Obama’s Game

I was harsh about Senator Barack Obama of Illinois here a couple of weeks ago, and the very next morning his press aide, Tommy Vietor, was on the phone howling about inaccuracies. It was an illuminating conversation, indicative of the sort of instinctive reflexes at work in the office of a man already breathlessly touted as a possible vice presidential candidate in 2008 and maybe a presidential candidate somewhere down the road from there.

Obama’s man took grave exception to my use of the word “distanced” to describe what his boss had done when Illinois’ senior U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, got into trouble for likening conditions at Guantanamo to those in a Nazi or Stalin-era camp. This was one of Durbin’s finer moments, as he read an FBI man’s eyewitness describing how he had entered interview rooms “to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more.”

“If I read this to you”, Durbin told his fellow senators, “and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime ­ Pol Pot or others ­ that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners. It is not too late. I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course.”

So Durbin paid the penalty of having to eat crow on the Senate floor. His fellow senator, Obama, did not support him in any way. Obama said, “we have a tendency to demonize and jump on and make mockery of each other across the aisle and that is particularly pronounced when we make mistakes. Each and every one of us is going to make a mistake once in a while… and what we hope is that our track record of service, the scope of how we’ve operated and interacted with people, will override whatever particular mistake we make.”

That’s three uses of the word “mistake”. This isn’t distancing?

Nor did Obama’s man like my description of Obama’s cheerleading for the nuke Iran crowd. Obama recently declared that when it comes to the U.S. posture on Iran, all options, including military ones, should be on the table. Now, if Obama had any sort of guts in such matters he would have said that if Iraq is to teach America’s leaders any lesson, it is that reckless recourse to the military “option” carries a dreadful long-term price tag.

He did nothing of the sort, which is not surprising to anyone who read his speech to the Council of Foreign Relations last November. Remember the context. Rep. Jack Murtha had just given a savage jolt to the White House. This be-medalled former chairman of the House Armed Services committee had publicly delivered the actual opinion of the generals: “I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis The United States will immediately redeploy ­ immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free, free from a United States occupation. And I believe this will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process.”

And who knows, if Murtha’s counsel had been followed, maybe it would have saved Iraq from the horrors now unraveling. But Democrats fled Murtha, few with more transparent calculation than Obama who voyaged to the Council on Foreign Relations on November 22, there to ladle out to the assembled elites such balderdash as “The President could take the politics out of Iraq once and for all if he would simply go on television and say to the American people ‘Yes, we made mistakes'”, or “we need to focus our attention on how to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq. Notice that I say ‘reduce,’ and not ‘fully withdraw'”, or “2006 should be the year that the various Iraqi factions must arrive at a fair political accommodation to defeat the insurgency; and , the Administration must make available to Congress critical information on reality-based benchmarks that will help us succeed in Iraq.”

Obama is one of those politicians whom journalists like to decorate with words as “adroit” or “politically adept” because you can actually see him trimming to the wind, the way you see a conjuror of moderate skill shove the rabbit back up his sleeve. Above all he is concerned with the task of reassuring the masters of the Democratic Party, and beyond that, the politico-corporate establishment, that he is safe. Whatever bomb might have been in his head has long since been dis-armed. He’s never going to blow up in the face of anyone of consequence.

There are plenty of black people like that in the Congress now. After a decade or so of careful corporate funding, as the Black Congressional Caucus is sinking under the weight of Democratic Leadership Copuncil clones like Artur Davis of Alabama, Albert Wynn of Maryland, Sanford Bishop and David Scott of Georgia, William Jefferson of Louisiana, Gregory Meeks of New York, all assiduously selling for a mess of pottage the interests of the voters who sent them to Washington. Obama has done exactly the same thing. He lobbed up the first signal flare during the run-up to his 2004 senate race, when his name began to feature on Democratic Leadership Council literature as one of the hundred Democratic leaders to watch . That indispensable publication The Black Commentator raised a stink about this. “It would be a shame,” wrote the Commentator’s Bruce Dixon, ” if he is in the process of becoming ‘ideologically freed’ from the opinions of the African American and other Democrats whose votes he needs to win.”

Obama wriggled for a while, sending out clouds of mush speak such as “I believe that politics in any democracy is a game of addition, not subtraction”, but the Commentator held his feet to the fire. They posed Obama three “bright-line” questions:

1. Do you favor the withdrawal of the United States from NAFTA? Will you in the Senate introduce or sponsor legislation toward that end?

2. Do you favor the adoption of a single payer system of universal health care to extend the availability of quality health care to all persons in this country? Will you in the Senate introduce or sponsor legislation toward that end?

3. Would you have voted against the October 10 congressional resolution allowing the president to use unilateral force against Iraq?

