The Truth Is What Works

It’s a quiet Sunday evening here in Hollywood – no police helicopters overhead at the moment and no rioting down the block on the Sunset Strip. The massive skateboard riot at Sunset and Vine was Saturday night – things have settled down since. Everyone’s home watching Sunday Night Football or the baseball game up in San Francisco, and kids are sullenly doing their homework, or pretending to. Monday will be here soon enough. Another week is about to begin, and of course Obama is holed-up at a riverfront resort in Williamsburg doing his own Sunday evening homework, carefully preparing for the second presidential debate. He’s told reporters that it’s going great – as it had better be, given that disastrous first face-off with Mitt.

Romney is doing the same up at his Boston-area home, doing his homework. One assumes he’s not all that worried. Somehow it seems Obama has handed him the election, at least that’s what the polls are showing – Gallup: Romney Leads 49-47, No Change Since Friday and Romney Up 2 in North Carolina and Romney Holds 1-Point Lead In Florida and Obama, Romney Tied In Colorado and so on. Obama’s lead is gone and Romney is surging, with no setbacks at all. But maybe not – see Obama Leads Ohio by 5 in Ohio despite Debate Fallout – and a new Rocky Mountain poll has President Obama ahead by two points in Arizona of all places. But that Arizona thing may be an outlier from a not very trustworthy organization, or not. Who knows? There’s also Obama grabs wide lead among those who have already voted counterbalanced by Sen. Rob Portman: Romney Probably Could Win Election without Winning Ohio – but no one else agrees with Portman. Ohio matters. Or it doesn’t matter.

Everything is up in the air – but the tone of it all is that Romney has Obama on the run. All that Romney has to do is hammer one more nail in Obama’s coffin, or step back and let Obama self-destruct. Who is going to vote for Obama anyway? The big weekend story from the Associated Press was Jesse Washington with DO BLACK PEOPLE SUPPORT OBAMA BECAUSE HE’S BLACK?

Yes, it was in all caps. The idea was that there’s no other reason some folks might vote for the guy, and the blogger BooMan tries to sort it all out:

When you ask a black person if they are voting for Barack Obama because he is black, you need to be careful to make sure you know what their answer means. Did they vote for John Kerry and Al Gore and Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis, and Walter Mondale, too? Because, if they did, I don’t think you have explained much by getting them to say that they support Obama because he is black.

When you ask a white person if they are voting for Mitt Romney because he is white, it matters quite a lot to know whether they supported every Democrat until Obama. If they considered themselves a Democrat for thirty years but won’t vote for Obama because of his race, then that is a whole different kettle of fish.

Because what you are really trying to discover here is whether there are people who are voting for or against a candidate solely because of race. And only racists do that.

BooMan suggests Jesse Washington hasn’t thought things through:

Find me a black person who would vote for Allen West for president over Hillary Clinton despite preferring Clinton’s policies on everything, and I’ll show you a racist black person. But there are not many black people like that in this country. And there a lot of white folks who are Democrats every day of the week until they have to choose a black candidate over a white one.

BooMan knows nonsense when he sees it:

This isn’t rocket science. Black people like the Democratic Party. They like Barack Obama, too. In combination, it’s a recipe for monolithic support. But almost no one is truly voting for Barack Obama solely because of his race.

All this begs the question of why Barack Obama was elected president in the first place. It seems unlikely it was because of massive and widespread bleeding-heart liberal guilt – Jesse Jackson didn’t come anywhere near getting nominated, much less elected, no matter how hard he tried. And as for Hispanics voting for anyone who wasn’t just one more white guy, George Bush got a big chunk of the Hispanic vote both times he ran, but that bloc didn’t put him over the top – so that’s a wash. Obama did win the black vote decisively, but they would have probably voted for Hillary Clinton had she won the nomination. Yes, part of Obama’s win had to do with John McCain’s appalling choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate – even Dick Cheney was stunned by that, and not in a good way. A few Republican pundits tried to put a brave face on that choice, but most eventually gave up. McCain himself was flawed too – he eventually came off as a befuddled and angry old man, who had once been a war hero, but for enduring all those years as a prisoner of war, in solitary, not as a participant in any geopolitical issues in any way at all. He was brave as brave could be, and he was also often confused. That wouldn’t do.

