that is what this man, with his perfectly mortal and ordinary mix of heartfelt aspirations and venal ambitions, wants. (Of course, this is a deeper argument than a presidential contest; it's one that people like me, Caleb Stegall, Jeff Taylor and others have been kicking around for ages, often revolving around Wal-Mart and whether something at least resembling it is inevitable if you want to be an egalitarian in a globalized cash economy, or whether such a solution is in every way worse than the disease....Huckabee, of course, having been a good friend to Wal-Mart while he was governor of Arkansas.) But all that being acknowledged, I continue to insist--and this follows other old arguments, including my claim about the legitimate populist credibility of William Jennings Bryan, despite or maybe even alongside all his talk about nationalizing the railroads and other flirtations with Progressivism--that there can nonetheless be a "small-p" populism, a genuine interest in making life more livable for the non-elites out there, that co-exists with major party platforms and all their compromises. Maybe that makes me just a meliorist at at heart, though I hope not. Huckabee has a lot of crackpot conservative ideas (how a national sales tax could be truly progressive I've yet to have explained persuasively to me), but then again, he genuinely tried to make public education workable in an Arkansas under all sorts of financial and legal pressures, all while keeping the door open for home schoolers, school choice, and charter schools; he drew a line against Arkansas being the latest state to make itself addicted to the easy money promised (but rarely in full delivered) by advocates of state gambling, which is of course rarely anything more than a tax on the desperate and gullible; and so forth. A true defender of local authority and economic sovereignty? Er, no. But more populist than the venture capitalist from Massachusetts or the wanna-be Caesar from New York City? Definitely.

Finally, it's also partly about--or really, mostly about--what I'm looking for and hoping for in terms of America's political development. Of the race for president, I'm mostly, at this point, only moderately engaged; I'd say that ANY Republican presidential candidate--Huckabee, Romney, McCain, Giuliani, any of them--is probably better than 75% likely to suffer an ignominious defeat in 11 months, because George W. Bush has done so much to blow up what remained of the Reagan coalition. So that means there be some attempt to bring the madness in Iraq under control, and life will go on. But that's policy; what about what's happening outside the Beltway, particularly on the right. Ah, now that's some fascinating stuff. Is the Great, Long-Foretold-But-Just-As-Long-Avoided Conservative Crack-Up upon us. Ross and Matt Yglesias and others disagree, and I'm not enough of a political wonk to make my own predictions. But consider the options. What's the worst case scenario for a genuine "fusionism-still-works!" GOP partisan (say, George F. Will)? Huckabee gets the nominations and gets clobbered, and then what? Will downscale, rural white evangelicals fulfill the words of Thomas Frank, and quietly accept again their usual ignominious position in things? Maybe--but then again, maybe not. Maybe they'll instead try to develop a message to broaden their own little group of (mostly white, mostly Protestant, mostly lower-to-middle class) factions, picking up culturally concerned, economically populist and progressive, possibly nonwhite (lots of black anti-abortion evangelicals out there, remember) voters that in the past had stayed Democratic. No doubt it would take a few election cycles to happen, if it ever did, but what a triumph it would be for America's political landscape--for the first time in who knows how long, a genuinely (if only tentatively) Christian democratic option on the table! Some what it if went by the name of Republican: I could just tell myself that the party of Lincoln has rediscovered itself, and I'd have someone to support. And if that doesn't happen--if Huckabee gets destroyed by the NRO-Club-of-Growth-neocon establishment before he gets even close to the nomination? Well, frankly, who cares? Completely aside from whomever becomes president, if a Huckabee candidacy could drive an even very small, pseudo-populist stake into the heart of the by-now-incoherent Reagan coalition, that would open some eyes to the reality of the stifling deal many socially conservative voters have been obliged to swallow for years now, maybe even switch some votes. Even that result would get me declaring the 2008 election season a fabulous success.

Look--unless you're a single-issue or an all-but-single-issue "seamless garment of life" culture-war voter (in which case you have my respect, but also my complaints), the proper "family values" as well a populist vote right now is probably Edwards. But in the meantime, you've got lower-class and struggling middle-class social conservatives are out there, talking a populist language without anyone from their side of the culture war promising to do anything about it. Edwards could try to reach out to these folks, and probably would connect with at least a few of them given the chance, but the progressive cultural/social commitments of powerful factions in the Democratic party make it unlikely that Edwards go very far in that direction (and do be fair, I'm not sure I would want him to). And yet, their populist longings, even if not articulated that way, remain. Suddenly, here’s Huckabee: folksy, anti-abortion, an up-from-his-bootstraps hick who is occasionally willing to bash Bush and Wall Street and ring the populist, let’s-help-out-the-poor-a-little drum. So they vote for him--and maybe, just maybe, the Republican party changes, even if just a little. That's what I see. In the end, I’m not a Huckabee supporter, but I am a fan—because so long as we’re stuck with this infuriating two-party corporate system, cracking up one at least one lousy coalition (the walking-dead GOP one) is, in the long-run, better than nothing.

Further (and Good) Updates about my Brain

For those who have expressed their kindness and support over the holidays, some good news to begin the new year, now that we have everything (Christmas, New Year's, Epiphany, etc.) behind us:

When we last checked in, the main issue was remaining calm until we could get a more definitive report on the abnormality which the MRI seemed to show on my brain. Now we've finally been able to sit down with a neurosurgeon who has looked the whole thing over, as well as given me an examination, and his diagnosis is...don't worry about it. Apparently this particular abnormality follows the path of a blood vessel in my brain almost too exactly to be anything except a "vascular malformation"--or in other words, a blood vessel which has gone bad or which went bad years ago. If the former, then it could be the result of some viral condition, the great majority of which are temporary; if that latter, than we could be looking at a blood vessel that burst or otherwise left some scar tissue following any number of possible events--head trauma, an undetected stroke, or even something which just started leaking at birth before healing itself (the doctor said it really isn't that uncommon for brains to have "birthmarks" of this sort, the same way your skin can have). He's not absolutely 100% certain of his diagnosis; another MRI has been scheduled for me in a few months, and if at that time the area of concern has grown or changed shape, then it'll be clear he missed something. But he doesn't expect that; his guess, looking at the shape this malformation has now, is that the odds a very much in favor of it either being completely gone by the spring, or being in exactly the same shape and in the same place. Either of which means, as he supposes, that this is a distraction; it poses no threat to my health, and has nothing to do with my longstanding ear trouble.

To say the least, we were overjoyed. We had little reason to freak out in the first place--just some random, just-in-case speculations by our family practitioner was all--and I think we both held our calm over the holidays pretty well. But our complete relief and excitement once we'd met with the neurologist shows that we'd been hiding our fears from ourselves and each other, at least a little bit. Anyway, great news all around. We couldn't wait to call the folks once we found out.

And now? Well, if my symptoms return (I've felt fine for the last month or so), then maybe we'll insist on seeing an ear/nose/throat specialist, and look back in the direction of some viral cause for the ringing ears and headache and lack of balance (Meniere's Disease, perhaps?). But for now, I'm just happy to be able to move into 2008, confident that my brain isn't about to betray me. To all of you who helps us along to this point, my thanks--here's wishing you a healthy start to 2008 as well.