NPR Fresh Air, Thursday, August 12 - Barack Obama vs. Alan Keyes

I want to analyze several things about the interviews today with the Democratic and Republican US senatorial candidates for Illinois, from the way each interview was handled, to the candidates themselves. I found it a particularly enlightening day. The contents of both interviews can be found here, in case you want to listen for context. I’m pointing to the archive in hopes that this will be a permalink and not be outdated by tomorrow. I apologize that the show is in audio format, but unfortunately, transcripts cost money.

But first, a couple of disclaimers:
[li]This is in GD because I’d like to read some insightful discussion, especially from Illinois Dopers, but also from anyone else interested.[/li][li]I know NPR in general, and Fresh Air in particular, are moderately to strongly left-leaning. While this fact will figure into my OP to some extent, I would very much like to avoid dismissive “well what do you expect…they’re NPR!” type comments.[/li][li]Personal Full Disclosure: Although I am sure some folks on this board, if I may be allowed the vanity of thinking that anyone has given me a second thought in these terms, have pegged me as a Republican, this is not at all the case. I would describe myself as fiscally conservative, and I have become more so recently. However, I am very strongly socially liberal. I would probably describe myself (in the words of a friend of mine) as a “little L libertarian,” although I am a Democrat by political party affiliation.[/li][li]There is also a Pit thread which may provide worthy reading on the subject here.[/li][/ul]

Barack Obama

General Impressions: Obama seems like a genuinely warm, sincere person in an interview…which no doubt contributes significantly to his “warm fuzzy” appeal factor. Another is that he appeals to both white and black voters. He strongly purports to want to run a “clean” campaign - that is, one which focuses on the issues rather than attacking the opposite candidate. While superficially sincere, I have reason to believe that he is not entirely above a little mud-slinging himself. I’ll get to that later. However, it’s obvious that he’s trying to angle for the fresh-faced reform campaign.

But man, did he ever get a fluff interview. The interviewer questioned Obama broadly on the memoir he wrote, and Obama used the wide-open opportunity to hold forth on his American Dream platform. More than 22 minutes of the 28 minute interview were largely composed of soft-pitch floaters about his father, his background, etc. It came off as an intimate “get-to-know-ya” talk, but there wasn’t a lot of substance to it. The second part wasn’t a whole lot better. Ostensibly, they moved the interview into the realm of the senatorial race, but they never actually touched on the issues.

Specific quotes and reactions:

Oh puhleeeze. :rolleyes: Davies might just as well have fellated him on the spot. Some specifics, please.

followed by:

This was a shrewd, if not totally original, political speech. In one economical statement, he attempted several things:
[li] to cement the idea that he is “ordinary folks,” rather than a professional politician (which he is,) [/li][li] to declare that he is going to run a clean campaign and focus on the issues, [/li][li] to defend himself from Keyes’s flaming rhetoric, and [/li][li] to turn right around and sling some mud at Keyes by associating him by implication with “ruthless, cynical professional politicians” who make back room deals. [/li][/ul]
Smart speech. He’s going to be a shrewd politician. He’s not quite as much the Golden Boy Saint he’d like us to believe he is, but he is smart.

Alan Keyes

Hoo boy. Obama strikes me as being much, much more subtle and shrewd than Keyes. Such subtlety may not, however, be necessary for Keyes, as he appears to be a hard-line right-winger from the word go, and he is effectively parroting a lot of the neoconservative religious arguments that so much of America gets behind.

Personally, he strikes me as a loud, shrill, contentious ideologue literally imported specifically to out-shout Obama in the Senate race. His interview was considerably rockier. They started pitching him the hard stuff after a brief couple of questions about his family and ideological background (his interview was taped, incidentally, by the same interviewer after the Obama interview.) To start off with, Davies throws him a question which might have been innocent, but ended up effectively contrasting him with Obama in the strongest possible terms.