Obama may have won by default. Along with not being George Bush, who had turned out to be a disaster, leaving us in two impossible wars and with the economy in ruins, he was not angry and easily-distracted John McCain. And Joe Biden, as goofy as he might be at times, knew his stuff from long years of useful House and Senate experience, and he certainly wasn’t Sarah Palin – even if she was easier on the eyes. Still there was more to it. Obama came off as a nice guy, and a smart guy, and a sensible fellow. He didn’t lose his cool. He was always looking for a way to fix things for the better, but without getting all high and mighty about it. He was forever talking about working things out with his political foes – finding some way to get everyone to agree just enough to get something done, so no one felt left out or felt as if they had been railroaded. He may have run on Hope – that was the famous poster – but that may have been silly. The message was something else. Let’s see what we can get done.

In short, Obama came off as a pragmatist. He wasn’t stuck on some ideology or any sort of absolute anything, even if the right tried to say he was a socialist or a terrorist or a Kenyan anti-colonialist or whatever. That didn’t stick. Obama’s thing was the art of the possible, for what good you could do, even if it wasn’t the ideal and perfect solution to everything that was ever wrong with everything. Half a loaf is better than none. He had to tell the folks on the idealist left that, over and over again.

That worked, but maybe the nation is having second thoughts about pragmatism now. It’s not all that exciting and certainly not inspiring, and this is discussed by Harvey Cormier, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook and author of a book on William James’s theory of truth – The Truth Is What Works – a rather wooly discussion regarding all the attacks on James, one of the fathers of the Pragmatist Movement. No, James never really said that truth is mutable, if you’re interested.

That’s not the point of Cormier’s discussion of Obama’s particular kind of pragmatism in a New York Times opinion piece – basically a discussion of one central question:

Is pragmatism in fact a desirable quality in a leader? A standard view on this matter says no: A nation needs principles, not pragmatism.

Maybe we’re just discovering that now. Cormier points to the December 29, 2008, issue of The Nation – Barack Obama, Pragmatist – the cover story written by Christopher Hayes contending that Obama was more interested in “what works” than in either conservative or liberal nonsense. Others have said the same thing – Fareed Zakaria and Glenn Greenwald and Peter Berkowitz and Andrew Sullivan and so on. Cormier also points to a conclave of academic philosophers involved in a symposium on Obama and pragmatism – so talk of Obama’s essential pragmatism is nothing new. It’s just that it turns out that the politics of pragmatism kind of suck:

Obama the pragmatist has failed to achieve a big-enough economic stimulus package, the public option, strong re-regulation of the banks, the closing of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, a quick end to two wars, and so on. Should we take this as evidence that pragmatism saps faith and damps down activity?

Maybe so, but that’s not where Obama started:

In 2006, Obama, then the junior senator from Illinois wrote in his memoir “The Audacity of Hope” that the Constitution, rather than being a dead document based on settled principles, is “designed to force us into a conversation” and offers “a way by which we argue about our future.” And he criticized his own Democratic party for failing to bring new ideas to this argument, having become “the party of reaction”: “In reaction to a war that is ill-conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning.” Obama challenged both parties to leave behind their ideological boilerplate and develop something new, something that all Americans can come to believe in.

Cormier loves that sort of thing and is reluctant to abandon that sort of pragmatism:

Obviously we are not there yet. But there is still potential in the pragmatist’s belief in beliefs. That meta-belief treats our ideas, faiths, beliefs, and principles as an evolving set of tools for coping with changing circumstances. Ideally it will, if we adopt it, provide us with two simple but crucial benefits: encouragement and flexibility.

We, just like the ideologues, will be inspired by our beliefs and principles to fight – even to kill and die, if we have to – to make things better; but we will also be willing to stop and reconsider our principles every so often, looking hard at the world of practical life and asking whether our principles are really getting us what we want, whatever that may be. We will have faith, but we will also be ready to develop new faiths for new times.

Then we get the critical question:

Should we, then, support the pragmatic president, despite the many disappointments of the past four years?

Obama has indeed come out with some surprising half-loaves – the pullout from Iraq, Obamacare, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, some mild re-regulation of the banks, some incipient consumer protections, a Supreme Court that is not full of ultra-conservatives. Is this enough – or should we snort in disgust at these comparatively small concrete accomplishments and go ideological, either hard left or hard right?

