November 2010

Democrats stood for nothing and fell for anything

Over the course of two years, President Obama and the Democratic Party achieved a remarkable feat: they passed significant, in some cases historic, legislation, yet managed not to tell the America public what they stood for and why they stood for it.

What’s worse, elected to be the anti-Bush, Barack Obama took page after page from the Bush playbook, on war, civil liberties, gay rights, executive power and women’s reproductive rights, among several other things.

A perfect example is the shameful spiking of the BP spill, a craven political ploy that backfired terribly: as Democrats were getting trounced at the polls, BP was reporting a return to profitability.

No one can deny that the Obama White House and Democratic leadership racked up important accomplishments during the past two years, but voters don’t care what you do if they think you don’t stand for anything. I’ve written about Democrats’ lack of moral authority:

What is moral authority? Broadly speaking, it is the respect and power of suasion conferred on a person who is true to inviolable ethical principles. It is the ability to influence by setting an example of virtue and good character rather than through coercion.

Most politicians campaign using the language of right and wrong, tapping into the power of morality to persuade and sway voters. Once in office, the rhetoric is toned down as grand promises meet the reality of legislating and deal-making. That doesn’t mean that right and wrong cease to matter.

The astounding collapse of Democrats and the rightwing resurgence of 2009 and 2010 is a direct result of the squandered moral authority of Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. I say “squandered” because it is something Obama possessed during the campaign and something Democrats prioritized as the antidote to Bush and Cheney’s radicalism.

I keep hearing the retort that it’s all about jobs, that if the unemployment rate were 6%, Obama would be riding high and none of this would be an issue. I don’t buy it. All things being equal, when you cede your moral authority, when you telegraph to the public that you won’t stand your ground in defense of your principles, when you allow your opponent to step into the vacuum and frame your actions for you, you lose the connection to the people, you squander the ability to explain your actions, to buy time when things are going poorly, to earn trust during hard times.

In this case, Democrats collapsed in the face of an obstructionist Republican Party and the Tea Party, an overhyped, media-magnified phenomenon fueled by misinformation from think-tank generated soundbites disseminated by millionaire radio hosts and media moguls and stoked by wealthy conservative interests.

Had the White House laid out a set of core beliefs and values that they vowed to adhere to and that they framed their policies with, Democrats could have kept the American public on board with them through a tough economy. Instead, they flailed from inane attack to inane attack, never telling America what they stood for and why they stood for it, never demonstrating the strength of character and resoluteness essential to viable leadership.

So the “hope and change” of 2008, the singular moment where America recoiled from the disastrous Bush era, has given way to the triumph of the rightwing noise machine, a lumbering, well-greased behemoth anchored by Fox News and talk radio, amplified by blogs and chain emails and juiced by the Drudge Report, cranking out simplistic soundbites that dominate the national discourse: “big government,” “socialized medicine,” “judicial activism,” and “tax and spend.”

The Tea Party isn’t some sort of new, inspiring movement in America politics, it’s just another example of what happens when you feed endless, unrebutted streams of rightwing propaganda to a low-information nation:

Liberals are worse than terrorists — Global warming is a hoax — Obama is a Kenyan socialist — Gays are trying to corrupt our children — “Big government” is oppressing us — All Muslims are bent on our destruction — “Activist judges” are trying to undermine the Constitution – The Constitution’s two main tenets are that everyone should have the right to carry assault weapons and that America is a Christian nation.

Pushed to give an instant reaction to the question, “What do Democrats stand for?”, I’d wager that most people would repeat Republican talking points. There’s simply no clear, captivating summary of Democratic values. Nor is there any sense that there are unwavering values Democratic leaders will fight for.

So what now? As election results rolled in, I suggested that Obama listen to progressive bloggers, not because they’re all policy experts, not because they have all the answers, not because they can magically cut the unemployment rate, but because they learned one thing in the trenches during the Bush years: If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.

Dear President Obama and Democratic leaders: for the next two years, listen to the bloggers

This will be a very brief post.

