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28 July 2008



so here's my question... how are we meant to hold his feet to the fire now on this?

I mean this seriously... at the end of the day, we're going to vote for Obama, in what way are we going to hold his feet to the fire?

David Adler

Perhaps we could score the amazing progressive victory of getting Obama to hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban - on the advice of a blogger who links to Counterpunch, a webzine so far left that it's far right.

Incidentally, hundreds of innocent people have been killed and maimed in the last few days by bombers in Istanbul, Gujarat, Kirkuk... and it's Obama who wants to blow things up?



Write to the campaign. As in, a physical letter with a real stamp. Let them know how disappointed you are in Obama's FISA capitulation. Let them know you aren't happy with the way the campaign is going. Let them know that you support truth and accountability for those who have broken the law and violated the Constitution. Let them know you want an end to torture (including by the CIA), an end to rendition, the restoration of Habeas rights, civil trials for all Guantanamo detainees, repeal of the Patriot Act, a ban on private military contractors, an end to war profiteering, and -- most important of all -- an aggressive Attorney General who will investigate and prosecute and put people who have broken the law behind bars. (In other words, do his damn job.)

Before the election, they are vulnerable to this kind of pressure from those of us who care about the Constitution and the rule of law. We are the people who are going to get out there and knock on doors and man phone banks and exert social pressure on our friends and get out the vote. Before the election, they need our support and enthusiasm. After the election, they don't give a damn what we think.

Seriously, take a few minutes and watch this video from the Netroots Nation panel on Gitmo, Habeas, torture, etc. These are all serious people, experts in their field, and they are down in the trenches fighting every day -- especially Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU.

And they are not optimistic.

They are getting some very bad signals from the people who work on the Obama campaign. They are asking for our help in reminding the campaign exactly what kind of change it is that we truly believe in.



It's not just writers for Counterpunch that think the war in Afghanistan is going very badly indeed, and that a surge of US troops isn't necessarily the best solution.

And really, I'm pretty sure we can all agree that blowing up innocent people is bad.

David Adler

Netrootsers and others further to the left generally don't sound off about the blowing up of innocent people unless it was American bombs that did it. So lambasting Obama for wanting to "blow up the Middle East" at a time when dozens were just slaughtered and hundreds maimed in a few days in Kirkuk, Baqouba, Baghdad, Istanbul and Ahmedabad strikes me as pretty frivolous and lame and out of touch with reality. That was my point.



First of, Fafblog is a satirical blog. I know the New Yorker killed satire for everyone, but the author of Fafblog does not literally believe Obama intends to "blow up the Middle East" -- he is exaggerating to make a point: that Obama is a cautious, centrist Democrat and his "change" agenda doesn't embrace many of the changes his most enthusiastic supporters have been pining for. And four years from now, even if Obama manages to extricate us from Iraq, we may well find ourselves stuck in an Afghan quagmire just as bad as the current mess in Iraq.

And I generally do not "sound off" about terrorist groups killing innocent civilians because, you know, it seems pretty fucking obvious to me that such actions are deplorable, those responsible should be caught and punished, and we should take sensible, comprehensive measures to thwart and shut down terrorist organizations. Though we may differ on what kinds of strategies best serve that goal, I think it's safe to say we have widespread agreement on the idea that "terrorists are bad," so I really don't think it's necessary for you to invoke the rightwing bogeyman of "them 'Murca-hatin' lib'rul bloggers."

But one area where we don't have widespread agreement is (for instance) whether or not employees of Blackwater should operate outside the reach of any kind of legal authority, completely immune to any consequences for any kind of wrongdoing, up to and including the mass slaughter of civilians. The Bush administration is fine with that arrangement -- in fact, they have actively enabled it. A McCain administration would likely do the same. Obama's position on this issue is thus-far uncertain, but the fact that Blackwater provided the security detail for Obama's visit to Afghanistan is, well, a bit problematic.

The other thing is that when America does bad stuff, Americans (and, um, even non-citizen residents like me) can actually shift American policy in a positive direction if enough people exert enough political pressure on their elected leaders. What would you have me do about the Istanbul bombing -- write a sternly-worded letter to the PKK?

Andrew Durkin

I took Isaac's question to be more focused on the long-term.

