With polls signaling peril for Democrats, identifying the cause of President Obama’s travails and the demise of ‘hope and change’ is a Washington sport. Some attribute it to the lifeless economy, others to Obama’s supposed (excessive) liberalism, and yet others to the prioritization of health insurance reform in the administration’s first year.
It’s really much more basic. Set aside policy and focus on sheer perception, who do you associate with strength, George W. Bush or Barack Obama? Republicans or Democrats? I’d bet good money that on both questions, many on the left would pick the former.
Bush’s bluster, born of narrow-mindedness and jingoism, led America to near ruin. But even if it was an act, transparent and loathsome to his detractors, it left an indelible impression – and I stress “impression” – of a resolute man with the courage of his convictions, no matter how terribly wrong-headed those convictions. By contrast, Barack Obama and most Democratic officials are chronically unwilling to speak in moral absolutes, to frame Democratic policies in the language of right and wrong, to project an unshakeable faith in core ideals. And far too often, the reluctance to speak with moral courage is coupled with a failure to act.
This has been the essence of the progressive critique from day one, on gay rights, civil liberties, secrecy, the environment, the economy, health care, executive power, war.
It’s baffling that pundits still don’t get it. We hear endless tea leaf (and Tea Party) reading, endless poll analysis, endless pontification about Obama’s ideology or lack thereof. He’s too liberal, he’s not liberal enough, he’s overly pragmatic, he’s a conservative, a socialist, a corporatist, he’s achieved more than any president in history, he’s presided over the biggest government takeover in history. Who cares? In the end, you either project strength or weakness. You have moral courage or you don’t.
Cheney and Bush knew one thing: from a strictly political – and cynical – perspective, pretend moral conviction is better than none at all. At the very least, it telegraphs to voters that you care deeply about something, anything. Enough to take a stand for it, to portray your opponent as unethical for opposing it.
In the best of worlds, Democrats would believe in something good and fight tooth and nail for it. Their moral compass would be true, pointing in the direction of justice, fairness, equality. Progressive ideals would guide them and they’d present America with a consistent, cohesive, powerful and inspiring worldview. Candidate Obama tapped into the force of that combination. President Obama can’t seem to do it.
Democratic weakness, real or perceived, is a self-inflicted function of the inability to project moral authority, even in cases where they possess the unequivocal high ground. Religious liberty. Torture. A war based on lies.
Barney Frank explains the root cause:
President Barack Obama is afraid of acting in a way that would spur voters to view him as weak on defense, a top Democrat charged Wednesday. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said the president was “intimidated” by certain issues, particularly an effort by Frank and a few other lawmakers in both parties to rein in defense spending. “It’s the one area where I’m disappointed in the president,” Frank said Tuesday evening during an appearance on MSNBC. “I think he gets intimidated by this notion of, ‘Oh, you’ll look weak on defense.’ “
This is a perennial problem. In many ways, the progressive blogosphere was created to fill the vacuum left by the persistent image (and reality) of Democratic weakness, to convey the truth that militarism is not the only definition of strength, that moral might trumps material might. By nature, online progressives are confrontational activists, loyal to causes, not people. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are no netroots darlings. Anyone who crosses the community on a matter of principle faces a similar backlash. Witness Howard Dean’s dressing down over his mosque position.
Progressive bloggers exert an enduring and outsized influence on the public discourse because they project strength. With few partners in the Democratic leadership, their impact on policy is proportionally small, but they are despised by the political and media establishments precisely because they ferociously stand their ground on core values. It’s why they are an indispensable counterweight to the rampaging right.
It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process.
The only way to break the cycle and to project strength is to go back to basics, to look inside, to find the core principles that power a life of public service and to be relentless in pursuit of those principles. Moral authority is a prerequisite to genuine, enlightened leadership. Why do you think Glenn Beck wants to co-opt Martin Luther King Jr.? Democrats have the ideas and the ideals, they just need the courage of their convictions.