In a word, a handful of liberal bloggers warned you every step of the way for two years: ignore progressive values at your own peril — and ours. Governing on principle is good politics. Trashing your principles because focus groups tell you to do so is bad politics.

I’ll say this again: If you stand up for your principles, you may lose the election but keep your principles; if you ditch your principles, you’ll lose both.

Listen to the bloggers who give a damn whether you win or lose. Don’t listen to crusty Beltway pundits who watched your rise with silent disdain and now watch your fall with silent glee.

Listen to a community of activists who understand politics better than your brilliant insider strategists.

The midterm results speak for themselves. You mocked and marginalized those whose advice would have saved you control of the House. Now it’s time to listen to them, to respect their collective wisdom.

They helped take Bush down. They can help lift you back up.

So much for the online revolution (The triumph of Fox, Drudge, Limbaugh and the rightwing noise machine)

The story of the 2008 election was the coming of age of online politics. Hundreds of millions of dollars raised. Unprecedented macro and micro-organizing. Citizen empowerment. Humongous email lists that we were told would deluge politicians who stood in the way of the Obama Internet juggernaut.

Of course, it hasn’t turned out that way.

The story of the 2010 elections is the triumph of the rightwing noise machine, a lumbering, well-greased behemoth created and honed over the course of three decades. Anchored by Fox News and talk radio, amplified by blogs and chain emails and juiced by the Drudge Report, this machine cranks out think-tank crafted soundbites that dominate the national discourse. Perennial terms like “big government,” “socialized medicine,” “judicial activism,” and “tax and spend,” are imbibed, regurgitated, magnified and proliferated, shaping perceptions and inflaming passions.

A million reasons have been put forth about how and why Democrats squandered their singular moment in 2008, everything from the economy to badly timed health insurance reform, but one thing is indisputable: the 2010 midterms are a clear victory for the right’s old-school messaging operation.

No one can argue that there weren’t warnings about putting too much faith in the Internet. A year into the Obama presidency, Zephyr Teachout predicted that Organizing for America Will, and Should, Fail:

Organizing for America sent out a request for house parties today, asking people to watch a video about Obama’s economic recovery plan, talk about it with their friends, and build support for it. While there will be tweaks, this is the kind of action we can anticipate from OFA. I predict that there will be perhaps a thousand of such parties, then hundreds, then dozens. I think OFA will fail in its mission to directly engage Obama supporters in supporting Obama’s executive actions. And I think this is a very good thing.

It will fail because Obama–suiting a President–is not oppositional, conflict-driven, and not likely to pick out particular targets to be won over–all things that are likely to engage people. It will fail because it is from OFA, not from Obama. And it will fail because OFA cannot be a new democratic party, but will have a hard time defining what it is, and what kind of real power ought exist at every level of the organization.

During the health care debate, I posted The Health Reform Fiasco Is an ‘Old’ Media Triumph — and a Red Flag for Democrats:

Political and policy battles are primarily about messaging, about shaping public perceptions; despite widespread Internet triumphalism in the wake of the 2008 campaign, ‘old’ media mechanisms are not only relevant, but potent; Obama’s victory was predominantly the result of a well-conceived and executed traditional campaign strategy (i.e. creating effective positive and negative message frames and adhering to them).

A striking fact about the current political environment is that despite the ground-breaking Democratic victory in November, the new administration is dealing with an oddly familiar political brew: the “liberal media” mantra is rekindled, conservative talk radio (i.e. anti-liberal radio) is resurgent, Rush Limbaugh is more relevant than ever, Ann Coulter is once again doing the network rounds, and if online commentary over the past month is any indication, many progressives still feel disconnected from the levers of power. The dynamics and tensions of the past decade remain firmly in play: rightwing noise machine (albeit denuded) versus progressive activists, old-school pundits and politicians versus online powerhouses, netroots versus DLC, frustrated outsiders versus back-scratching insiders, partisanship versus bi/post-partisanship, media versus bloggers, and so on. Democrats would do well to note how unpredictably the Conventional Wisdom Machine has operated (or how predictably for those who are less sanguine about the fungibility of a web-fueled grassroots campaign).

