Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Attack of the Consensus Masters

Too much and then not enough has been made of Barack Obama and Deval Patrick's similarities.

On the trivial end, those literal types watching for chances to kick Presidential aspirant Obama seized the speech overlap. That Obama would lift several phrases directly from a Patrick speech — without concomitant oral footnotes — became an extreme example of the worst plagiarism and a moral failure beyond all belief. Yawn.

In fact, Patrick's trust-ourselves and hope-hope-and-work speeches are fairly hackneyed and borrow heavily from very similar phrasing. They only work or him and for Obama because each is sincere and charming.

Instead, the real comparison is how they gamble on consensus. We live in strident and cynical political times. We as a nation may have come out of WWII and into the following boom economy with hope for the nation and respect for our democratic processes. Then at least since Richard Nixon's administration, contention and a lot of deceit have ruled.

Some say we had a respite with the very good man, Jimmy Carter. Yet, he may be the best cautionary tale. He was surely one of our brightest and best hearted Presidents. Yet, he accomplished little, except beyond our nation's borders.

He arrived as the self-announced outsider who would break the rules and transcend party and other political impediments. Long before the smarmy G.W. Bush promised he was a uniter, Jimmy planned to get Washington to work together.

Folks love to blame this righteous, legume farming fellow for failing to pass his ambitious programs. Yet, in light of Patrick's funding struggles here and Obama's promises everywhere, we have to ask whether times were not ripe for Carter.

Just over a year ago, Patrick campaigned on and took office on a record of and promises for progressive changes through consensus. Now, Obama is pledging similar goals and tactics. Both claim long and specific histories of getting the powerful to compromise and work together — Patrick in the corporate world and Obama in the Illinois legislature and Congress.

Those who pooh-pooh talk of compromise, bipartisan efforts and cooperation are quick too to point to Patrick's stagnation as governor. The legislature here, and particularly House Speaker Sal DiMasi who controls the money bills, have stiffed him. They won't go along with his proposals or their funding. Moreover, they won't offer alternatives. The commonwealth crumbles, while they smirk.

So, it is fair to ask whether Patrick can get consensus and compromise. Will he spend his first full term fighting for funding instead of advancing his causes? Is this a personal failure or did he run afoul of an intractable power freak?

Likewise, as sick of war and economic incompetence as Americans are, will they be willing to try a similar approach with another great consensus builder? Is the mood of the voters sufficiently plain to the lethargic and reactionary Congress that a progressive President could accomplish big things?

Those questions are much more likely to be real and meaningful than some jive about whether Obama would order air strikes quickly enough in the pre-dawn darkness.

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