Bolding mine. So far, everything sounds great. Family? Check. Personal responsibility? Sometimes used as a code word for a “let them eat cake” attitude, but still something most folks can get behind. It’s that last one - moral clarity - that was thrown in there as a ringer, and it’s that tangent that Keyes takes off on. That gets him into trouble. The question also had the added rhetorical benefit of establishing an immediate contrast with Obama. To wit:

He speaks at length about the role of faith and family in the survival of African Americans here. Feel free to listen to the rest of it, but my main point here is that he immediately established himself as not a down-to-earth “man of the people,” but as a cold, aloof intellectual. Uh oh. This is a prime reason I don’t think he’s nearly as shrewd as Obama. Politics is very much a popularity contest. If the people don’t like you, you’re sunk. Take Dukakis for example. He ran a strong race, but in the end, he got the labels “cold,” “passionless,” and “technocrat” attached to him, and that was all she wrote.

That is, incidentally, the main concern I have about John Kerry’s campaign as well.

Given that the interview was taped after the Obama interview, and the fact that a later question shows that Davies did some background work on Keyes beforehand, I wonder if Davies led Keyes down this path quite purposefully.

Zing! Fast curve ball to the inside! Keyes takes a swing at it, and in my opinion, misses badly, making himself look like a hypocrite.

He then goes on to explain that he did not decide to do this on his own, that he was approached by the “people in Illinois” (presumably the Illinois Republican Party,) making it consistent in terms of sovereignty, and also that his move was somehow related to the other part of Federalism as he defines it, “national unity.” This falls far short of an adequate explanation, IMO, because:
[li] it appears to be a rationalized excuse cobbled together out of makeshift definitions, [/li][li] it makes him out not to be a self-guided political opportunist, but nothing more than a political mercenary…a hired gun. I mean, Hillary showed some political spine. Keyes is just shouting his rhetoric on whatever street corner he’s told to.[/li][li] it espouses a rather subtle difference between the two cases. I’m not even sure I fully understand what he’s saying the difference is, and I’m pretty sure most voters aren’t going to even put as much thought into it as I have. A lot of folks are just going to think, “Bullshit. He’s an arrogant hypocrite.” Which, admittedly, is pretty much the conclusion I’m forced to come to.[/li][/ul]
The very next question is a question about Keyes’s now infamous comparison of Obama’s position on abortion to the “slaveholder’s position.” Keyes defends this with a complex set of, in my opinion, highly spurious and questionable arguments:

I take issue with Keyes’s comparison of abortion to slavery. The differences in the two issues are too numerous to dwell upon. Slavery, for example (the 3/5 Compromise, etc. notwithstanding, as they addressed blacks’ status for purposes of taxation,) had no scientific grey area concerning what qualified as human life. Nobody can answer that question adequately, and Keyes’s evocation of slavery is just a bit intellectually dishonest.

Also, he misrepresents Douglas’s position badly. Douglas was not “pro-choice” on slavery - at least, not in the same way as the term applies to abortion. To be the same, Douglas would have had to supported the rights of each individual person to either have, or not have, slaves. This point can’t even be interpreted the same way as in abortion, since to be “pro-choice” in slavery means you’re pro-slavery. Nobody is “pro-abortion.” They’re for the choice to have an abortion. Given the grey area previously mentioned about the scientific qualifications for human life, it’s not nearly so cut-and-dried.

:rolleyes: What a mess. In the first place, our “common principles” (whatever they are) don’t say anything in one unified voice about “development.” That’s why the issue is - say it with me - controversial. Second, our "common principles (whatever they are) don’t say anything in a unified voice about a creator. Once again - controversial. Third, the Declaration of Independence is not, I repeat, not the foundation of our national conscience. Finally, slavery is not the same as abortion. Jesus.

He then claims (seriously) that his introduction of the slavery comparison has nothing to do with a cynical ploy to bring a racial element into the argument…to play the race card. He jumps through a series of hoops to establish that all he really means is that it’s a human-decency issue, not a race issue (while nimbly playing the race card by declaiming that since his ancestors were slaves, he oughta know.) Strawman. Poor argumentation. False analogy. Blegh. He’s not fooling anyone, of course. His analogy was rather carefully developed for precisely that rhetorical reason.

He goes on to say that he would ban abortion in the case of rape and incest as well, launching into a diatribe about how it is fundamentally against our principles of justice (assuming that an embryo is a human life, I presume, at the moment of conception. Again, controversial. Remember?)

After all this, he drops the Bomb:

As if anything he’s said is anything more than airy, flimsy assertion based on bad logic.

