Obama’s Plausibility plus Watching Watchmen

by John Holbo on October 9, 2008

Like Kevin Drum, I have been sorely tempted to take a poke at the poor Cornerites in their misery – especially Andy McCarthy – but Hilzoy got there first. You can follow her links. it’s all-Ayers, all-the-time, if you’ve been missing the show. Here’s my analytic contribution on top of the straight mockery: this lot have been reduced to arguing that the problem with Obama is that he doesn’t believe the stuff he’s saying, won’t do anything like the things he’s proposing. Or, in the 10% less crazy Frum version, he’s just got to be an incredibly corrupt Chicago pol. Because he’s from Chicago.

This is funny, first, because it converts Obama’s rather pedestrian characteristic of not seeming to be something radically different than what he seems to be into a maddening sort of rope-a-dope achievement. (How does he do it? That ‘appearing to be the sort of person that he probably is’ thing.) Lowry glowers: “he’s a kind of genius at appearing plausible. If the Nobel committee had a prize for appearing plausible, he’d win it every time.” But Lowry isn’t talking about the power of making implausible ideas sound plausible. He’s talking about the power of making it seem plausible that you believe basically plausible things.

Which brings us to item two: if Obama were – just imagine we live on some crazy bizarro world; if Obama were – stick with me here; if Obama were more or less what he appears to be, namely, a left liberal Dem, there would no longer be any objection to him from the likes of Andy McCarthy. There are no serious objections – not even bad ones, so far as I can tell – to the general policy directions Obama favors. There is a complete lack of engagement with anything remotely resembling what Democrats might actually want, or propose, or enact. (Goldberg’s book is exhibit A, in this regard.)

Here we must shift over to the other side and consider how McCain/Palin is, effectively, just a placeholder. ‘Maverickiness’ is a kind of wish fulfillment dream of conservatism half-awake enough to know that there isn’t actually any of the stuff around at present – conservatism, that is. And if there were, it’d be losing even worse. Notional maverickiness, plus liberalism=maoism, is rhetorically unperformable. Obama isn’t practicing any kind of crouching Rezko hidden Ayers plausibility fu. It’s just impossible to slide smoothly from ‘reaching across the aisle to get the job done’ to hinting that those on the other side are a bunch of terrorist-huggers. Positive and negative cancel out. No wonder McCain tried to divide his electoral personality, making Palin play ‘energize the base’ Jekyll to his bipartisan ‘Joe Lieberman is my good friend’ Hyde. No wonder he can’t get into a rhythm. At any rate, Obama is sure playing it exactly right by playing it cool.

And just think how much worse Mitt Romney would be doing.

In comics news: I’ve been watching Watchmen in the ‘motion comic’ version available on iTunes. It’s Dave Gibbons original art, slightly animated. The dialogue is performed, audiobook-style, by a pretty good reader. (He makes a better Rorschach than Sally Jupiter.)

They are releasing a ‘chapter’ every two weeks. Two so far. Anyone else watching? First Second Books has been doing this sort of thing for a while. They make ‘trailers’ that are basically just pans and zooms over and across frames and pages. It is surprisingly successful and I have been thinking for a while that someone ought to give this sort of minimal animation style a stand-alone go.

I think Watchmen may not be the best source material for ‘motion comics’, however. Gibbon’s great talent as an illustrator is in composing his pages and frames. The ‘motion’ version retains some of that, but loses quite a bit. That leaves the figures themselves. I don’t so much care for the specific look of Gibbon’s human figures. (Don’t dislike ’em. Just don’t love the look.)

And maybe it’s the audiobook quality, but I don’t feel that Moore’s writing is holding up particularly well. Some bits ring false. Some elements of the story are just plain clunky. It was so brilliant and new at the time, but since then it’s been done and redone and redone again, thematically, often wonderfully, by so many different comics writers over the last generation. I am no longer blinded by the thematic brilliance to the point of overlooking plot and writing problems that I think Moore has worked out of his system in later stuff. I think a lot of the later stuff that is less well-known is a lot better written than this Watchmen stuff.

I also just listened to a really interesting podcast interview with Gibbons, who is involved with the ‘motion comic’ and has been involved with the film and has lots of interesting things to say. He’s the anti-Moore. He’s totally eager to revisit and rework this classic comic. Again, go to iTunes: search for John Siuntres’ Word Balloon. (Or start here.) Word Balloon is a great series, if comics podcasts are your idea of a good time, as they are mine.



