Friday, July 04, 2008

Old And Not Improved

The New York Times takes Obama to task for his changes in position from the primary to the regular election. Some of their complaints are valid; others are exaggerated.
  • "First, he broke his promise to try to keep both major parties within public-financing limits for the general election." - except, of course, that wasn't his promise. The promise he broke was to work with his opponent to stay within the public financing limits, and it's fair to criticize him on that - but where's the piece lambasting McCain for walking away from everything he supposedly believes in, in relation to campaign finance reform, lying about his commitment to public financing during the primary campaign, and possibly breaking the law in his hasty retreat from that promise?

  • "The new Barack Obama has abandoned his vow to filibuster an electronic wiretapping bill if it includes an immunity clause for telecommunications companies that amounts to a sanctioned cover-up of Mr. Bush’s unlawful eavesdropping after 9/11." - I think that's a fair criticism, particularly given the New York Times' consistent advocacy against an immunity provision. But why is it that the Constitution is seen as something Democrats must defend but that Republicans are free to ignore? I can't help but wonder, if major newspapers held some Republican feet to the fire over their disdain for civil liberties, this dispute would have ended a long time ago in favor of the Constitution. The "he said, she said" framing of issues by the media also contributes to the problem. "Democrats say important freedoms are at stake. Republicans say that the only freedoms the Democrats want to protect are those of terrorists, that Democrats agree that not closing FISA loopholes poses a danger to this country, and all they are trying to do is to prevent trial lawyers from bringing frivolous lawsuits against companies that were acting in good faith and trying to help protect the nation from terrorism. You decide."

  • "The Barack Obama of the primary season used to brag that he would stand before interest groups and tell them tough truths. The new Mr. Obama tells evangelical Christians that he wants to expand President Bush’s policy of funneling public money for social spending to religious-based organizations - a policy that violates the separation of church and state and turns a government function into a charitable donation." - As I understand the proposal, Obama is proposing rolling back some of Bush's excesses, and expanding upon the approach to funding religious charities that existed even before Bush took office. Further, there is no contradiction between "stand[ing] before interest groups and tell[ing] them tough truths" and recognizing that religious charities can offer a significant contribution to the public welfare. McCain seems to be all for continuing Bush's existing policies - again, why are only Democrats supposed to oppose positions that, in the Times' words, "violate[] the separation of church and state"?

  • "Mr. Obama endorsed the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the District of Columbia’s gun-control law. We knew he ascribed to the anti-gun-control groups’ misreading of the Constitution as implying an individual right to bear arms. But it was distressing to see him declare that the court provided a guide to 'reasonable regulations enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe.'" - So here there's no actual contradiction, but the Times takes the position that the Heller decision was wrongly decided, and that Obama shouldn't support an opinion that could restrict "handguns, or requiring that firearms be stored in ways that do not present a mortal threat to children". I think it's very much an overstatement to suggest that Heller provides a guide to what type of regulation is reasonable, but this is neither a flip-flop, nor is it sensible for Obama to try to turn this into a major issue by reversing his stance on individual rights and implicitly promising to appoint justices who will reverse or limit Heller.

  • "We were equally distressed by Mr. Obama’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s barring the death penalty for crimes that do not involve murder." - That's fair also, particularly in contrast to his embrace of Heller - what's his standard for picking and choosing which Supreme Court decisions to support or decry? But again, what's the distinction here from McCain? Why, if this is such an important civil rights issue, does McCain get a free ride?

The Times carries on,
We are not shocked when a candidate moves to the center for the general election. But Mr. Obama’s shifts are striking because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions who did not play old political games.
McCain has made similar representations about himself -a maverick, independent, able to work across the aisle. So where's the similar analysis of his flip-flops and contradictions, even if not a similar attack on his disdain for civil rights and liberties?

This type of piece is part of the problem, not part of the solution. When it's convenient, the mainstream media ignores major differences between the candidates - such as with the false suggestion in 2000 that Al Gore and G.W. Bush were essentially the same on all the issues. When it's convenient, false and scurrilous attacks on a candidate turn into fodder for entertainment, not analysis - such as with the "Swift Boat Liars" and their attack on John Kerry. Now, it seems to be convenient to accuse Obama of having insufficient respect for civil rights and to be chaning his positions in order to get elected, while giving McCain a free pass on similar, perhaps greater, sins - and giving the entire Republican Party a free ride on the issue of civil liberties.

Please, go right ahead - savage the candidates, and try to make them honest. But do it to both sides, and don't reduce critical points of distinction between the candidates to an afterthought.

As if I needed a "case in point" for the worst sins of the media, read Matt Yglesias on Charles Krauthammer's latest display of mendacity.

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