To wind up the interview, Keyes excoriates Obama for

In my socially liberal opinion, this is pure insanity. Obama is not even pro-gay marriage! He’s actually against gay marriage, but pro “civil unions.” When confronted about why gay marriage is a threat to traditional families, Keyes responds that

Uh, where does he get his definitions, cause they’re crazy. Assuming for a moment that “hedonistic self-gratification” is not a good reason to get married (who gets married for hedonistic self-gratification, anyway?,) he commits a beauty of an Excluded Middle Fallacy. The truth is that people get married for any number of reasons, from Twue Wuv all the way down to base greed, and as long as the parties involved are male and female, whether their purposes are procreative or not, it’s perfectly legal.

Conclusion: Barack Obama is a shrewd, subtle politician, regardless of his assertions to the contrary, but I don’t fundamentally think I learned anything about his politics in the interview. He seemed to be there as a foil for Keyes’s ridiculous pseudo-intellectualism, and that can’t ultimately be anything but good for Obama. Alan Keyes is a self-righteous, arrogant blowhard who will ultimately hang himself with his wild-eyed rhetoric, and it was difficult to find anything in his spittle-flecked diatribe which I didn’t think was stark, raving insane.

Advantage: Obama. Keyes will get his ass handed to him on election day.

Keyes is very adept at alienating people. I work with a woman who has been married for over 30 years to her husband, yet they never bore children. Am I going to knock down their door and tell them that their relationship is an absurdity? Good grief.

But remember how the American electorate LOVES our “just folks” politicians, from Sam “just an ol’ country lawyer” Ervin to Bill Clinton, and don’t mind being consciously manipulated by them. Obama may have taken the shrewd course but it shows his intelligence that he has chosen the path that will get him elected. He knows that a politician is useless unless he is elected. Keyes, on the other hand, does not see the value of toning down his rhetoric in order to be elected and believes he still has influence standing on the street corner yelling like some crazy bag lady. This is not true. He cannot introduce or vote on legislation from that street corner. He does not have the ear of the rest of the legislative branch nor a president of either party like he would as a Senator. Any influence he may have is indirect, through the voters who stop and listen to him, and if he comes across as a nut to most of them, which is likely in Illinois where even most of the Republican politicians are well to the left of him, his influence will be nonexistent.


No, I’m not sure that’s it, drop.

Keyes is in a difficult position. He’s coming into what is essentially a 2 month campaign, in a state that appears to be going democratic, against an opponent who has just burst onto the scene in a BIG way nationally.

I think Keyes is smart enough to know that going negative and attacking right now is the only possible means he has to get any sort of traction in this campaign. He needs to come at Obama from as many angles as possible as quickly as possible to see which one draws blood. When that one spot is found then he’ll begin hammering that point at all opportunities.

Because without something to tarnish Obama’s current ‘golden boy’ rep Keye’s is going to get slaughtered.

Hell, the likely outcome is that he gets slaughtered anyway. But if he keeps it on the issues and sweetness angle he doesn’t have sufficient time to develop a competitive following.

there was never really any question that obama had this race long before keyes entered it. in fact, by my reckoning, that is exactly why the republican party wanted someone like keyes to enter the race.

obama is a man by whom people around the country were substantially impressed at the DNC, and many have been saying he’s a good candidate for the “first black american president” ™. at this point, jesus could’ve run against him and lost.

someone i know who works in politics (i think he collects political data or something to that effect) made a very astute point, and that is this: barack obama has a tremendous ability to raise campaign funds, and up until now, he hasn’t had to spend any of it. that leaves millions of dollars for the democratic party to use in other races. so the gop took a high-profile loudmouth, who, in my opinion, just happens to be batshit insane, to run against him to force him to spend his money on his own campaign, rather than on the races of other democratic senators, etc.

this will be an interesting campaign to watch, but not because it’ll be close. it’ll be fun because barack obama is a (as you said) shrewd and smart politician, but also an incredibly charismatic and eloquent one, who is quite engaging and fun to watch, and because alan keyes is the most articulate and eloquent lunatic i’ve ever come across and, while not exactly engaging, also happens to be incredibly fun to watch.

Just a couple of notes - first, “Fresh Air” was already NPR at its worst when it started with the mission statement of exposing “underappreciated” members of various arts. Most artists were people I was already familiar with, and often sick of. What they’re doing in politics is just odd. I don’t think those interviews are going to affect many votes at all.

