Boehner schools Obama and Democrats on how to talk about “compromise”

December 13, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

In large measure, the left’s critique of the White House and Democratic leadership is about leadership and principle, about standing for a set of core beliefs and refusing to trade those beliefs away in the vain hope of appearing reasonable to implacable conservative critics:

Obama and his advisers are in the habit of looking to past presidents for guidance. The days of Lincoln and FDR are long gone, but recent presidents like Reagan, Carter, Clinton and Bush still offer a roadmap of what – and what not – to do.

One admonition from President Clinton seems particularly apt for Obama’s predicament: “When people are insecure, they’d rather have someone strong and wrong, rather than weak and right.

This is a truism and George W. Bush banked it for six years until New Orleans drowned and the reality of his policies finally collided with his studiously cultivated image of strength and resolve.

Amazingly, Obama and Democrats have the opportunity to be strong and right, yet refuse to do so.

Or as I’ve put it: If you stand up for your principles, you may lose an election but keep your principles; if you ditch your principles, you’ll lose both.

Via Think Progress, here’s how John Boehner deals with Democrats’ favorite new word, ‘compromise’:

STAHL: But governing means compromising.

BOEHNER: It means working together.

STAHL: It also means compromising.

BOEHNER: It means finding common ground.

STAHL: Okay, is that compromising?

BOEHNER: I made it clear I am not going to compromise on my principles, nor am I going to compromise the will of the American people.

Sadly, Obama could learn a thing or two from Boehner.

On 60 Minutes, President Obama apologizes to America for being a Democrat

November 8, 2010 by Peter · 8 Comments 

The title of this post is intentionally hyperbolic and provocative — I couldn’t think of any other way to express my shock at the things President Obama said to Steve Kroft.

First, some context: I’ve been insistent that the fundamental problem for President Obama and Democratic leaders is a lack of moral authority, a pervasive sense among the electorate that they don’t have the courage of their convictions:

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 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.

The aftermath of the GOP’s midterm triumph perfectly illustrates this problem: Obama is falling over himself seeking compromise with Republicans, ceding to their frames, while Republican leaders say they will stick to their principles and try to destroy his presidency and legacy. Here’s how I put it a couple of days ago: If one side offers “compromise” and the other claims to stand firmly on principle, which one appears more principled to voters?

Astonishingly, in a 60 Minutes piece that just aired, Obama goes one step further. During the course of the entire interview he only once mentions having the courage of one’s convictions. And he attributes it not to himself or Democrats, but to Tom Coburn, a staunch conservative!

“There are some sincere Republicans in the Senate like Tom Coburn, Oklahoma, who is about as conservative as they come, but a real friend of mine and somebody who has always had the courage of his convictions and not, you know, bringing pork projects back to Oklahoma. And it may be that that’s an example of where, on a bipartisan basis, we can work together to change practices in Washington that generate a lot of the distrust of government.”

Read the rest of these excerpts and tell me how you feel about the White House’s post-midterm strategy. From my perspective, this interview is a near-complete capitulation to rightwing framing and basically an apology for being a Democrat:

“What [people have] seen over the last two years is a lot of partisan bickering. A lot of the same chronic problems that we’ve seen in Washington over the last several decades now. And that frustrated them. And I think they rightly said, “Okay, President Obama, you said you were gonna do something about this. We haven’t seen enough change in Washington.”

“I think that what happened over the course of two years was that we had to take a series of big, emergency steps quickly. And most of them in the first six months of my administration. Each of them had a big price tag. You got intervention in the banks. You’ve got the auto bailout. You’ve got a stimulus package. Each one with a lot of zeroes behind it. And people looked at that and they said, “Boy, this feels as if there’s a huge expansion of government.”

“But necessity created circumstances in which I think the Republicans were able to paint my governing philosophy as a classic, traditional, big government liberal. And that’s not something that the American people want. I mean, you know, particularly independents in this country.”

“Now, I campaigned saying we should stop doing earmarks. You know, even though it’s small as a part of our overall federal budget, you know, what people consider to be pork projects, no matter how worthy, make people feel that government’s not accountable. And there should be a better way of doing it. But I had to make a decision, “Do I sign this omnibus bill to finish last year’s business? And, you know, make sure that I can keep on working with Congress to get all these things done? Or do I veto that bill and have a big fight right away in the middle of an economic crisis?” Well, I decided to sign the bill. Now, that’s an example of where I was so concerned about getting things done that, you know, I lost track of part of the reason I got elected.”