In other words: while I agree that writing letters to the campaign is a good immediate tactic, there is a bigger question: what do we do if (as appears to be the case) Obama does not rectify his mistake before the election? What if he does not respond to pressure from progressives? Come November, if nothing has changed, what's plan B?

I know that the idea of withholding one's vote is a bargaining chip when dealing with politicians. But I also know that while an Obama presidency presents some risks, a McCain presidency would be pure madness. And it makes me extremely nervous whenever I come across a conversation about Obama / FISA in which no one is underscoring that point.

Perhaps that's overreaction on my part. But I voted for Nader in 2000, and I convinced a number of my friends to do the same. I still live with that guilt -- not because I have any philosophical regrets or because I think my own vote or electioneering made a huge difference. And not because I think Nader was the sole reason Gore "lost" (of course we know Gore didn't really lose). Rather, I feel like I was an unwitting participant in a movement that (ironically, tragically, and with the best intentions) helped in its own small way to usher in the most horrific period of American politics.

And now I'm paranoid. True, there is no Nader-equivalent on the left (not even Nader himself) to siphon off votes in the same way this time. But there is a growing pissed-off mood among many progressives (at least the ones I know) that has legitimized the notion that perhaps it's OK to sit this election out in order to make a point. This trend should not be underestimated. The idiosyncrasies of the Obama campaign -- the massive crowds, the populist imagery, the "once-in-a-generation candidate" notion, the sense of being in the right place at the right time, etc. -- have lulled many into a false perception that there is no harm in / consequences for making that sort of statement, because a Democratic presidential victory is "inevitable" in any case.

I don't want to belabor this, but I think the point needs to be made. A Democratic presidential victory in 08 is not inevitable. A lot can happen between now and November. The polls are all over the place. There could be all kinds of "game-changing" moments. McCain could pick Bloomberg as his VP. Obama could make a horrible VP choice. There could be a (fake or real) domestic "terror event" of some kind. And so on.

Further, there are signs that the McCain campaign, dumb as it is, is watching and learning from the progressive critique of Obama. Ezra Klein had a brief post yesterday about how Republicans will soon be referring to an "Obama-Pelosi-Reid" triumvirate -- in the same way that democrats have been speaking of "Bush-McCain" in the same breath. Klein is a little too hastily dismissive of this tactic, because he misses the audience it is directed at: not the independent or centrist-leaning Dems, or folks who have no idea who Pelosi (for instance) is. It's aimed at us progressives and civil libertarians. It's designed to pick us off by getting us to (further) associate Obama with the weaknesses of the Democratic party. The hope is that we will walk away from the election in disgust.

The challenge here is that we have to balance two competing realities. We have to vigorously sustain this criticism of Obama while simultaneously making sure he gets elected. So yes, exert pressure now. Write letters, and consider other protest options as well: teach-ins, marches, compelling original jazz works about habeas corpus. But don't underestimate the importance of simultaneously planning and strategizing for next year -- after the election. Because if Obama wins, and if it turns out that the worst case scenario is true, and he has no immediate interest in righting this particular wrong, then subsequent pressure is still important and useful and possible -- here I respectfully differ with Darcy and Scahill -- if for no other reason than that the man has clear ambitions for a second term. Unless he declares martial law, he will in fact still need us. And if for some absurd reason he remains intransigent, we'll at least have the time to build a movement around some new candidate for 2012. (In contrast, if McCain is elected this year, chances are we'll all be dead by 2012.)

Just my opinion.


what do we do if (as appears to be the case) Obama does not rectify his mistake before the election?

Well, it's not just one "mistake" -- there is a whole range of crucial issues on which Obama is, at best, noncommittal.

But to answer your question -- what do we do? We gird ourselves for the long haul. We don't make excuses for Obama when he makes decisions or enacts policies that perpetuate the Bush administration's abuses. We throw our support behind the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU and encourage everyone else to do the same. We push for genuinely progressive judicial appointments (not just the Supreme Court, but the circuit courts -- this is huge, and we are way behind the right in mounting an organized push for liberal judges. Let's try to actually get some real "activist liberal judges" on the bench!) We try to get more and better Democrats elected and keep them in line once they are, and support primary challengers for the Blue Dogs. We make life difficult for the Democratic leadership when they sell us out.