Second, and more importantly, I agree with you on most points; however, I might be willing to give Keyes a pass on the slave thing. Not being black, I don’t know, but I’m guessing that slavery is in a black person’s consciousness much more than a white person’s. It may be that it was honestly the first metaphor that popped into his head, without any calculated racial divisiveness intended.

Full Disclosure: Illinois white Democrat who identifies with ‘new Democrats’ like Bill Clinton. I was for Obama when Ryan was still in the race (I think Ryan is out of the race for completely unfair reasons - I agree with his assessment that at its core, the big scandal was a husband who wanted to have sex with his wife in a strange place. If I was married to Jeri Ryan, I’d probably want people to see me too).

Frankly, it seems to me that most of the extreme right-wing positions should alienate about 90% of the population – women, minorities, gays, couples without children, non-whites, etc… well, frankly, almost everyone in the country, except for white rednecked Southern Babtists. It appalls me that such people have kidnapped so much of the Republican Party. It’s time for all the disaffected groups to stand up and stand together.

Someone did not listen to the interview.
There is a difference between something that is fundamentally flawed and something only so through incidentals.

How is infertility any more “incidental” than homosexuality? Your distinction makes no sense. Keyes is asserting (falsely) that marriage is about procreation. If procreation is impossible for any couple then how could Keyes justify marriage for them, regardless of their respective genitalia?

By Keyes’ own logic, marriage between infertile or elderly heteros is “hedonistic self-gratification” because that is the only alternative motive to procreation which Keyes has allowed into the paradigm.

Let me simplify, Keyes has proposed that there are only two reasons to get married. They are:

[ul][li]Procreation (the only legitimate reason in Alan Keyes’ mind)[/li]
[li]Hedonistic self-gratification.[/ul][/li]
Since the first option is eliminated for infertile and elderly heteros than we are only left with the second. If you are proposing that there is another motive for marriage than what Alan Keyes has delineated (and notice that he has not mentioned love as a legititimate motive or even suggested that it is necessary even in his baby-making couples) then what is it? You say that infertility is “incidental” for infertile couples, but it is also incidental for same sex couples, is it not?

In terms of how Alan Keyes has framed the argument, why should infertile couples be allowed to get married if they can’t procreate? If making babies is not the reason then what is the reason?

Also, should all married heteros be forced to procreate in order to justify their marriages?
Are you starting to see how ridiculous Keyes’ argument is. The very premise that marriage is about procreation is false. The assertion that same-sex marriage is about “hedonistic self-gratification” is mindlessly simplistic, bigoted and false.

What’s even crazier is that Keyes is advocating eliminating the 17th amendment. I just don’t see how that is a winning argument.

[Junior Moderator hat ON]

Pssst! Dex! A lot of folks, including some here, find that word offensive. I know how you are intending it as offensive as well as descriptive but aren’t we supposed to stay away from these things, especially in GD?

[Junior Moderator hat OFF]

Don’t forget, there’s strong fundamentalist movements in the northern midwest as well, people. And yes, the ‘Moral Majority’ movement has essentially hijacked the Republican Party. They tried to do it in the 80s by mobilizing their members in floods, and they more or less succeeded.

I’m doing my best to bring it back, but we need an event like Howard Dean on the 'pub side of things. Break the backs of the power brokers.

Popular election of senators? What’s the problem with that? Does he want them chosen by the states again? Wha? Huh?

Pretty much. He wants to stop people from voting for senators and have the state legislatures do it.

Sheesh, is there anyone worth taking seriously at this point who doesn’t think Keyes is a complete loon?

Alan Keyes. “Vote for me, and hopefully in the next election you won’t be allowed to vote for me.” :smack:

As dumb as the marriage comment was, he did say ‘people who cannot, in principle, procreate.’ I imagine he meant that males and females who are infertile or choose not to have children are A-OK. This is Alan Keyes trying to do nuance. :stuck_out_tongue: I don’t think voters like it when people speak in technicalities. Oh well. I think the first poll showed him down 40%.

The ironic thing is, if he had the 17th Amendment abolished now, it would guarantee that he’d lose the election. The Illinois State Legislature has a Democratic majority.