This was in 2003, when Obama clearly felt he could not afford to endanger left support by answering anything other than Yes on the questions and so he duly told the Black Commentator that he would stop hanging his hat in the halls of the DLC and would tell them to remove his name from their !00-To-Watch list. Hence his press man, Vietor’s, sensitivity to my allusion in that last to Obama’s “mentor” being Senator Joe Lieberman. As a freshman senator, Vietor insisted, Obama had been assigned Lieberman as “mentor”. Read the Hartford Courant and you’ll find Lieberman boasting that Obama picked him.

Either way, it’s obvious that Obama could have brokered a different mentor if he’d so desired it, same way he could have declined to go and tout for Lieberman at that Democratic Party dinner in Connecticut at the end of March. But he clearly didn’t, because he wanted to send out a reassuring signal, same way as his Political Action Committee, the Hope Fund’s, is raising money for 14 of his senatorial colleagues ­ ten of whom are DLC in orientation, which is half of the DLC presence in the Senate.

There has been a more substantive signal, keenly savored by the corporate world, where Obama voted for “tort reform”, thus making it far harder for people to get redress or compensation. Actually the Yes vote in the Senate was filibuster-proof, s Obama could have voted either way without it making anydifference. He just wanted the top people to know j how safe he was.

A woman from Illinois wrote to me after my last column on Obama, agreeing with my reproofs, and saying:

Here’s an example of how the position and adulation from those in Washington have gone to his head. I’m involved with the Springfield (IL) Urban League. We began asking almost immediately after the election if he could be the keynote speaker at our annual fundraising dinner ­ which was held last fall! His staff delayed positive responses (even as we continued to call and inquire) until it was too late to get on the schedule of any nationally recognized ‘celebrity.’ (Thankfully, the attendance was excellent and the fundraiser our best ever ­ despite the brush off we received from Obama.) Let me reiterate: Barack Obama blew off speaking before an audience of 500 primarily African-American voters in Illinois ­ the state he purports to represent. He’s spoken here lots of times prior to his election to the Senate, and even since. But he blew us off for nothing more than continued visits to states that did not elect him to stump for sometimes-questionable democrats ­ like the Lieberman situation.”

Some hopeful progressives still say, “Obama has to bob and weave, while positioning himself at the high table as the people’s champion.” But in his advance to the high table he is divesting himself of all legitimate claims to be any sort of popular champion, as opposed to another safe black, like Condoleezza Rice (whom Obama voted to confirm. The Empire relishes such servants.

And so Obama, the constitutional law professor, voted to close off any filibuster of Alito and fled Senator Russell Feingold’s motion to censure the President, declaring: “my and Senator Feingold’s view is not unanimous. Some constitutional scholars and lower court opinions support the president’s argument that he has inherent authority to go outside the bounds of the law in monitoring the activities of suspected terrorists. The question is whether the president understood the law and knowingly flaunted it.”

That’s not the question at all. The vitality of the Constitution does not rest on whether Bush understands it, any more that the integrity of the Criminal Code depends on whether the President has ever read a line of any statute. We can safely assume that he doesn’t and he hasn’t.

And so also did Obama, the constitutional law professor, vote Yea on March 2 to final passage of the U.S.A PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act, unlike ten of his Democratic colleagues.

Vietor, Obama’s man, laughed derisively at my complaint at the end of my last column how most of her Democratic colleagues had fled Cynthia McKinney. “She apologized”, Vietor cried, as though that settled the matter. In fact the betrayal of McKinney, particularly by her black colleagues, was an appalling and important political moment rewarding the racism showered on McKinney and the ongoing implosion of the Congressional Black Caucus. Obama, of course, distanced himself from her too.


MoveOn: Business As Usual

Late one night I tripped over Bill Clinton. He was talking on C-SPAN about the power of the internet. On and on he droned. What a dreadful bore the man has become, like a man at a cocktail party, hanging onto your lapel and droning banalities at a six-inch range . Of course what allured Clinton was the power of the internet to raise his favorite substance, money. The spectacle reminded me of the very first time I saw Clinton physically, which was at a fundraiser for him in New Hampshire in 1992 Some poor fellow asked Clinton some question about the credit card companies, and Bill gave him ten solid minutes, at six-inch range, on his plans. Eventually Hillary tried to drag him off, but Bill just wouldn’t stop, even though the man began to reel under the assault, backing into the wall and swiveling his eyes from left to right, on the edge of panic.

I was there with Andy Kopkind and John Scagliotti. As so often happens, the morning after I’d seen Clinton on C-SPAN and remembered the scene in Neww Hampshire, John forwarded me a note he’d just sent MoveOn.org, responding to a typical MoveOn letter trying to drag money from his pocket. Here’s John’s letter first, then the MoveOn letter that elicited his rebuke:


From: “John Scagliotti” <stonewal@sover.net>
Date: March 29, 2006 8:47:03 AM PST
To: “Tom Matzzie, MoveOn.org Political Action” <moveon-help@list.moveon.org>
Subject: Re: Best. Ad. Yet.

Tom: As a media person I am dissappointed that you still think spending big money on TV ads and giving it to the media corporations who own television stations as a way to reach a few leaning votes is a wise decision. It is a waste of money and bad politics.