Setting aside strategic errors by the Democrats (and there have been several in this fight), just look at how reform opponents have outgunned the White House using town halls, cable news, newspaper editorials, Freepers, Drudge, talk radio and chain emails. If I close my eyes, I’m transported back to my days on the Kerry campaign and the summer of Swift Boats, Purple Heart Band-Aids and rightwing attack machine antics. It’s as though a half decade of technological advances disappeared in the blink of an eye. Forget Facebook and Twitter, it’s all about Fox and MSNBC and CNN replaying images of angry protesters at town hall meetings railing against ‘government takeovers.’ It’s about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spreading fear and fury. It’s about anonymous emails zipping across the country, distorting the facts and sowing confusion. It’s about rightwing pundits setting the terms of the debate by foisting radical ideas on the public.

Paradoxically, the attempts by Democrats to counter all this by sending emails to Obama’s list and creating campaign-style fact-checking websites seem almost quaint by comparison. When a woman at a town hall spoke about “awakening a sleeping giant,” she may as well have been alluding to the old media tools and techniques that have been dismissed by pundits and tech evangelists as anachronistic in the Internet age. Simply put, despite volumes of cyber-ink about the left’s online prowess, and despite Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the right can apparently dominate the national conversation using the same outlets they relied on five and ten years ago.

That was a year and a half ago. The midterms further cement my view.

The beliefs that have shaped the 2010 midterms can be traced directly to the likes of Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. In a post titled The unbearable lightness of being a Tea Partier, I outlined the process by which rightwing soundbites transform conventional wisdom:

Anecdotal evidence continues to mount that the Tea Party is another manifestation of a rightwing phenomenon whereby carefully crafted talking points are force-fed to the public through Fox, talk radio, chain emails and other communication mechanisms, then regurgitated in the form of deeply-held convictions.

I say “force-fed” because if you tune in to these outlets, it’s a relentless stream of indoctrination:

Liberals are worse than terrorists — Global warming is a hoax — Obama is a Kenyan socialist — Gays are trying to corrupt our children — “Big government” is oppressing us — All Muslims are bent on our destruction — “Activist judges” are trying to undermine the Constitution The Constitution’s two main tenets are that everyone should have the right to carry assault weapons and that America is a Christian nation.

A fundamental characteristic of Tea Partiers’ views is the vehement embrace of ideas with little or no grounding in knowledge or comprehension and the parroting of Fox-style soundbites as though they were carefully considered positions.

On Climate:

At a candidate forum here last week, Representative Baron P. Hill, a threatened Democratic incumbent in a largely conservative southern Indiana district, was endeavoring to explain his unpopular vote for the House cap-and-trade energy bill. It will create jobs in Indiana, reduce foreign oil imports and address global warming, Mr. Hill said at a debate with Todd Young, a novice Republican candidate who is supported by an array of Indiana Tea Party groups and is a climate change skeptic. “Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists. “That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.”

A rain of boos showered Mr. Hill, including a hearty growl from Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of the Corydon Tea Party. “It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.”

Skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement, here in Indiana and across the country. For some, it is a matter of religious conviction; for others, it is driven by distrust of those they call the elites. And for others still, efforts to address climate change are seen as a conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth. But all are wary of the Obama administration’s plans to regulate carbon dioxide, a ubiquitous gas, which will require the expansion of government authority into nearly every corner of the economy.

“This so-called climate science is just ridiculous,” said Kelly Khuri, founder of the Clark County Tea Party Patriots. “I think it’s all cyclical.” “Carbon regulation, cap and trade, it’s all just a money-control avenue,” Ms. Khuri added. “Some people say I’m extreme, but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too.”

On Government:

A new study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that most Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare “very important.” They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.

The study suggests that come January, politicians in both parties will confront a challenging and sometimes contradictory reality about what Americans really think about their government. Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, they must contend with the fact that most major government programs remain enormously popular, including some that politicians have singled out for stiff criticism.