HH 10.09.08 at 4:50 pm

Like Clinton, Obama possesses a suite of micro-behaviors that radiate “trust me to lead you.” These under-studied charismatic behaviors are discussed by Gladwell in “The Tipping Point,” because they account for the astonishing success, in all fields of endeavor, of individuals so gifted. Fortunately, in Obama’s case, these surface demeanors are appear to be combined with a powerful intellect and fairly lofty political goals.

Like physical beauty, political charisma is entirely uncorrelated with sound character, but that doesn’t mean that this happy combination cannot exist. Let us hope that Obama is such a fortunate case.


Dave Weeden 10.09.08 at 5:03 pm

Or, in the 10% less crazy Frum version, he’s just got to be an incredibly corrupt Chicago pol. Because he’s from Chicago.

Not as bonkers to the base as it seems. McCain and Palin were interviewed on Hannity and Colmes.

MCCAIN: Well, first of all she’s [Palin’s] probably one of the foremost experts in this nation on energy issues. She was responsible for — to make a long story short — a pipeline, the $40 billion pipeline bringing natural gas from Alaska down to the lower 48. She has been involved in these issues of energy in many unique ways, including being on the board that oversights (sic) the natural gas and oil resources, and other resources in the state of Alaska.

She’s “probably one of the foremost experts in [the USA] on energy issues” because she’s from Alaska. Who does he think energy companies employ? Monkeys?


PHB 10.09.08 at 5:04 pm

In the past 24 hours it has become clear that Paulson’s real plan is to effectively nationalize the banking system. What pray is left for Obama to do? How much more radical can he get?

There is really no need to be worried about McCain’s proposals because he has not the slightest chance of putting any into practice. He might be able to delay the retreat from Iraq by another year but even that is highly unlikely. The real reason that Iraq is less violent since the 2006 mid terms is not the surge but the widespread belief that the US is going to withdraw. Maliki has already promised a US withdrawal, there will be no permanent bases for the neo-cons to plan their invasion of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The fantasy pony has been found shot dead by an insurgent.

McCain is not going to change social security either, at least not the way he promises. He don’t have the votes. In fact he probably does not have the votes to stop congress writing its own reforms. Social Security will be liquid through 2030 at a minimum and more likely through 2040. Congress is more than happy to defer large tax rises to the future, that is what the Bush tax plan was all about. Why would Congress ever accept a privatisation plan that means pain now when the alternative is to raise taxes by a few points maybe in two decades time or more?

The very most McCain can do is to prevent universal health care reform. His own plan is irrelevant, Congress has no intention of discussing it. Congress is not going to tax health care benefits.

Moreover McCain has absolutely zero capacity to be the bipartisan dealmaker he claims. Not after he has run a nakedly racist campaign that has disgusted many on his own side. And Palin is certainly not going to help him there either. The wierdest part of the last debate was when McCain claimed that solving social security was easy, just get everyone round the table. That is simply not going to result in a solution in a case where the Democrats rank preventing Republican plans to dismantle Social Security as a higher priority than making good the funding gap in twenty years time.

If people think about it, there is very little chance that the US is going to keep military spending at the current rate unless there is another enemy that is as significant as the Soviet Union was during the cold war. That is of course the reason for the NeoCon plan of pre-emptive warfare, the objective being to pre-empt the possibility of peace. The purpose of the Bush doctrine is to increase instability as it is the only way military spending can continue to be justified. It is not as liberal critics imagine an unforseen flaw.

The same thinking is behind the classification of the war on terror as a war, that is a military enterprise rather than a police exercise. This despite the experience of the Europeans that police action is considerably more effective than military and that the terrorists want to be considered soldiers rather than criminals.

Once the US stops spending more on the military than every other country in the world (friend or foe) put together, fixing social security and providing universal healthcare look like they are going to be pretty easy.

McCain can delay these processes but only through the type of reactionary obstructionism that has led to the financial meltdown. Talk of stronger regulation is now obsolete, by obstructing regulation the banks have laid themselves open to nationalization.

