I just finished your terrific book "The Argument," which was recommended to me by a conservative friend (I'm a 42-year old Dem, Clintonian in political philosophy but a big fan of Obama's). I really enjoyed the way you described not only the changes in the Democratic Party, but also the more fundamental shifts in political discourse made possible by the internet. At the end of the book though, one cannot help but wonder whether the Democrats have yet figured out "the argument." Where is the overarching "idea" that makes the Democratic Party better suited to lead America? The old labels - "liberal" and "conservative" - sure feel outdated in an increasingly interconnected world. I worry that "progressive" activists are really just old-time "government-can-solve-all-the problems" liberals with a new label, and hope Obama has the vision and leadership ability to i) make us think differently about our relationship with government, and ii) restore America's leadership role in a changing world. Thank you for writing such an enlightening, entertaining and
thought-provoking book. I imagine it was a ton of work, but this reader sure appreciated your efforts!

- Jamie Millar

Thanks, Jamie. Always nice to know people are still picking up the book and enjoying it, especially now that the paperback is out.

- Matt Bai
on September 1, 2008

What do you think now that both parties have picked candidates based not upon any real experience, but upon market analysis and demographics? Daniel Boorstin wrote about "pseudo events" and "psuedo people" ... about celebrity and staged events becoming more important than reality ... back in the early 1960's, with the rise of television. I heard Chuck Todd mention that he and other "journalists" complain to their colleagues on political campaigns that they need to do something new. We've totally lost touch with reality, and the fact that elections are about governing and democracy, and not television programming. I'm about ready to start a "reality party." Both parties are guilty of this total manipulation.

- Jay Patterson

I take your point, Jay--there are a lot of tactics and marketing that go into the modern campaign, and gravitas can get lost. No one is more exasperated with the bobble-headed TV coverage than I am, believe me. But I'd make two quick points to suggest you might be a little overly cynical. First, it may be that voters understand something about the modern era--that, in fact, it takes a different skill set to govern than it did 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. Charisma and the ability to build broad constituencies might be as pertinent in this environment as, say, a decade of foreign policy experience. Second,I'm not sure that a lot of the leaders celebrated in our history books seemed to have so much gravitas at the time they governed. Presidents like FDR and John Kennedy were routinely described as unfit for the job when they first came to office. Time has a way of magnifying or diminishing presidents, based on what they do with their opportunities. Anyway, thanks for writing.

- Matt Bai
on August 31, 2008

I found your Op-Ed article in the August 25th edition of the New York Time to be stunningly naive. I don’t know what to make of this since you are also the author of the acclaimed book “The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.” I also do not know how the version printed on the web differs from the verison printed in the paper, although I note, the comment on web page, that some changes were made.

Perhaps the most glaring error in your article is the comment: “By any historical measure, he has remarkably little governing experience and almost none in foreign policy. “ How do you then explain the successful (or at least perceived successes ) of the following presidents: Jackson, Lincoln, TR, Wilson, FDR, HST, Eisenhower, JFK, Reagan, Clinton? All of these presidents were less experienced than their opponents. On the basis of experience, Lincoln was perhaps the most unqualified person to ever seek the office. In 1960, Nixon ran on the slogan “experience counts” and Bush I made the same argument in 1992. Both lost.

How do you explain that the following presidents, with superb resumes and
experience, are generally considered to have unsuccessful presidencies: Taft, Hoover, Nixon, Bush I? Carter is the one president whose lack of experience infected his administration. One might say this is true of GWB, but at the beginning of his term he dismissed his lack of experience by pointing to "his team": Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice et al. A lot of good their experience did Bush II ir the country. Clinton's also an interesting case: his judgment on public policy issues was generally good and he is generally viewed as a good president when it came to public policy. His judgment on personal matters was atrocious and his foibles undercut his presidential legacy.

A second comment which I cannot understand is the observation: “It would defy the laws of politics if, at this early stage of the campaign, moderate Republicans and conservative independents were to reject Mr. McCain (a candidate many of them preferred back in 2000) simply because they don’t like George W. Bush” Let’s ignore the fact that the McCain of 2008 does not begin to resemble the McCain of 2000. How do you explain that given that the electorate that voted in the last two presidential elections was almost symmetrically divided between the two parties,” all the polls today tell us that the electorate is no longer symmetrically divided between the two parties and that a generic (presumably white) Democratic is in the by double dights over th generic Republican?

- James Blinkoff

"Naive." This is a difference I've noted about the right and the left. The right always goes at you from the "elitist" angle--you're too ivy league, too precious, too out of touch. Critics on the left always go immediately to your lack of intellect or morality. Either you're not educated or wordly enough, or you don't care about poor people. In this case it's the former.

First off, James,I never said--and don't believe--that lack of experience means you'll make a bad president. In fact, I've written exactly the opposite . But virtually all of the presidents you mention (Lincoln may be the only exception, off the top of my head) had some executive governing experience or more experience in national government than Obama. I'm not saying that should disqualify him--it's not an insult. It just is what it is. Perhaps we're living in an entirely new kind of era where such things are less important. But surely you can make an argument for your guy without having to twist history.