On the Constitution:

The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution. Many Tea Party members subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter as a way of bolstering their opposition to deficit spending, bank bailouts and President Obama’s health care plan. A Tea Party manifesto, called the Contract From America, even contains a rigid provision stipulating that all legislation passed by Congress should specify the precise clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to pass such a law — an idea touted Thursday by the House Republican leadership.

But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.

The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.

No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity. Those lofty figures, along with the seminal document they brought forth, form a sacred part of our common heritage as Americans. They should be used for the richness and diversity of their arguments, not tampered with for partisan purposes. The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once famously asserted that history was an argument without an end. Our contentious founders, who could agree on little else, would certainly have agreed on that.

The point is not to denigrate or minimize people’s views, but to demonstrate that the views are often based on erroneous information, misinformation or outright lies delivered by cynical millionaires like Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

If you’re going to ‘defend’ the Constitution or deny global warming or reject “big government”, you might want to do your own research before taking the word of Constitutional scholars and climatologists like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Christine O’Donnell.

Or as I put it recently: Only in the Tea Party can you defend a Constitution you haven’t read, deny climate change you’re causing and slam government programs you support.

UPDATE: Further evidence of the disconnect between beliefs and facts:

A Bloomberg National Poll finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.

The facts: The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, has overseen an economy that has grown for the past four quarters and expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks.

Said pollster Ann Selzer: “The public view of the economy is at odds with the facts, and the blame has to go to the Democrats. It does not matter much if you make change, if you do not communicate change.”

The impeachment of Barack Obama [Updated]

One glaring difference between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, is that the former is trying to win a debate while the latter is aiming for political annihilation.

The White House’s baffling message in recent days that if Republicans gain seats they’ll be more cooperative, is emblematic of that divide.

The reality is this: impeachment, not cooperation, is on the table if the GOP takes the House. I’ve been arguing for months that the level of anger on the right, stoked by millionaire radio talkers and fueled by a well-oiled attack machine, has created a fertile atmosphere to move impeachment from the fringes to the mainstream.

Democrats are constantly flabbergasted by Republican audacity. Republicans will say and do what Democrats won’t; they’ll endure the initial outcry over inflammatory comments to move the national discourse to the right, a process I described in a recent post:

There is a simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, even when Democrats are in charge: move the conversation as extreme right as possible, then compromise toward the far right. Negotiation 101. And it’s completely lost on Democrats.

Another chronic problem for Democrats is that they underestimate the American public’s responsiveness to rightwing talking points. Take this poll for example: “Likely voters in battleground districts see extremists as having a more dominant influence over the Democratic Party than they do over the GOP.”

In a word, the environment is ripe for impeachment. William Wolfrum elaborates:

A while back, my friend Sam Antar – a former key player in the infamous and egregious “Crazy Eddie’s” fraud – told me that it was just a matter of time before Barack Obama faced impeachment charges. “With all the stimulus money going out, the Republicans will eventually find some corruption charge they think will stick,” said Antar, now a corporate whistle-blower who tends to view things from a non-partisan prism. “It’s just a matter of time.”

In a purely Machiavellian sense, Republicans have always seemed to understand the game in ways Democrats don’t. Because while American Conservatism is an ideology with few new ideas or plans, it is also an ideology that understands that power is the only thing that really matters. And they have proven extremely adept at regaining power, regardless of past performances in governing.

Republicans can not beat Obama at the ballot box. But you can be assured that they will do all they can so that his legacy is terribly tainted in scandal. There is just no way the GOP will allow Obama to serve out eight years and leave office with a strong record of liberal accomplishment that he can hand over to a Democratic successor. Simply put, for Republicans, Barack Obama must be destroyed and completely invalidated before his term or terms are over.

Republicans will attempt to impeach Barack Obama. The “why” of the matter is completely insignificant. They’ll find something and work overtime to make it appear to be the Greatest Scandal Ever. It’s just a matter of time. Provided, of course, that they have the numbers.

Kevin Drum hypothesizes:

The topic here is, “What excuse will some insane tea party faction in the House use to bring impeachment charges against Barack Obama?”

