An interesting exchange last week on The Rachel Maddow Show, between Rachel and David Sirota, discussing some of Barack Obama's choices for his administration:
MADDOW: They are essentially sort of a center-right economic team, no big ideological choices there unless you consider sort of Clintonian economists to be a big ideological statement. . . .Some questions:
SIROTA: Well, I do think they are ideological. I think they are center-right and they are, basically, a lot of free market fundamentalists. And I think that what Wall Street tends to react to is it likes some of its own. And so, Obama is in this weird position where he has to basically tell Wall Street that he’s going to have some of their own, but he’s also got to tell the public that he’s going to change, that he’s going to push a policy change.
And so, the tough thing for Obama to do -- the question is, is whether he can get some of the people who are at the center of this crisis, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and get them to carry, actually, radically new policies. That’s the trick for him.
MADDOW: Well, Obama advisors are telling the "Washington Post" today that his economic picks, the people who he has chosen, they don’t signal that he plans to govern from the center. They are trying to assure people that he is a progressive. The question is - it’s sort of policy over personnel here. Can he implement a progressive approach to the economy with those folks that are on his team in place?
SIROTA: That’s the question. You know, Grover Norquist, the conservative activist that says, "Personnel is policy." Obama is basically saying, "No, I’m going to be different."
I think it was David Axelrod who told the "New York Times" -- he said, you know, he’s not hiring people for their vision, he’s hiring people to effectuate his vision. Now, that would be unprecedented, to hire sort of ideological economic advisors who are going to carry out a more progressive ideological agenda from Obama.
But that’s essentially what he’s saying. He’s trying to have that -- basically split that difference and tell Wall Street, "I’m hiring some of your own," but he’s also telling America they’re going to carry a progressive agenda. And I think that’s certainly a new thing in our country.
MADDOW: One worth watching and probably worth holding his feet to the fire over, I imagine.
1) Is it true that "personnel is policy"? Many other conservatives besides Grover Norquist think so. Here's just one example, from a 2001 article from The Heritage Foundation: "Personnel Is Policy: Why The New President Must Take Control Of The Executive Branch."
It is often said, correctly, that personnel is policy. The nexus between personnel management and policy management is therefore crucial. Good policies cannot be advanced without good, capable, and committed personnel to formulate, implement, aggressively promote, and steadfastly defend them. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald W. Reagan were noteworthy in this respect for making strong and effective Cabinet appointments and solid White House staffing decisions.Why do conservatives believe that "personnel is policy," while most liberals seem to think that Obama will put forth policies that contradict those of the people he's hiring to be in his administration?
I don't have an answer.
But, if I may dip into football for a moment. . . . When Eric Mangini became coach of the New York Jets a few years ago, he implemented a new 3-4 defense - his new policies, if you will. The problem was that his nose tackle and middle linebacker had been drafted under the previous coach to play in a 4-3 defense, so they were too small to handle the new scheme. It was a disaster, both for the the team and for the individual players. Jonathan Vilma had been an All-Pro linebacker and the leading tackler in the NFL in the old scheme, but he was getting manhandled in the new one. Finally, after struggling for two seasons, Managini traded Vilma and some others, and he went out and got players who would fit what he wanted to do. In football, at least, personnel is often policy.
2) Is Obama a Progressive? Or does he have progressive policies?
Does it matter? Isn't there more to being a good president than your policies? Does he have integrity? Will he make good decisions? Is simple competence enough at this point?
3) If he's not a Progressive, will he be willing to work with Progressives to implement some of their policies?
Will Progressives ever be able to see Obama and his policies clearly? Can they achieve an un-romanticized, post-Bush analysis of the situation? Or do we just keep hoping Will.i.am makes another video? If Progressives misread Obama, and if they aren't organized and pro-active, will they spend the next four or eight years on the sideline?
4) What is a Progressive, anyway?
Do they have anything to do with the original Progressives, who worked with Evangelicals to push for Prohibition? Are they free-market fundamentalists? Are we just using "Progressive" because "Liberal" became a dirty word?
5) And what is a Liberal, anyway?
What beliefs do Progressives and Liberals hold when it comes to economic policies? Foreign policy? Social policies?
