It is good to be skeptical of Sen. Obama’s promise to lead this country beyond the “old divisions,” as though the fierce partisanship of, say, the Culture Wars were fueled by pure spite. As many commentators have said, this “beyondism” is itself just another partisan ploy: “End this ugly conflict between us by giving me what I want.”
Of course the ploy doesn’t work if people realize what you are doing. The beyondist must appear to honor and transcend the interests of all parties. This usually ends in incoherence and paralysis.
And incoherence and paralysis is what I most fear from an Obama presidency. Even if the Republicans were effectively marginalized, such that the administration would not even need to feign concern for their views and interests, the Democrats’ internal divisions might be enough to stall many important initiatives.
Education policy provides a good example. As Charles Upton Sahm at City Journal says, Obama appears to be the reformist camp of the Democratic Party. These reformers have made the right sounds about merit pay, charter schools, parent choice etc. Political opponents of a more libertarian cast of mind might think that they don’t go far enough, but even they might accept a clear and workable policy that significantly improves on the status quo.
The trouble, of course, is that the Democratic Party is beholden to the teachers unions. Obama’s reformist ideas have earned him the unions’ dislike, but he apparently does not have the courage to risk losing their “tepid support” by more full-throated and unequivocal statements. He has tempered his dangerous proposals with “anti-reform bromides.” In a recent speech, Obama:
decr[ied] “teaching to the test”—a slap at high-stakes testing and the emphasis on results under NCLB. Even more worrisome was Obama’s statement that he envisioned a future in which “teachers are less a source of knowledge than a coach for how to use it”—a favorite talking point of anti-reform education professors who believe that imparting knowledge is not a teacher’s primary job. He also continued to water down his stance on merit pay by suggesting that we “find ways to increase teachers’ pay that are developed with teachers, and not imposed on them.” Translation: big increase in pay, tiny increase in accountability.
Furthermore, Obama (unlike McCain) has yet to endorse the Education Equity Project’s Statement of Principles, a document which seeks to bring to the specific challenge of education that no-nonsense attitude that Obama has claimed would mark his administration in general. Why should we think that his claim is anything but rhetoric?
Gov. Palin’s brash decisiveness makes me nervous—I’m not sure that we can trust someone who honestly never blinks. But Sen. Obama’s chronic waffling and hesitation seems much the greater liability.