Obama is not a radical, but he does understand the radical forces that are shaping the US economy and political position. His actions will also be mitigated by Congress. Even if he does have a radical program he has not built the support for one. But however radical Obama might turn out to be in practice he will be a lot less radical than whoever would follow McCain or Palin.


HH 10.09.08 at 5:11 pm

Obama’s biggest problem is that the pyrotechnic pinwheel of American militarism is still turning at 10,000 rpm. He has to slow it down without infuriating the mob. That is why he is pursuing his preferred doomed war, Afghanistan, so passionately in his campaign speeches. America’s resentments are increasingly channeled into military violence, and this is the greatest danger to our future.


Delicious Pundit 10.09.08 at 5:14 pm

But also: grant that all the allegations about Obama are true — that he’s a dangerous radical who is being constrained by the system into seeming like a nice liberaly person. Isn’t this what we want the system to do?

Look at it another way. We know that capitalists can be the kind of people who don’t mind employing children in factories, or selling meat that has shit on it. We know that because they’ve done it. But if we have sufficiently strong constraints in place, it doesn’t matter if that’s what they really want to do, because they can’t, and so it’s ok if they’re huge hypocrites who run ads that are set on farms at sunrise.


rea 10.09.08 at 5:22 pm

If Obama is really a cynical, evil character who for cynical, evil reasons behaves exactly like a decent honorable man . . .

What’s the problem? Who the heck cares what he “really” thinks, as long as he acts appropriately?


Ano 10.09.08 at 5:30 pm

Obama isn’t practicing any kind of crouching Rezko hidden Ayers plausibility fu.

This is a very clever line. You should be proud of yourself.


Righteous Bubba 10.09.08 at 5:31 pm

“How can anyone who actually follows this stuff, who reads Freddoso, Kurtz, and scores of other reliable sources of information, conclude that Obama is not some wild-eyed radical?”

and via Dave above

Well, first of all she’s [Palin’s] probably one of the foremost experts in this nation on energy issues.

That’s two impossible things. Four more to go before breakfast.

Who does he think energy companies employ? Monkeys?

This is the thing: it’s fun to be tricky with the Democrats because they’re stupid liberals hahaha. Making use of your own base’s stupidity requires spurring it on, not rubbing their noses in it.


seth edenbaum 10.09.08 at 5:33 pm

As a said at Hilzoy’s post, he’s not black enough. He’s hiding something.


Stuart 10.09.08 at 5:51 pm

Why would Congress ever accept a privatisation plan that means pain now when the alternative is to raise taxes by a few points maybe in two decades time or more?

Of course if anyone in Congress was concerned about fairness they would raise taxes and social security contributions now – firstly because doing so means the tax raises won’t have to be as big, and also to avoid a massive redistribution from future social security contributors to current contributors. Of course you can say this about the government keeping taxes low while running deficits higher than GDP growth (absent some compelling need, like WWII or possibly climate change) – again you are redistributing wealth from future generations. I wonder how many people would feel good about planning to reach retirement with lots of debt and then live off their children and grandchildrens earnings?


christian h. 10.09.08 at 6:25 pm

The weird thing is that Obama is, of ourse, even less radical than he appears. You really can’t get any more establishment moderate than he is. (Warren Buffet as Treasury Secratary – really?) Whenever the rightwing morons speculate about Obama’s secret radical plans, I say “I wish!”

The Chicago angle is the weirdest of all – there is nothing radical at all about Chicago politics. It’s straightforward corporatism, exactly the kind of thing you’d think cornerites would love.


Matt 10.09.08 at 10:40 pm

John writes:
” Obama were more or less what he appears to be, namely, a left liberal Dem, there would no longer be any objection to him from the likes of Andy McCarthy. There are no serious objections – not even bad ones, so far as I can tell – to the general policy directions Obama favors. There is a complete lack of engagement with anything remotely resembling what Democrats might actually want, or propose, or enact”

This is key to understanding the Corners reaction to Obama. They need to turn him into a terrorist to justify not supporting him and maintaining with a straight face that conservativism is the only legitimate ideology. I think this is evidence of part identification becoming such an controlling mechanism that it leads to this kind of madness. McCarthy needs to hate Obama, he needs to affirm that adherence to conservative movement is the one true “faith” every one else is an infidel. Wait. . . . thats not what I meant.