“It’s not just a matter of how many bills I’m passing, no matter how worthy they are. Part of it’s also setting a tone in Washington and for the rest of the country that says, “We’re responsible. We’re transparent. We’re open. We’re talking to each other. We’re civil.” You know?”

“I think it’s fair to say that, you know, we made the right decisions in making sure that we stabilize the economy. But in terms of setting the tone and how this town operates, we just didn’t pay enough attention to some of the things that we had talked about.”

“And my hope is that we may be in a position now where the two sides meet and agree on some things that need to be changed. I noticed that [Virginia Congressman] Eric Cantor, one of the leaders in the House, said, you know, we really need to put an end to earmarks.”

“We thought that if we shaped a [health care] bill that wasn’t that different from bills that had previously been introduced by Republicans — including a Republican governor in Massachusetts who’s now running for President — that, you know, we would be able to find some common ground there. And we just couldn’t.”

“So, for us to figure out in a bipartisan way how to start rebuilding our roads. How to make sure we got the best airports in the world. How do we make sure that we’ve got a rail system that works in this country?”

“Well, you know, again, historically, rebuilding our infrastructure is something that has garnered Democratic and Republican support. I want to have a conversation with them and see if that’s still the case. What I just mentioned in terms of providing tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States. That’s not a traditional liberal position. That’s a traditional Republican position. That’s a Chamber of Commerce position.”

“What I’m gonna do is I’m gonna reach out to Republicans and I’m gonna say, “What can we work on together?” There are gonna be some things that we can’t agree on. You know? Philosophically. And so, we will have those battles. And we’ll save those decisions till after the next election. But in the meantime, there must be some things we can agree on.” KROFT: Haven’t you tried that? PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well I have, but I’m gonna keep on trying. And I’ll give you an example that I mentioned yesterday at the press conference in energy. I think that you know the Republicans don’t want to see some big comprehensive climate change bill.”

“Well, it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves. We have a long tradition in this country of a desire for limited government, the suspicion of the federal government, of a concern that government spends too much money. You know? I mean, that’s as American as apple pie. And although, you know, there’s a new label to this, I mean those sentiments are ones that a lot of people support and give voice to. Including a lot of Democrats.”

“Sometimes I think this debate gets framed as if I think rich people, folks who are doing well, should be punished. Part of what America’s all about is going out there and getting rich. And, you know, if you make a good product, you provide a good service, God bless you. I want you to do well. Then you can plow that money back into creating jobs. And building your businesses. That’s terrific.”

“I understand the Republicans have a different view. And so, we are going to have to have a negotiation. And I am open to you know, finding a way in which, you know, they can meet their, you know, principles and I can meet mine. But in order to do that, I think we do have to answer the question of how we pay for it. If in fact we’re gonna extend these tax cuts, then we’ve got to figure out what does that mean for our debt and our deficit.”

“And hopefully, we can agree on a set of facts that leads to a compromise.”

“You know, I think that both John [Boehner] and Mitch [McConnell] are very smart. They’re capable. They have been able to, I think, organize the Republican caucus very effectively in opposition to a lot of the things that we tried to do over the last two years. And that takes real political skill. And I believe that they want the best for the country just like I do. Just like Democrats do. So you know, my assumption is that we’re gonna be able to work together. And whenever we’ve had conversations here at the White House or over on Capital Hill, they’ve always been cordial.”

“Okay, during election season, I think the rhetoric flies. And by the way, I’ve been guilty of that. It’s not just them. And you know again, this is an example, you asked me earlier, of what I reflect on. I reflect on the fact that part of my promise to the American people when I was elected was to maintain the kind of tone that says we can disagree without being disagreeable. And I think over the course of two years, there have been times where I’ve slipped on that commitment. And that’s something that I’ve got to make sure that I’m checking on an ongoing basis, making sure that my rhetoric matches up with my expectations for myself and the expectations of my supporters.”

“You know, now I will say that when it comes to some of my supporters, some of my Democratic supporters who express some frustration, part of it, I think, is the belief that if I just communicated things better, that I’d be able to persuade that half of the country that voted for John McCain that we were right and they were wrong. And, you know, one of the things that I think is important for people to remember is that, you know, this country doesn’t just agree with The New York Times editorial page. And, you know, I can make some really good arguments defending the Democratic position, and there are gonna be some people who just don’t agree with me. And that’s okay. And then we’ve got to figure out a way to compromise.”