Jonathan Vilma, formerly of the New York Jets. Political Metaphor?
6) For the second time recently, an intelligent Liberal source - Rachel Maddow - has suggested that center-right economic policies like those espoused by the Clintons aren't ideological. A couple of weeks ago, it was The New York Times, as I discussed in my first post on Obama and the Progressives. I thought the Times was being disingenuous, because they believe in and push these economic policies, and I can see how they benefit by making them seem "pragmatic" rather than ideological. Globalization is inevitable. That's one of the primary Neo-liberal mantras to disarm opposition to their policies. Their pre-emptive strike against anyone who would question what are, ultimately, just theories.
But it's interesting to hear a smart person like Maddow falling for this line of thought. Luckily, in this case, someone could say - No, wait a minute, these people are ideological. "Free-market fundamentalists." That doesn't sound so pragmatic, does it?
7) Is it coherent, politically, for Progressives and Liberals to continue to support candidates with center-right economic policies? Why do they complain so much about the repercussions of those policies when they support and vote for the people who implement them? Why do many Democrats seem not to care or even know that Bill Clinton pushed NAFTA on the country? Or financial deregulation? Or media deregulation? Or privatization of the government? Does nostalgia constitute a viable political philosophy?
8) What is the relationship between the policies pushed by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin in the 1990s and the current economic meltdown? If there is a relationship, why is Barack Obama hiring so many Rubin associates and disciples?
9) What does it mean to be "on the Left"? What policies and ideas does someone on the Left in the year 2008 actually support? Is there a Left in the United States? How does it relate to the Left in places like Europe or South America? Do Progressives and Liberals belong "on the Left" - even if they support capitalistic, center-right economic policies?
10) Do linear terms like "Left," "Center" and "Right" do justice to the complex social, economic and political beliefs that most people hold? What are the alternatives?
11) Are you a Progressive if you're against Proposition 8? Are you on the Left? What if you're against Proposition 8 and you support the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA)? Are you still on the Left? Are you still a Progressive or a Liberal? Are you Andrew Sullivan? What if you're against Proposition 8 and you want to invade Iran? What does that make you? Hillary Clinton?
12) Will Obama push for passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement when it comes up for a vote in the next year? Will the new Secretary of Commerce, Bill Richardson, help him push it through? Does anyone remember Bill Richardson's role in pushing through NAFTA? Does anyone care?
13) Do I hold coherent political beliefs? Why do I dislike being thought of as a Liberal? Why did I leave the Democratic Party? Am I a Progressive? Am I on the Left? Am I in the Center? Am I somewhere a little below and behind? Can I be conservative in some things and radical in others? Can one be a Left Conservative? (Norman Mailer thought so. Is that good or bad?) Can you be on the Left if you get tired of Leftists? Can one respect some of Marx's insights and not be a Marxist? What if I listen to The Clash? Is it okay that I like The Clash but despise Communism? Have people on the Left ever really come to terms with the fact that their ideology led to such a horrible end? Can one respect aspects of Capitalism - like buying CDs by The Clash - and not be a Capitalist? Can anyone in 2008 NOT be a Capitalist? Can one respect aspects of Anarchism but think many anarchists are assholes? Can I enjoy watching football and still be a Progressive? What about my inexplicable urge to beat up Weezer fans? If I'm a Progressive, is it okay that I slammed back a few Brooklyn Lagers last night? Can I like Subcomandante Marcos but not like Rage Against the Machine? What if I like Fugazi? Is it okay that I hate the Democrats as long as I hate the Republicans more? Am I just a contrarian? Does all of this go back to not liking bands as much once they get famous? (How to explain my love of The Beatles, then?) Why did it seem like there was a Left in Spain but only Liberals here? Should I support the bailout of the automakers? Haven't they been part of the problem for decades? But what about all of the workers? Why have we given hundreds of billions of dollars to the firms on Wall Street that caused all the problems to begin with? Why did we give them so much money so easily but make the automakers beg in public for a paltry 34 billion? If we bail out the automakers, can we please, please, please stipulate that the Ford family relinquish ownership of the 0-13 Detroit Lions? Seriously. They've had the team for almost 50 years and have driven them into the ground.
13) Why am I writing about all of this?
Sigh . . .