Post-Partisan Partisanship

The more carnivorous members of the liberal punditocracy have been baying for Obama and the Democratic convention to really start flaying McCain, to up the partisanship in his appeal. I think that there is no question that Obama and the party need to go negative on McCain, in a much more cutting and substantive way than they have so far. But the nature of Obama’s appeal, and simply who he is as a person, mean that it will be hard (and probably counter-productive) for him to do so directly. Obama’s secret weapon is post-partisan partisanship.

The key rhetorical move in post-partisan partisanship is to say that we need to get beyond partisanship to do x, y and z, all of which are in fact partisan things. You attack the Republicans for being hyper-partisans who prevented x, y and z from being done–like universal health coverage, dealing with the energy problem etc. In addition, there are, in fact some issues, like school reform, that are genuinely not purely partisan issues, and Obama should certainly signal that he is with the reformers (like Michelle Rhee in DC). I don’t always agree with David Brooks, but his column today was right, that post-partisanship actually reflects who Obama is, and thus he can’t completely tack toward pure partisanship without completely muddying his image. What he needs to do is to use post-partisanship as a wedge against the Republicans, but in a way in which all the things that he wants to do in a less partisan environment are Democratic agenda items. Not an easy thing, but the only strategy that fits with Obama’s pre-existing framing of his appeal.

I would add that this also helps lay the foundation for an attack on McCain, including on his integrity and character. This is where Biden can help a lot, if he’s willing to stick the shiv into his friend McCain. He’s already done it, to a degree. He (and others) should say, “The John McCain of eight years ago knew what was wrong with American politics. He was willing to reach across the aisle to get things–like campaign finance reform, action on global warming, etc.–done. He recognized that handing out huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, at a time in which only the very wealthiest have seen any improvement in their standard of living, is madness. John McCain, say what you will of him, was his own man. That’s why it is so sad that he has capitulated to the very hyper-partisan forces that he once stood against. Eight years ago, John McCain and Barack Obama would not have been standing against one another–they would have been standing side-by-side for reform. The story of John McCain is, quite simply, a tragic one, the crushing of a Maverick’s spirit by the forces of Beltway partisanship. The forces that turned John McCain into an ally of the very hyper-partisanship that characterized the last decade of Republican misrule are precisely those that Barack Obama seeks to finally dislodge from their places of power and privilege.” Or something like that. For those of you who think this sort of thing is sloppy centrism, it’s not–it’s jujitsu, using your opponents’ force against them. If the Obama campaign can clearly make McCain’s transformation over the last eight years THE story, then they’ve won. This is much more effective than the eight houses meme they’re currently pushing, which while it has changed the media narrative somewhat does not seem to have moved the dial on polls.

The advantage of this way of making the negative appeal is that it turns McCain Mark I against today’s McCain, thus establishing a “more in sorrow than in anger” line of attack, which can appeal to those who liked the earlier version of McCain while making clear that McCain Mark One is simply not on offer this year.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.