James Gary 10.09.08 at 11:27 pm

I have nothing to add to the Obama plausibility debate, but it’s nice to hear from someone else who re-read “Watchmen” recently and found the comic felt somewhat dated. All my highbrow fanboy friends were shocked into speechlessness when I made a similar discovery recently.


seth edenbaum 10.09.08 at 11:55 pm

The Democrats moved to the right for 30 years, but all it did was make the right-wing base more angry. It made the awkward relations of cultural conservatives and economic liberals in the Republican party more difficult to manage. What’s happened now was predictable by the 90’s when Gingrich expressed frustration that Clinton had stolen all his ideas from republican playbook. If issues are what’s important then what’s the problem?

For the Republicans politics is now the only principle; backing a party has become the equivalent of backing a sports team. They’ve reduced themselves to the status of football hooligans, while the bookish ones[sic] try desperately to find a way to give their anger a moral and philosophical foundation.
Josh Marshall asks today, apropos more outbursts: “How long till the N-word?”
Obama has to be careful. I don’t know if he should keep playing it as cool as he is, or if he should show a little more anger. I’ve been spending a lot of time on right wing blogs and it’s scary.


Dave Weeden 10.10.08 at 5:39 am

I don’t think Obama should show anger. Someone said, apropos BO, that an angry black man wasn’t going to win the Presidency ever. Not many angry candidates win. I think the last angry President was Nixon, and he’s no role model. Calm is what one needs in a crisis.

I agree about the right-wing blogs. What I can’t understand is what they’re angry about. And that N-word may not be far off.


Scott Martens 10.10.08 at 8:20 am

Watchmen is dated, no doubt. So is… I dunno Charles Dickens? Insert your favourite long dead author. Classics tend to be old, styles change, and the first guy to do something generally produces a pretty rough version. Have you seen the trailer for the live action Watchmen film? All I can say is that it better not suck. But the “motion comics” leaves me cold.

Now, as for Obama… recall that for years Republicans have played politics of wink, wink, nod, nod. Sane people were made to believe that *surely* the Republican candidates didn’t take all that end times folk religion stuff seriously, while the less savoury parts of the American electorate were led to believe that Republicans didn’t take rhetoric on civil and human rights seriously. So, the idea that a politician might actually think or believe some of the things they say is a bit of a stretch.


Seth edenbaum 10.10.08 at 2:46 pm

Josh Marshall again

“This is not a laughing matter. So I want to be clear what I was alluding to when I referred to “borderline criminal incitement.” John McCain has a first amendment right to smear and (at least free of criminal penalties) slander Barack Obama by suggesting he’s in league with terrorists. But as we’ve seen many times, even offhandedly threatening comments directed at a Secret Service protected individual, can earn you a visit from the guys with the earpieces. And McCain and Palin are now routinely holding rallies in which they whip supporters into such a delirium by castigating Obama as a dangerous terrorist-lover that members of the audience shout what can very reasonably be interpreted as threats against Obama’s safety. Am I saying they’re breaking the law? No. But I do think they’re nudging up against the envelope and getting near that line beyond which, if McCain were not a presidential candidate, his rallies would be getting some attention from those charged with protecting Obama’s safety.)

The lightweights at the Corner are not the issue at this point, any more than McCain’s honesty. There’s simple dishonesty and then there’s poison, According the WSJ today even some of McCain’s people are worried.


karen marie 10.11.08 at 2:26 am

today’s video of a mccain rally shows a tired, scared old man trying to stamp out the fire he started


Josh in Philly 10.12.08 at 5:58 pm

JH, forgive me if I’ve agreed with you on this before, but I absolutely share your reservations about Watchmen. Felt the same when I read it twenty years ago, and continue to think that Swamp Thing and V for Vendetta hold up a lot better. Watchmen requires so much suspension of disbelief at the strangest times (long after it’s halfway over, we’re told that the rules of its universe allow for a decapitated telepath to power the monster) and asks us to tolerate so many dimbulb characters (“a quantum miracle” –dude, that’s deep!) and, yes, has such clunky dialogue that its basic conceit of Silver Age heroes operating in a more historically and psychologically realistic world than we’re used to doesn’t hold up.

That said, I still find the visuals as rendered by Gibbons oddly moving.

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