Behind Politicians is the Process, Where Principles Confront Reality

By RJI on August 6, 2008 0 Comments

by Jon Margolis

Jon Margolis, former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964," lives in northeastern Vermont, where he writes and teaches.

When Barack Obama mildly, conditionally, reluctantly, sort of changed his position on the offshore oil drilling issue late last week, the reaction of press and public was as interesting as it was varied.

No, actually, it was more interesting than it was varied, varied though it was. The variety was standard stuff; different strokes for different news outfits is par for the course. What was really interesting came less from what was said or written than from what was not said or written because it was assumed, the assumption being that candidates change their positions – even mildly, conditionally, sort of – at the peril of being labeled a flip-flopper, if not a sell-out.

Behind that assumption are some others, perhaps reflecting attitudes embedded in the culture itself. But hold that thought for a minute. For now, just consider the event and the coverage.

Many a reporter, starting with the Associated Press’s Mike Glover, whose account was used by news organizations all over the country, handled the story just right.

Obama, Glover wrote, “said Friday he would be willing to support limited offshore oil drilling if that’s what it takes to enact a comprehensive policy to foster fuel-efficient autos and develop alternative energy sources.”

Michael Powell of the New York Times took a similar approach, and his editors appropriately put the story on Page 16 (at least in the national edition), saying, in effect, it was no big deal.

At the other extreme, CNN seemed to devote half of Saturday afternoon to what it called Obama’s “reversal” on offshore drilling, and online at Slate, Melinda Henneberger was one of several left-of-center bloggers who accused the Democratic candidate of “selling out.”

From what can be called the purist perspective, that seemed to be a plausible assessment. After all, as recently as Thursday, Obama was calling the plan by opponent John McCain and other Republicans to end the decades-old ban on additional offshore drilling “a strategy designed to get politicians through an election.”

Even as he acknowledged that polls showed most Americans wanted to end the ban because they thought it would bring down the price of gasoline, Obama held firm. Ending the ban, he said, is “not going to provide short-term relief or medium-term relief or in fact long-term relief.”

There he was. The brave politician defying the polls, willing to tell the sovereign people that they were wrong if they thought planting more drill rigs in the ocean would bring down the price of gasoline. Then what? Had he taken another look at those polls and changed his mind? Or – perhaps worse – pretended to change his mind in slavish pursuit of public approval, no matter how foolish he thought the public was on this matter? How wimpy.

Except that Obama had not changed his mind. In the same interview (with the Palm Beach Post) in which he announced his willingness to consider some drilling, he said, “we're not going to drill our way out of this problem … Every expert agrees on that.”

What changed between Thursday and Friday was not Obama’s mind but the circumstances. Not just the political circumstances, either, but the actual governing circumstances. The change came when 10 senators – five from each party – came up with a new energy proposal that would – just as Mike Glover said in his lead – allow “limited offshore drilling” in exchange for various measures to reduce oil consumption altogether.

Without endorsing every detail or the proposal, Obama called it “a good faith effort at a new bipartisan beginning.”

Briefly, the 10 senators would try “to transition our economy – particularly the surface transportation sector – to run off alternative fuels other than gasoline and diesel.” The proposed legislation would accomplish this goal by spending some $20 billion a year helping the auto industry come up with vehicles that propel themselves without burning gasoline, and help car-buyers buy those vehicles. The money would come from the oil industry, largely by repealing the extra tax breaks bestowed upon it shortly before the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006.

In addition, the compromise plan would allow what it calls “Responsible, Targeted Domestic Energy Production” (capital letters in the original; who knows why?) by allowing some more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and allowing Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia “to opt in to leasing off their shores.” But at least 50 miles off, so as not to spoil the view or hurt the tourism.

Whether this is wise policy, foolish policy or just another political gimmick is as open to discussion as is any proposal. Certainly the provision requiring that all the oil produced from these new wells would have to be used in the United States seems something of a gimmick; petroleum is a world commodity for which there is a world market. There is arguably something contradictory about a proposal that would increase oil production even as it reduces oil consumption. And those senators need a better writer. He or she who uses “transition” as a verb should be … well, not quite summarily executed without being granted the right to confront witnesses or cross-examine accusers, but at least told to find another line of work.

Still, one problem with most of the coverage is that it gave short shrift to the details of the bipartisan proposal. Otherwise, it might have noted that the compromise leaned notably further in the direction of Obama and the Democrats than of McCain and the Republicans. It is basically an alternative-fuel, energy-efficiency subsidy act – and one paid for by the oil industry – with a little more offshore oil production thrown in, almost as if that provision were a sweetener to give Republicans political cover to sign on.

Maybe it was. The Republican senators – Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia; John Thune of South Dakota; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; and Bob Corker of Tennessee – are not fools. They know that the Federal Energy Information Administration’s assessment is that more offshore drilling would have almost no impact on the price of gasoline. But a Republican senator can’t very well defy his party’s president and its presidential candidate, not to mention the oil industry and a majority of the folks. They needed some more drilling to go along with the res of the plan.

Like Obama, at least some of the Democrats (Kent Conrad of North Dakota; Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas; Ben Nelson of Nebraska; and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana) might not have liked the offshore drilling provision. But they knew the Republicans needed it (and so, probably, did Landrieu, who is up for re-election this year in an oil-producing state). It was a price they were willing to pay to get the stuff they did want.

In other words, they made a deal. They engaged in log-rolling. They surrendered a quid in return for a quo. They practiced politics as usual. And Barack Obama, who has pledged to bring about “change,” went along with it. No wonder those left-of-center bloggers were upset. This was not the kind of change they were hoping Obama would provide.

Here is the connection – or perhaps the contradiction – between this story and the assumptions embedded in so much of the culture, including that of political journalism. We are, these days, focused on the personal aspect of politics, and one of the things we seem to demand of political persons is that they be true to themselves. We demand “authenticity,” which often boils down to consistency even at the risk of stubbornness. So we disparage the office-holder who compromises, who practices log-rolling, deal-making, accepting something he knows is foolish if that’s what’s needed to get something he thinks is valuable. In today’s political culture, “politics as usual” has become an insult.

But there’s another word to describe the same attitude and actions. The word is “democracy.” In our devotion (obsession?) with the personal and the individual, our regard for self-assertion and self-esteem, and our admiration for the individual who “sticks to his or her principles,” we sometimes forget that democracy requires a certain amount of self-abnegation, a recognition that the other folks are selves as much as we, that if they have power, they deserve it, and therefore can not be dismissed.

In this case, the Republican Party has the presidency, 49 percent of the Senate and almost 46 percent of the House. Minorities, but large ones. The Republicans, in other words, have some power. And that means they should. They won those elections fair and square, or at least as fair and square as they Democrats won theirs.

“I have to accept things I don’t like,” Obama said. “At some point, people are going to have to make some decisions. Are we going to keep on arguing, or are we going to get some things done?”

In a democracy, getting some things done often means not being true to your principles. This reality could be out of synch with the prevailing culture, in and out of newsrooms.