Six Questions, Washington Babylon — March 28, 2008, 9:48 am

Six Questions for Matt Bai on Campaign ‘08

Matt Bai covers national politics for the New York Times Magazine and is the author of The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, which chronicles the rise of the first Internet-age political movement and the people who built it. He also writes an online weekly column, “The Primary Argument,” on the New York Times website. He recently replied via email to a series of questions about the presidential campaign and political ideas.

1. You write in your book of the November 2006 election results, “What voters had not done was to endorse any Democratic argument–because, of course, there wasn’t one.” Have Democrats found an argument since?

There are lots of arguments flying around the presidential campaign, as there always are. And some of them are pretty profound. Obama’s basically said that our politics are in need of a realignment, both ideologically and generationally, and I think that argument will get sharper if he’s the nominee and isn’t running a primary campaign anymore. That’s a little different, though, from a party making a larger argument about how government keeps pace with such massive changes in society and technology and in the world. Bill Clinton and the New Democrats had that kind of argument, and so did Ronald Reagan and the conservatives. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like a light bulb goes off over someone’s head and whammo–there’s the next great iteration of American government. It takes years of debate and conversation, a willingness to break with the past and tolerate different viewpoints. That’s not been happening in Democratic politics. All of the conversation is about tactics and turnout and framing, which is really the means of politics, but not the end.

2. The economy certainly looks like it will be a key issue during the fall campaign. Have the Democrats put together fresh ideas on how to address the primary economic challenges facing the country?

I really don’t think so, no. Neither party has. They’re going to do what they’ve done for years, which is to blame each other for the effects of deindustrialization and globalism. As if either invented these things, or as if either could somehow have prevented them. You know, we often talk about 1994 and 2006 as separate ideological waves in America–first a conservative uprising, and then a liberal revolt. Sorry, but that’s just not right. When you step back and look at it, both elections were part of the same, decades-old phenomenon, and that’s a rejection of Washington, D.C., and whichever party happens to be in power for a while. And that’s because neither party is addressing the realities of 21st century economics, and voters get that. They know that there is a tectonic shift in their lives and in their communities, and to listen to the two parties debate, you’d think it was still possible to live in 1975. No wonder the voters get so furious.

3. Is Obama motivating Democrats on the basis of his ideas or his personality/charisma?

I imagine it’s a little of both. He is a singular political talent, he really is. He has an ability to make people believe he means what he’s saying, even when what he’s saying is vague. But you know, I’m 39, and I also think a lot of people in my generation are ready to turn the page on this failed era of baby boomer government. Is there anything in American politics and government that the boomers have left better off than when they inherited it? So I think he speaks to that, too. And that’s a powerful idea. It’s not a theory of economics or some new way to combat radical Islam, but it is a theory of change–this notion that politics can’t improve until we leave the culture wars of another era behind. That matters.

4. Obama has raised huge sums of money, a lot of it from relatively small donors. In the event he were to win the presidency, would that give him more flexibility and freedom in making policy choices?

I don’t know, that’s a good question. I suppose not necessarily, because you need Congress to get anything done, and Congress isn’t any more insulated from the influence of big money than it ever was. But I do think that it would make ordinary people feel more invested in a presidency, and that could have an impact. That creates leverage for a president.

5. “Progressives” generally believes the media is stacked against the Democrats. Is there some truth to that?

There’s some truth to everything. On balance, I really don’t think all these progressives, a lot of whom are affluent and highly educated, are somehow silenced and oppressed by the media. And they ought to be capable of bringing more sophistication to the issue than that. I mean, leaving aside something like Fox News, which has a very limited universe of viewers anyway, we’re not really dealing with institutional biases–we’re talking about individuals and what they bring to their coverage. I approach stories differently from a reporter at the paper, or from a writer at another magazine, or from some yapping pundit on cable TV. It’s impossible to generalize. But you know, I often say that we’re leaving the era of persuasion and entering the era of confirmation. A lot of people don’t want to learn from what they read–they just want it to instantly validate what they already believe, and if it doesn’t do that, they just dismiss it and go to one of the 2,000 websites that will. No one has to leave their intellectual comfort zones anymore. And unfortunately we have some columnists and commentators who are all too willing to blindly validate one worldview or the other, because it’s very gratifying to be loved like that. But that’s not our job. Our job is to challenge your preconceptions and our own. And when you do that, someone’s always going to complain.

6. On balance, do you think that twenty years from now the Democratic Party will have become more liberal/progressive than it is today? What direction is the party headed in?

That’s impossible to know, right? Twenty years is a long time, and I’d like to think that it won’t be a matter of more, or less, liberal, so much as bolder and more innovative. Was Teddy Roosevelt more or less conservative than Abraham Lincoln? Was Lyndon Johnson more or less liberal than Franklin Roosevelt? It’s not the degree of ideology that mattered–it’s that they saw their moment clearly, and they met change with creativity and courage. They adapted their ideology to changing times. That’s always the challenge.

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