The voters will have to decide that, but Cormier is clear about where he stands:

Pragmatism, which looks at the way the world really works, seeks cooperation (sometimes to little or no avail), and takes experimental chances, is, at least, not something we should hold against Obama. As a computer programmer might say, pragmatism is not a bug: it’s a feature.

That’s an academic view, but a reader at Talking Points Memo offers something far more direct:

I, too, have been agog at the number of folks on the left who are throwing up their hands and declaring Obama the second coming of Walter Mondale. Not just for policy reasons – though as someone who teaches courses on the presidency I think just about no one gives this president enough credit for what has been done on his watch – but because I wonder where they have been for the last four years.

Did they miss the racist emails, the snide Teleprompter jokes, the smug certainty among so many on the right that this administration is an accident, and that a black man isn’t REALLY president, just some sort of uncrowned caretaker? Do these folks really want their bigoted in-laws and racist YouTube commenters to have the satisfaction of having been right all along? Because that’s what they’ll take away from this. The amount of bedwetting panic on the left is pathetic. The president has approval and favorability ratings at or higher than 50%, the economy is growing, jobs are being created, and they’re going to write off the election because of one awful debate performance? It is mind-boggling.

Obama was just being pragmatic, which doesn’t play well in debates, but the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein sees something more:

The next presidential debate is Tuesday, and the advice President Obama is getting is largely stylistic. Attack more. Look less sleepy. Stop writing in your diary while Mitt Romney is talking…

That Obama lost the first debate because he didn’t seem sufficiently psyched to be there is probably partially true, but it’s also a form of flattery. It says, in effect, that Obama’s only problem was the superficiality of the format and Mitt Romney’s untruths. Obama was just too deep and too thoughtful and too honest to win.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Obama buys into it. “I do think that on television it was clear that I was being too restrained when Mr. Romney was telling his tall tales,” he told a Miami radio host. “But the truth is, when you read the transcript, everything I said was true and a lot of what he said was not.”

Klein doesn’t agree. He went back and read the transcript and argues that Obama lost the debate in no small part because Obama didn’t know what he wanted to say, which has consequences:

At this point, Romney and Obama are running almost perfectly opposite campaigns. Romney can tell you exactly what he wants to do, but barely a word about how he’ll do it. Obama can’t describe what he wants to achieve, but he can tell you everything about how he’ll get it done. It’s a campaign without real policies against a campaign lacking a clear vision.

As Klein sees it, Obama, the pragmatist, loses, because he lost the part of him that wasn’t pragmatic:

His 2008 campaign was all bold vision and grand plans. He wanted to change Washington and pass a universal health-care plan by the end of his first term. He pushed a cap-and-trade plan to slow carbon emissions and promised immigration reform, an end to the war in Iraq and a post-partisan era that would both reignite citizen control over government and make them proud of the results.

To his credit, Obama actually achieved crucial elements of his agenda – healthcare reform and an end to the war in Iraq, to name two. But the economy remains too weak, and Washington too divided and dysfunctional, for voters to feel Obama made good on his 2008 promises.

Maybe no one voted for pragmatism after all:

One recurring problem for presidential candidates is that they don’t know how much they can’t do, so they overpromise. This happened to Obama in 2008. The problem for presidents is the reverse: Knowing exactly how much they can’t do and fearful of again overpromising, they lose the ability to inspire. This is happening to Obama now.

This is a hard business and all that’s left for Obama is the dull part of pragmatism:

Obama strategists think the American people are done with sweeping promises and transformative rhetoric. Voters are willing to believe Obama couldn’t have gotten much more done given the state of the economy and the intransigence of the Republicans, but they’re not willing to believe that a second term will somehow redeem the high hopes of the first. Obama has to run a more humble campaign, his strategists contend, because he must show that he has been tempered by experience and realism.

What makes this desultory political posture so depressing is that behind the soft reliance on lower expectations lie detailed, serious policy ideas worthy of a great campaign.

But you can only do what you can do. People have to understand that, and maybe they do – but then they don’t like that very much. There’s nothing bold and compelling about realistic pragmatism. It may be that the truth is what works, as William James would have it, but that’s thin gruel. Romney offers big ideas – dumb and impossible, often absurd ideas, but big ideas. That may be why he’s pulling ahead:

Romney prevailed in last week’s debate in part because his vision filled the stage. Reading Obama’s answers, it’s startling how many of them are about Romney. On the heels of a workmanlike convention speech that was particularly lacking in what used to be called “the vision thing,” his debate performance speaks of a deeper problem. Obama, at the moment, doesn’t have anything particularly inspiring to say.

