Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Which were the essential reads of Campaign 2008?

So much that has kept us gripped - the polling horse-race in the toss-up states, outlandish Veep speculation and even more outlandish reality, Joe the Plumber - will tonight be the electronic version of chip paper. There has been nothing new to say today, as the ceremonies of election day play themselves out. And the weight of history hanging over this election must present a daunting task for even the greatest wordsmiths, who may surely struggle not to all write the same piece tomorrow.

Which made me think, after so many millions of words, which have been the pieces which have stood out, and which will be worth reading again not just after January 20th, but perhaps also four years from now at the end of the next President's term?

Here are just a few personal picks, particularly on the Obama phenomenon. There must be other great pieces that passed me by. If other Next Left contributors and readers, have their own recommendations, I would be interested to hear them.


Mark Schmitt's piece on The Theory of Change Primary is one of the best pieces I have seen on Obama's rhetoric of change, and on how the Democrat race this year was not about policy or electability, but competing about political strategies for change.

let's take a slightly different angle on the charge that Obama is "naïve" about power and partisanship. Suppose you were as non-naïve about it as I am -- but your job wasn't writing about politics, it was running for president? What should you do? In that case, your responsibility is not merely to describe the situation exactly, but to find a way to subvert it.

The culture wars

Consistently the most articulate (and impassioned) of the growing Obamacons army has been Andrew Sullivan. His December 2007 essay Why Obama Matters made a centre-right case for Obama's potential to be a liberal Reagan.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.


Michael Tomasky has been incisive about every twist and turn of the campaign. After tomorrow, he should find time to step back and put it all into context. His New York Review of Books review of Obama's second book, assessing the prospects of the undeclared Obama campaign, was out Obama's ambivalence about liberalism.

Which brings us to the second possible interpretation of Obama's equivocations. He really is not a political warrior by temperament. He is not even, as the word is commonly understood, a liberal. He is in many respects a civic republican—a believer in civic virtue, and in the possibility of good outcomes negotiated in good faith. These concepts are consonant with liberalism in many respects, but since the rise in the 1960s of a more aggressive rights-based liberalism, which sometimes places particular claims for social justice ahead of a larger universal good, the two versions have existed in some tension.

The secret wonks

Obama has often been accused of arguing for 'change' without content. The great secret is just how wonkish his policy instincts and team are - something entertainingly captured by Noam Scheiber in The Audacity of Data, for The New Republic.


The best contribution on the theme of race came from the candidate himself, in his Philadelphia speech. Obama's recent remark to Joe Klein that he saw the Wright episode as a teachable moment may say a great deal about how he will use the White House.


The economic crisis revealed a lack of Republican policy or strategy on the issue of the day, which was fundamentally damaging. But the contrast of character was also striking. Obama's coolness under pressure was Presidential, and has demonstrated a characteristic detachment. David Brooks, a sometime Obama critic, wrote an interesting column on the pros and cons of the Obama style. And this also became a central theme of Alec MacGillis' epic New Statesman essay on a year with Obama

Even in the biggest arenas, he retained a hint of the observer's remove, which was to be expected given that he was, after all, a writer. His memoir, Dreams From My Father, if clichéd at moments, had demonstrated a true writer's sensibility, and his political tract, The Audacity of Hope, had managed at points to transcend that form. This aspect of the candidate was, to me, the biggest mystery of all. Most of us tend towards one pole or the other, observer or participant, critic or actor, consultant or candidate - one burdened by heightened self-awareness, the other liberated, if not always for the best, by a shortage of the same.

The right

The next cultural civil war may be within the US right, as one of the most successful coalitions of recent times falls apart.
George Packer's New Yorker essay in May captured an essential and much overlooked point. A critique that George W Bush was not a good, small government conservative may be true - but it does not go deep enough if the belief is in the ideological consistency of the golden age of Reagan.

Even Reagan, the Moses of the conservative movement, was more ideological in his rhetoric than in his governance. he had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan’s political career and of the conservative movement. He didn’t come close to achieving it and didn’t try very hard, recognizing early that the public would be happy to have its taxes cut as long as its programs weren’t touched. And Reagan was a poor steward of the unglamorous but necessary operations of the state.

I'm sure there were many more, but they were all pieces which I learnt something from and which stuck with me.

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