Since we’re going for style points here, I’m putting my money on a scenario in which South Carolina decides to nullify the healthcare reform law and prohibit its enforcement. Obama nevertheless directs the IRS office in Charleston to dispatch tax delinquency notices to uninsured residents. Governor Nikki Haley instructs the state police to barricade the IRS in order to prevent it from delivering outgoing mail, at which point Obama sends in Army troops to reopen the office. This is taken as a tyrannical abuse of federal power, and Rep. Joe Wilson files immediate impeachment charges. The impeachment bill passes with 220 votes — 201 from the Tea Party, 18 from the rump Republican Party, plus Bobby Bright — and is sent to the Senate. Chief Justice John Roberts presides, wearing robes decorated with the scales of justice stitched in gold lame, but Tea Partiers and Republicans eventually rally only eight Democratic supporters and the charges fail by a single vote.

A touch of satire, but not out of the realm of possibility. Or probability.

Your handy guide to Election Day narratives

In order to make it easier to decipher the cacophony of punditry surrounding election results, I’ve put together this quick guide to Election Day narratives:

The 2010 midterms are a referendum on Obama’s presidency.

This is an inescapable thread tying together virtually all commentary on left, right and center. You’ll hear it incessantly. To the degree that a president is the central figure in national politics and the leader of his party, it’s largely accurate.

The 2010 midterms won’t hurt Obama’s reelection chances.

Some will say divided government actually helps Obama, others that the Tea Party will face a similar letdown when campaigning leads to governing, and still others that Obama’s approval ratings aren’t all that bad compared to previous presidents at a similar juncture.

GOP gains are mitigated by the fact that Republicans are widely disliked.

There’s not much solace in this for Democrats, since a win is a win and when your entire strategy centers around the destruction of the opposing party, it’s only marginally problematic that people dislike you.

GOP gains are a backlash against Obama’s excessive liberalism.

This is the dominant refrain from Republicans and conservatives and it will be amplified by ‘neutral’ pundits. Absurd, but it serves the long term goal of undermining liberalism.

GOP gains reflect a center-right electorate.

Whether or not more people self-identify as conservative or liberal, it’s hard to deny that righting framing dominates our national discourse, a result of the devastatingly effective righting message machine constantly churning out misinformation in the form of simplistic, infectious soundbites.

GOP gains are just part of a normal cycle, only more pronounced than usual this year.

History may be cyclical, but there’s nothing normal about Democrats squandering a singular progressive moment in the aftermath of the disastrous Bush presidency and a massive wave of hope and enthusiasm that resulted in the election of the first African-American president.

GOP gains can be summed up in one word: jobs.

This will be repeated on both sides of the aisle, by Democrats defensively trying to explain their drubbing and by Republicans hammering home the accusation that Obama is a failure. There’s some truth to it, but it’s far too simplistic an explanation for America’s dramatic rightward lurch.

GOP gains can be summed up in one mistake: health insurance reform.

Obama supporters and critics will look to the summer of death panels and town halls for clues to the Republican resurgence. Supporters will correctly say that health reform is a historic achievement but will concede that it was a turning point for Democrats, who mishandled the messaging around it. Obama detractors will say that it was a colossal overreach that distracted from the economy and turned off millions of voters.

GOP gains are the result of a powerful grassroots Tea Party movement.

If you get a dollar for every time the words “Tea Party” are uttered on election night, you’ll retire comfortably. If by ‘grassroots’ you mean ‘passions stirred by misinformation fueled by think-tank generated soundbites disseminated by millionaire radio hosts and media moguls and stoked by wealthy conservative interests’ then yes, the Tea Party is a grassroots movement.

GOP gains are the result of a timid Democratic Party, a president enamored with faux-bipartisanship who refused to embrace his role as the anti-Bush and a White House caught dumbfounded and flatfooted in the face of the right’s fury and ruthlessness.

This won’t get much play on big media outlets but you’ll hear it from bloggers and commenters on the left. Of course, it will be ignored by the White House and by ‘serious’ pundits, even though it’s the only narrative that correctly explains the 2010 election fiasco.