Politics & Policy

They’re Not That into Him

Netroots vs. Obama.

The Des Moines Register’s final Iowa poll has Barack Obama trouncing Hillary Clinton in today’s caucuses, 32 to 25. This, the Register tells us, is thanks to high projected turnout from self-described independents, 40 percent of whom favor Obama. Nationally, polls show Obama beating prospective Republican nominees by wider margins than any Democrat running. One could make the case that Obama is more authentically liberal than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, yet could attract more independent voters in the general election than either. On top of that, he has higher favorability ratings than Hillary and a lot more money than Edwards.

So why do liberal bloggers (a.k.a. the netroots) have such a problem with this guy? After all, they are notoriously obsessed with winning, and while they have warmed to John Edwards’s fire-breathing populist shtick, they acknowledge that his decision to take matching funds in the primary race would significantly limit his ability to campaign against a deep-pocketed Republican nominee like Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney until September. The more viable alternative, Hillary Clinton, leaves them cold over her Iraq votes. That leaves Obama, a candidate liberal bloggers have spent much of the last week attacking. Why?

As liberal blogger Steve Benen explained on his The Carpetbagger Report Wednesday, they are angry over several recent instances in which Obama “used conservative frames in very unhelpful ways” (Benen himself concludes that “the concerns seem overwrought”). For an explanation of “framing” and why it has captured the liberal imagination, see this artful deconstruction:

One way to resolve this paradox [in which Republican policies are bad for most people, yet these people continue to vote for Republicans anyway] is to divide conservatives into two rough taxonomic categories: the small elite of evil geniuses who spend their days spinning sinister plots, and the masses of ignorant dupes who can be tricked into following them. Conservatives can thus be diagnosed as either evil or stupid — masters of sinister language manipulation, or hypnotized victims of it.

Apparently, one of these evil conservative plots is to remind people that health-insurance mandates “force” people to buy health insurance. The health-care plan Barack Obama has put forward would not mandate coverage for adults whereas Hillary’s would, and Obama has run some ads illustrating this distinction by pointing out that Hillary’s plan would “force people to buy insurance even if they can’t afford it.” (Benen gives this a 5 out of 5 on the Lieberman scale for the most annoying use of conservative frames.)

The statement is true. Although Hillary’s plan would offer tax credits to offset some of the cost of insurance, it would force people to buy it, even if they feel they still can’t afford it. Obama’s statement isn’t wrong because it’s false; it’s wrong because it doesn’t adhere to the party line, according to which mandates don’t force people to buy insurance, they provide coverage, which would otherwise be absent. (Note: Obama’s plan has plenty of other coercive elements. It just lacks this one.)

Obama committed a similar offense when he attempted to draw a contrast between his career in public service and John Edwards’s in private practice:

In one of his standard riffs, Obama asserts that his career choices — community organizer, civil rights lawyer, elected official — underscores his commitment to public service and to bringing about political and social change. He always mentions the lucrative job offers he turned down, but today he added a new line.

“That’s why I didn’t become a trial lawyer,” Obama told the Newton audience — a clear dig at Edwards, who made millions in the courtroom.

Edwards was a trial lawyer for 20 years before running for the U.S. Senate in 1998. But from the liberal blogosphere’s reaction to this comment, one would be forgiven for thinking that Obama referred to Edwards as an ambulance chaser. Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos wrote, “I am really starting to see Obama as someone who will rush to embrace every right-wing talking point against every Democratic constituencies [sic].” Atrios of Eschaton fell back on a favorite admonition and encouraged Obama to “Please stop wanking.”

The “trial lawyer” dispute goes beyond the liberal blogosphere and its obsession with “framing.” After the last election, the American Trial Lawyers Association changed its name to the American Association for Justice after internal research indicated that the words “trial lawyer” had taken on too many negative connotations. In the liberal telling, that’s because sinister, language-twisting conservatives have “framed the debate” over the tort system as a battle between consumers and wealthy plaintiffs’ lawyers who go around inventing reasons to sue, rather than because trial lawyers have engaged in too many examples of behavior that conforms to that stereotype.

To the liberal bloggers who have piled onto him in recent days, Obama’s gravest sins are rhetorical. Moulitsas explained it in a post outlining factors influencing his opinions on the candidates. After posing the question, “Who is the best defender of progressive ideals?” he wrote:

Edwards, by a landslide. Not the 2004 edition, but the new and improved 2008 model. From a rhetorical standpoint, no one has come close to articulating the nation’s ills and why progressive solutions are the best salve. This is important – Democrats have been poor at branding their ideology, thus ceding that ground to demonizing conservatives. […]

Clinton isn’t horrible on this front, but Obama has made a cottage industry out of attacking the dirty f***ing hippies on the left, from labor unions, to Paul Krugman, to Gore and Kerry, to social security, and so on. […] He is the return of Bill Clinton-style triangulating personified. [Emphasis added]

While the Republican party’s core activists are primarily concerned with finding a viable candidate who holds an even basic set of conservative policy positions, the Democrats’ core activists don’t have that problem. “The policy differences between all the Democrats really are tiny to irrelevant,” Moulitsas writes. All their candidates, in other words, seem ready to walk the walk. They’re looking for someone who talks like they blog — heavy on partisanship, conscious of “framing,” devoid of appeals to conservatives. But as Matt Taibbi noted last month in Rolling Stone, that’s not the kind of campaign Obama ever had the option of running if he wanted to win. He certainly won’t change directions now that momentum appears to be going his way.

In the days leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, Howard Dean — who only weeks before had been the Democratic front-runner there — started slipping in statewide polls. He ended up falling all the way to third place, which is where he finished on caucus night. There’s no consensus on why Dean’s campaign imploded, but many chalk it up to his temper, which manifested itself in a rude exchange with a senior citizen just over a week before the vote; the subject of the argument was Dean’s excessive partisanship, which he vigorously defended.

One thing is for sure: The liberal blogosphere, which enthusiastically supported Dean’s campaign, couldn’t shore up voters’ lack of support for Dean himself. In Iowa and especially afterward, his abrasive public persona eroded his viability. Temperamentally, he was a perfect candidate for the netroots. By Friday morning, we’ll know whether Obama’s approach is as successful as Dean’s was doomed.

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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