By Peter | NEWS - POLITICS - Writing | 11 Comments
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.