In other words, we do what we've been doing, without slacking off or getting lulled into complacency by an Obama presidency. If he is elected, there is a window of opportunity for real change (and I continue to maintain that the best chance for us to have an influence is right now), but pace the campaign's slogan, it won't happen all by itself. If we want change, we all need to fight for it.

Obviously, if John McCain is elected, everyone on the planet is fucked beyond belief, but again I think you all know me well enough that I don't have to keep repeating that.

We have to vigorously sustain this criticism of Obama while simultaneously making sure he gets elected.

Yes, of course. I was taking that as a given. Any other course is madness. Voting third-party or sitting this one out are acts of pure narcissism. I think it was Rob at Lawyers, Guns, and Money who wrote something to the effect of "'The other guy is worse' isn't the best reason to vote; it's the only reason to vote."

David Adler

DJA: "I think it's safe to say we have widespread agreement on the idea that 'terrorists are bad'..."

Of course Darcy, you and I agree on that. But I'm not at all sure there's widespread agreement among the Counterpunch crowd. And I'm not invoking a right-wing bogeyman when I say that.

I read your above exchange with Durkin with great interest but also note that what you take as a "given," the necessity of electing Obama, is not in fact a given for some (many?) on the activist left. The Counterpunchers, say, are not remotely interested in "holding Obama's feet to the fire," they're interested in opposing and demonizing him. He's not their candidate, plain and simple. That's what is getting my hackles up. You yourself say that opposing Obama is madness, so seems we agree, but we're looking through different prisms - or same prism, different angle, what have you.


Hi David,

I'm not what you would call a big Counterpunch reader, but it's abundantly clear to me that co-editor Alexander Cockburn is a fool. That said, it seems to me that like the (Moonie-owned) Washington Times, they very occasionally publish something of value. The Mike Whitney piece Fafblog linked to does contain a roundup of good information, even if I strongly disagree with Whitney's tone and his conclusions. But the info is nothing I haven't seen elsewhere, at more reputable publications, so I take your point.

That said, I do not know of any influential progressive blogger who does not believe that "terrorism is bad." Similarly, I don't know of any influential progressive blogger who is not 100% behind Obama's election this fall. As near as I can tell, exactly zero of the 2,000 people who attended Netroots Nation are pro-terrorist or anti-Obama. (Well, okay, Bob Barr showed up, and he is certainly anti-Obama, but that doesn't really count, does it?)

Certainly people like Atrios, Digby, Hilzoy, Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall, Ezra Klein, Matthew Ygelsias, and the Pandagon, FireDogLake, and Daily Kos bloggers are far more representative of "Netrootsers" than Alexander Cockburn, who near as I can tell is not taken seriously by much of anyone.

Andrew Durkin

Well, it's not just one "mistake"

Agreed. But the mistakes (or problems, or whatever we want to call them) are of a piece, yes? We're talking about a category of error that can be described under a single heading. I might call it the (Bill) "Clintonization" of Obama. In any case, I was just lumping it all together so as to streamline the discussion a bit.

But to answer your question [...]

I appreciate your articulation of various strategies for pressuring Obama. And I'm all for following through on them. However, I was asking the "Plan B" question rhetorically, because I wanted to take off the table, in a more explicit way, the idea that it might be okay to allow our anger to erode the chances of an Obama victory.

At its root, our ability to pressure comes from our capacity to withhold our vote for Obama. And yet... if we are to keep McCain out of the White House we really can't withhold our vote for Obama. Call me cynical, but I suspect that some folks will be driven to a pretty exquisite kind of agony by that paradox. And people in exquisite agony often do strange and unpredictable things.

Obviously, if John McCain is elected, everyone on the planet is fucked beyond belief, but again I think you all know me well enough that I don't have to keep repeating that.

You certainly don't have to prove anything to me. You're very open about your politics -- it's one of the many things I enjoy about your blog. But your own stance on McCain is not really what I was attempting to address. (And just to be absolutely clear, I have no beef with the way you've written about any of these issues.)

All I'm saying is that, in general, it would be nice if the idea that McCain = fucked beyond belief came up more often in the context of critical discussions about Obama (especially the snarkier ones). I won't say that most people don't believe that idea, but I don't want to take that on blind faith. After the last two presidential "elections," I don't feel comfortable leaving the outcome of this one to the mere possibility that we might all be pursuing the same larger strategy. As we have (re)learned in the last 8 years, in politics nothing is a given.