Maybe Obama should talk about the impossible, not the depressing and narrow;y possible, and of course Andrew Sullivan is now in even deeper despair:

Momentum matters. Obama had it. He threw it away. It will be extremely hard, with such little time left, to get it back.

As an Obama supporter, I remain committed, if deeply demoralized. The reason for that new ambivalence is not that the reasons for re-electing him have changed – we desperately need to raise revenues to tackle the debt, we cannot launch a new Judeo-Christian war against Islam in the Middle East without igniting an even more ferocious global religious conflict; it’s just wrong to cut off healthcare access for tens of millions, while ending homecare for countless seniors, while not even making a dent in the actual budget – because of giveaways to the extremely rich. And the way the Obama campaign had made those arguments clearly and consistently and built a brilliant campaign all the way to the first debate was quite something to behold. To be given a gift like the Romney 47 percent video is a rare event in national politics. To get it in the fall of an election should have made an Obama victory all but assured.

But Obama threw it all back in his supporters’ faces, reacting to their enthusiasm and record donations with a performance so execrable, so lazy, so feckless, and so vain it was almost a dare not to vote for him. What he has to do now is so nail these next two debates, so obliterate Romney in both, that he can claw his way back to victory.

Pragmatists don’t do such things. They talk to you about the narrowly possible, telling you the truth, even if that truth doesn’t make you all excited and inspired.

Where does that leave us? Is pragmatism in fact a desirable quality in a leader? Of course it is. You decide what’s actually possible to get done and go about getting it done, even if it’s not everything we all want. Something is always better than nothing. But pragmatism, realistic pragmatism, in a system in perpetual gridlock, where one party would rather see the world end than give in on any even minor point, seems more and more pointless. And so does Obama.

So we’ll probably get Romney. Something is always better than nothing? Be prepared for nothing, or worse.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Truth Is What Works

  1. Rick says:

    Re “Obama did win the black vote decisively, but they would have probably voted for Hillary Clinton had she won the nomination.”:

    Many of them, yes, but not all of them. I think there were plenty of people who voted for Obama because they wanted to help make history — and yet, which is “more historical”, the first black president or the first woman president? I suspect to more people — black or white, male or female — it was the first black. So, yes, there were probably huge numbers of people who voted for him because he was black. I was not one of them. Yes, I like history, and I’m pleased history was made, but I must admit, it was not a factor for me; I did not vote for historical reasons. For me, it wouldn’t have been right.

    As I said at the time, Obama was the smartest guy in the room. (I also said, “I would vote for Obama even if she were a white woman.”)

    Re “Obama came off as a pragmatist. He wasn’t stuck on some ideology or any sort of absolute anything…”:

    In fact, using that definition, we seem to forget that Romney could also be called a pragmatist, since he seems to change his direction every time the wind does.

    Re “As a computer programmer might say, pragmatism is not a bug: it’s a feature.”:

    Although we could also argue, “As a computer programmer might say, sticking to principles is not a bug: it’s a feature.”

    I often think all this yearning for a Congress that “gets things done” is being driven by “undecided voters” — that is, people who have given issues so little thought, and have so little tolerance for conflict, that they’ll accept any action, as long as “it works”. Hey, I can think of things we could do to make ethnic cleansing happen, or even genocide: Does that mean we should try them? No. The fact is, we don’t want “genocide”, even when it “works”. Something is NOT always better than nothing.

    I think I used to prefer pragmatic realists, except that that often means compromising with people who are trying to game the system — in which case, the other side will almost always win, and you will lose. I’m no longer a believer.

    Re “His 2008 campaign was all bold vision and grand plans.”:

    Of COURSE Obama was filled with big plans in 2008! Can you imagine some candidate saying, “Don’t get your hopes up, I might not succeed.”?

    Yes, there may be some voters out there who decided they can’t vote for a weak leader, but personally, I haven’t heard of any Obama supporter say they’ve decided to not vote for Obama because he flunked the debate.

    I will be voting for Obama, but not because he’s a “pragmatist”. You vote for someone because he’s the one trying to get done the kinds of things you want done, whether or not he succeeds. After all, what’s the alternative, voting for the people who DON’T want done what you want done?

    Rick

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