Friday, June 20, 2008

The Janus Factor

David Brooks talks about the two faces of Obama--the orator and the machine politician.
But as recent weeks have made clear, Barack Obama is the most split-personality politician in the country today. On the one hand, there is Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set and feeling the fierce urgency of now. But then on the other side, there’s Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who’d throw you under the truck for votes.

This guy is the whole Chicago package: an idealistic, lakefront liberal fronting a sharp-elbowed machine operator. He’s the only politician of our lifetime who is underestimated because he’s too intelligent. He speaks so calmly and polysyllabically that people fail to appreciate the Machiavellian ambition inside.

But he’s been giving us an education, for anybody who cares to pay attention. Just try to imagine Mister Rogers playing the agent Ari in “Entourage” and it all falls into place.
Brooks takes Obama's opting out of the public financing system as the opportunity to really highlight Obama's dual nature, that of the high-minded, "change" candidate and the pragmatic, I want to win candidate.
Dr. Barack could have changed the way presidential campaigning works. John McCain offered to have a series of extended town-hall meetings around the country. But favored candidates don’t go in for unscripted free-range conversations. Fast Eddie Obama threw the new-politics mantra under the truck.

And then on Thursday, Fast Eddie Obama had his finest hour. Barack Obama has worked on political reform more than any other issue. He aspires to be to political reform what Bono is to fighting disease in Africa. He’s spent much of his career talking about how much he believes in public financing. In January 2007, he told Larry King that the public-financing system works. In February 2007, he challenged Republicans to limit their spending and vowed to do so along with them if he were the nominee. In February 2008, he said he would aggressively pursue spending limits. He answered a Midwest Democracy Network questionnaire by reminding everyone that he has been a longtime advocate of the public-financing system.

But Thursday, at the first breath of political inconvenience, Fast Eddie Obama threw public financing under the truck. In so doing, he probably dealt a death-blow to the cause of campaign-finance reform. And the only thing that changed between Thursday and when he lauded the system is that Obama’s got more money now.

And Fast Eddie Obama didn’t just sell out the primary cause of his life. He did it with style. He did it with a video so risibly insincere that somewhere down in the shadow world, Lee Atwater is gaping and applauding. Obama blamed the (so far marginal) Republican 527s. He claimed that private donations are really public financing. He made a cut-throat political calculation seem like Mother Teresa’s final steps to sainthood.
Look, I have no bone to pick with Obama wanting to win, if he didn't he shouldn't have gotten into the race. It is fine to want to win.

My problem with this latest move is that he puts, side by side, his ambtion to win (not a bad thing) and his principals for an easy comparison. Obama appears ready, even eager, to sacrifice the latter in pursuit of the former.

I have many problems with McCain's positions on policy matters, not to exclude his campaign finance program. While McCain has waffled on issues before, I don't think and can't remember a time when his flip-flopping was so patently contrary to stated principles. The brazenness of Obama's decision to opt out of public financing is what is shocking. While his assertion that contributions from individuals is "public financing" is, technically, accurate--the smarminess of the assertion is what galls me.

The question is, how much gumption will McCain have to stick with his principles regarding campaign finance? Does McCain have the backbone to stand up for his principles or will his ambition be his own undoing? Will we be left with two candidates whose ambtion to be President is worth the sacrifice of a principled stand?

I fear that we will.

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