I don't know of any influential progressive blogger who is not 100% behind Obama's election this fall.

I don't either. But the situation is complicated. For one thing, it's hard to know exactly what sort of influence these folks wield. For another, different people use "pro-Obama" to mean different things.

W/r/t to influence, once you drill down into the comments on the more popular blogs, you often get a rather variegated picture of what people are actually thinking. Kos, for instance, went through a bit of a crisis once it was clear that Obama was going to reverse himself on FISA. One faction effectively bolted, one faction registered their anger by declaring that while they would vote for him they would no longer actively support him (i.e., no longer donate money or time), one faction maintained a cheery stance as best they could. It's true that now things over there have settled a bit. But that shakeup is good evidence of how fragile and volatile political coalitions can be, even amongst people who share the same ideals. So: what if something FISA-esque comes down the pike a week or so before the election?

W/r/t the second question -- one can be putatively pro-Obama (intending to vote for him) while simultaneously withholding material support during the election season. I wouldn't be surprised if most progressive Obama supporters are now approaching the issue this way. But if it turns out that we lose this election because Obama couldn't marshal the same sort of campaign apparatus that he built during the primaries, is that a definition of "pro" that we can live with?

Look, I'm not trying to be an asshole about this. I think it would be awesome if I were wrong. I'm open to the charge of exaggerating the threat. I don't particularly enjoy saying any of this, and I don't particularly enjoy the whole Shadow of a Doubt vibe that this election has taken on post-FISA. But, sweet christ on a cracker, I wish more people on the left were more vocally considering both the historical and the "human nature" dimensions of the problem we are now facing. Just because we're right on the issues doesn't mean we can't be lulled or duped into making the wrong call in a moment of crisis.


At its root, our ability to pressure comes from our capacity to withhold our vote for Obama.

I don't agree. Pressure comes in a lot of different forms. You can certainly write letters and call the campaign office to register your objections while still working to defeat John McCain. And I am convinced that Barack Obama's electoral prospects would be stronger without this lurch towards Clintonian triangulation, so by making some noise, you are in fact helping the campaign. Tough love is still love.

Even financial support and volunteer time isn't a zero-sum game. Say instead of donating to the Obama campaign, you send your money to IAWV or MoveOn.org, or to progressive media like AlterNet. This is money that is still going to defeat John McCain, without rewarding the Obama campaign's bad behavior.

If, as you write, "it turns out that we lose this election because Obama couldn't marshal the same sort of campaign apparatus that he built during the primaries," that lack of enthusiasm will be directly traceable to the problems we have discussed. Making the people running his campaign understand that should be a priority.

Honestly, this isn't complicated and I don't think it should be controversial. The right does it all the time, and very successfully. Politics is a rough game. When everyone else is throwing elbows, there's no reason why progressives should just roll over on fundamental issues like war, torture, and the rule of law. Nobody else is going to stand up for what's right. It is up to us.

Andrew Durkin

this isn't complicated

I can't bring myself to believe that anything involving fickle human interaction on as grand a scale as national politics could be anything other than complicated. But perhaps this is where our basic disagreement lies.

In any case, I really hope you're right.



That was inartful. What I really mean to say is that this is Politics 101. There are a lot of powerful, influential people and institutions fighting very hard to minimize the liberal/progressive influence in the Obama campaign. The political pressure on him to distance himself from us, to sell out on the most important issues, is enormous, and will never go away. There's too much at stake for them. And there's too much at stake for everyone else for us not to fight back. Biting our tongues and thinking happy thoughts gets us precisely nowhere.

And this isn't new. This has always been the dynamic. Our political leaders try to sell us out, and we try to hold them to account when they do. It was like that under Clinton, and it will be no different under Obama. Everyone ought to work their ass off to make sure he is elected, but no one should be under any illusions that we don't need to keep the pressure on him to do the right thing. We always need to keep the pressure on. I would be saying exactly the same thing if Russ Feingold was the nominee.

Andrew Durkin

Thanks for clarifying.

I don't disagree with anything you're saying in these two paragraphs. (Clearly I'm not an advocate of biting one's tongue when it comes to politics, for instance -- since I can't stop responding to your post.)

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