$750,000 could have been spent on 25 part time precinct captains and organizers in those same districts to do the hard grassroots work that needs to be done if you plan to have any impact on this next election.. And you would have still had a lot of money left to spend and build the alternative media, like local organizations newsletters, farmworker newsletters, gay and lesbian newsletters, web newsletters like CounterPunch or The Nation or the many political blogs and in each of those alternative media ads you could have asked for more financial support to hire more precinct captains. Put ads in the alternative media and ask for money and help build that media.

Precinct captains hired from the grassroots (who live in the community they are organizing in) know thousands personally and will organize on the ground. That is what is needed. I know, people like to see themselves on TV, but there are other ways to get on TV. Be imaginative, ask. I could give you hundreds of ideas to get on TV for free.

By the way, how much did you spend on this “Testing of the Ads” and who did this testing? Sounds like you got taken again by the Political Industrial Complex guys who somehow get their pound of flesh and line their pockets by getting you to believe that TV ads in “leaning districts” is the way to go. It is a conflict of interest. If I was your media guy, I would push TV too and have numbers to prove it (hire my polling buddies) as it means I make more money the more I get you to make TV media buys. How do I apply for that job? (Just kidding) I used to work in that industry. It is a scam. But if you need to hire an alternative media buyer then I would be glad to take that position.

There are many of us who have been organizing against these type of expenditures by grassroots funders and we will continue to make our case.

John Scagliotti
After Stonewall productions
158 Kopkind RD
Guilford, VT 05301

—– Original Message —–
From: Tom Matzzie, MoveOn.org Political Action
To: John Scagliotti
Sent: Wednesday, March 29, 2006 10:58 AM
Subject: Best. Ad. Yet.

Our Best TV Ads Yet

Our new TV ad series “Caught Red-Handed” is our best-testing ad yet. To get the ads on the air we need to raise $750,000 before Monday. If 30,000 of us contribute $25 we can beat the goal. Can you make a contribution of $25? Click below.


The ad connects incumbents and the thousands of dollars they’ve taken from oil and gas companies to the big giveaways and price-gouging that hurts ordinary Americans. Here are some screenshots. (We whited-out the Congressman’s face so we don’t tip him off before Monday.)

Dear John,

This Friday at midnight is the deadline for first-quarter election fundraising. To wrap up with a bang we’re unveiling our new election TV ads-about big oil lobbying. They’re a critical part of the big plan to win.

These are the best testing ads we’ve ever made but to get them on TV we need to raise $750,000 before Monday. That is our biggest fundraising goal yet but every time we’ve asked MoveOn members to step up you’ve done it.

If 30,000 of us contribute $25 we can beat this goal. Can you contribute $25? Click below.
If we can raise the money together, we’ll put the ads on TV at saturation levels in five key districts-places where there’s a good chance to beat a Republican incumbent but where it’s not a toss-up yet. That’ll help broaden the number of seats in play-and make a Democratic takeover even more possible.

The new TV ads are part of a series we’re calling “Caught Red-Handed.” On-screen during the ads, black and white pictures of Republicans whose hands have been colored red are used as a metaphor for the corruption in Washington.

The first ads in the series expose how the Republican incumbent is taking money from oil and energy companies and then supporting laws that giveaway billions to these companies while they price-gouge ordinary Americans.

The ad strategy is one of our most focused efforts yet. Here are some key points about it:

o The ads are tested to maximize their impact. We’re really excited to share that, in early tests, these new TV ads tested better than any ad we’ve ever created.

o The ads are targeted strategically to help create a win. We’ll put the ads on TV in districts that are leaning competitive but need an extra push.

o The ad does double-duty by raising the important issue of energy policy. As The New York Times reported on Monday, the Republican Congress gave away as much as $28 billion to oil and gas companies in last year’s energy bill in what the reporter called a, “familiar Washington story of special-interest politics at work.”1 Oil and gas companies contributed more than $90 million to politicians since 2000.2

The fundraising goal of $750,000 is really big but we know that together we can beat the goal. Can you contribute $25?

If we beat our goal before Friday that is even better. Friday’s FEC fundraising deadline will be used by some Republicans incumbents to decide if they want to retire this year. That would make the election even more up for grabs. It is important that we put up some big numbers this week. Please contribute.

Thanks for all you do.

­Tom, Jennifer, Adam, Eli and the MoveOn.org Political Action Team
Wednesday, March 29th, 2006


1. “Vague Law and Hard Lobbying Add Up to Billions for Big Oil.” The New York Times, March 27, 2006.

2. Oil and Gas: Long-Term Contribution Trends. Center for Responsive Politics.

Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.


SDS: Born Again

It happened this last weekend in Providence: SDS veterans and younger activists got together in Providence, presumably at Brown, and talked about setting up SDS again. CounterPuncher James called from a van to say that he was sitting next to Al Haber and it had just happened. I asked whether they’d burned Tod Gitlin in effigy. Not yet, it seems.

Footnote: a shorter version of the first item ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday.




Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.