Second, pollsters will tell you that generic ballots mean a lot more in congressional races (and even then, they're not always predictive) than in presidential races. Moderate Republicans and conservative-leaning independents have voted Republican on the presidential level, pretty reliably, for most of the last 40 years. In all that time, only one Democrat has managed a majority of the vote, and that was Carter, at what seemed like a lopsided moment much like this one. He won precisely 50.1 percent of the vote, if memory serves. So the starting point for any presidential campaign is pretty well formulated.

Now, it may well be that a lot of those voters will ultimately reject McCain and elect Obama. But to expect that they would have made that decision at this point, when only the most engaged voters are actually paying attention, is just beyond what's reasonable. It certainly doesn't make them racists.

Hopefully that makes me sound less naive, but if not, I guess I'll just have to give back the fancy degrees.

- Matt Bai
on August 25, 2008

Links, New and Old

I just wanted to highlight a few pieces for those of you perusing the non-blog. One is this piece I just wrote for the magazine about Obama, McCain and celebrity.

And, in case anyone's interested, here's a "Primary Argument" post I wrote on Joe Biden back in January. Seems more relevant now than it was then!


An Interesting Dissent

As you all can see, most of the letters I've gotten about this week's cover story ("Is Obama the End of Black Politics?") has been pretty kind, although I've also posted a few that aren't. Here's a pretty sharp critique, which someone just brought my attention, from the editor of something called the Black Agenda Report. I don't think it's an especialy accurate rendering of my piece, nor do I agree with much of his reaction, but it deserves to be noted. Thanks.

The sex life of anyone, if minors are not involved, is not the business of anyone other than a spouse. Everything else is sensationalism. Grow the fuck up, or hire on as a panderer of salacious crap with a tabloid or News Corp.

- Mark Lankford

[Mark is referring here to my comments on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," in which I said that John Edwards's affair was a legitimate, if unimportant story.]

I don't care about people's sex lives one iota, Mark. "None of your business" is a perfectly acceptable position to me. I've never personally asked any politican to provide details of his personal life, and I never will. I do care when leaders lie, especially while casting aspersions at others for their supposed moral transgressions. That to me speaks to the character of a leader, and I'm not cynical enough to believe that honesty should only matter when you or someone else thinks the question is relevant.

And just by the way, I can actually respect your position on this, which is a hell of a lot more than you can apparently muster for anyone else. To send an email that petulant and then demand that someone else grow up--well, let's just say it lacks a certain self-awareness.

- Matt Bai
on August 12, 2008

Totally blown away by the nuance, honesty and deep reporting of this piece. As a white girl who spent many years working in the ghetto, and a feminist who watches (every decade) as a new wave of activists claim the movement is out-of-touch and has to step aside, I felt you nailed, spot on, the complexity of the inter-generational dynamic in identity politics. Loved especially the give-and-take with Michael Nutter ("you told me it was a skin condition"). But, over-all, you earn kudos for having the guts to pick racial and generational issues up and examine them closely. One amazing aspect of Obama's success is our ability, as a society and individuals, to speak openly about things that have been completely off the table forever.

- Suzanne Turner

Thanks, Suzanne, awfully kind of you. I have to tell you, and I honestly can't remember if I've written this elsewhere on the nonblog, that this piece was my editor's idea (he's very smart), and I was very skeptical about doing it. I thought, how is a white writer supposed to delve into something like that? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that my own trepidation was a good reason to try. I mean, if you want to understand race, you have to have the courage to talk--or write--about it. Which I guess is what you're saying. I'm very glad I made the effort.

- Matt Bai
on August 11, 2008

A Note to Nonblog Readers

I just wanted to let you all know that I've been blown away by the response to this latest cover piece on black politics, and I'm afraid I just can't post all the emails. I'll be putting a few more of them up here, but even if I don't post your note, I'll respond to you all personally if I can. Thanks so much for reading.

I am sophomore at a predominately white university in Mississippi. Yep, Mississippi. Some might consider me from the deprived black community described in one of your latest articles. This article was interesting and scholarly of course: but the biggest shock came with picture provided on the site. Experience and journalistic tenure considered, this is an extremely insightfully piece, with an understanding and sensitive approach. In fact, this awe has lead me to my first blog (non-blog) post. Magnificent work

- Everett

Everett, thank you. I'm honored to have inspired your first post.

- Matt Bai
on August 11, 2008

Your article ("Is Obama the End of Black Politics?")fails to mention former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, former Ilinois U.S. Senator Carol Mosely Braun, and former New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall. Edward Brooke was NOT the only black to win statewide office! I have not finished your article, however, these mistakes are almost unforgivable given the international stage that is the New York Times Magazine. In the future, please pay more attention and be more meticulous about your research; your "podium" and readership deserve
such respect!

- Gideon Leaks

Well, no Gideon, not really. I do mention Governor Wilder. (I know, it's a long piece, but you ought to read through it before criticizing.) As for the other politicians you mention, you'll note that I wrote specifically of the limitations of black leaders "until the 1990s." Both Braun and McCall were elected in the '90s. So I guess I'd say: in the future, please pay more attention and be more meticulous before accusing a writer of negligence. Thanks.

- Matt Bai
on August 11, 2008