“And so I think that we’ve got some repair work to do [with the business community]. And as I said in my press conference — you know, the key to the American economy has always been the dynamic private sector that creates jobs. I would love a situation in which the private sector is off and roaring and movin’ and, you know, the government is playing a much more limited role in the economy.”

“No you know, I do get discouraged, I mean, there are times where you think, “Dog-gone-it you know, the job numbers aren’t movin’ as fast as I want.” And you know, I thought that the economy would have gotten better by now. You know, one of the things I think you understand — as president you’re held responsible for everything. But you don’t always have control of everything. Right?”

“And you know, I think that it is entirely legitimate that in the banking sector, it’s very important for us to write these rules in collaboration with interested parties so that they can start knowin’ how things are gonna work. When it comes to healthcare, we need to be consulting with the insurance industry to make sure they know how things are gonna work.”

Democrats stood for nothing and fell for anything

November 3, 2010 by Peter · 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.

Your handy guide to Election Day narratives

November 1, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

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.

Charlie Cook’s message to Republicans: “People don’t like you, you’re not victors”

October 27, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

Cook predicts the House will flip but his message to the GOP is blunt: “This is an unearned win. You’re not victors. People don’t like you and they don’t like what you did the last decade… but it’s not about you.”

When you’re mulling a (weak) strategy less than 45 days out, you’re losing

September 20, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

NYT:

President Obama’s political advisers, looking for ways to help Democrats and alter the course of the midterm elections in the final weeks, are considering a range of ideas, including national advertisements, to cast the Republican Party as all but taken over by Tea Party extremists, people involved in the discussion said.

“We need to get out the message that it’s now really dangerous to re-empower the Republican Party,” said one Democratic strategist who has spoken with White House advisers but requested anonymity to discuss private strategy talks.

Democrats are divided. The party’s House and Senate campaign committees are resistant, not wanting to do anything that smacks of nationalizing the midterm elections when high unemployment and the drop in Mr. Obama’s popularity have made the climate so hostile to Democrats. Endangered Congressional candidates want any available money to go to their localized campaigns.

Several things about this should trouble Democrats:

First, the contours of the midterms have been in place since last summer, when the rightwing attack machine drove a truck through Democrats’ messaging and vision vacuum and framed Obama’s presidency as a socialist takeover. Publicly debating your strategy in late September doesn’t inspire confidence — it tells the public you’re confused and flailing. By contrast the GOP strategy has been simple: NO.

Second, trying to convince voters that your their opponent is crazy (the “nutcase defense“) rather than laying out a simple, compelling vision for the country won’t change Democratic fortunes, as Glenn Greenwald explained recently:

I personally find it hard to believe that large numbers of voters will be motivated by a fear-mongering campaign centered around people who do not currently wield power, do not occupy any positions, and are not even running for office.  But the more significant point is what this tactic says about the Democratic Party.  They have controlled both houses of Congress for almost four years and the White House for almost two.  Yet rather than run primarily on affirmative accomplishments (some Democrats are even running against them), they’re reduced to this not-very-inspiring or hope-laden message:  at least we’re not as bad as Sarah Palin.

It’s not hard to see why Democrats are relying on what Maddow called this “soul-sucking” tactic.  With no end in sight to the unemployment crisis, almost no real benefits yet in effect on their central legislative achievement (health care), a high likelihood of Social Security cuts following the election, few of the promises kept on the issues most important to their core base, and even hardcore Democratic pundit-partisans now finally — and angrily — acknowledging that Obama has continued the vast bulk of Bush/Cheney civil liberties/executive power abuses (ones which drove many progressives to remove the GOP from power), what else can they do to motivate people to vote for them besides try to scare people into thinking about the Sarah Palin menace?

…That the Right has become an even more twisted, malicious and primitive version of what they were during the Bush years is unquestionably true.  And it’s perfectly legitimate to point out the flaws and excesses of one’s political adversaries.  But the expectations which large numbers of Obama voters had — based on the promises made — are not going to be forgotten with these distracting, divisive strategies.

Third, to suggest that Democrats are afraid of nationalizing an election is to telegraph how out of touch they are: this election was nationalized the day Barack Obama took office and the right set out to destroy his presidency.

Finally, this is yet another example of Democrats’ chronic habit of projecting weakness:

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.

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.’”

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.

UPDATE: Apparently, the White House denies the Times story:

–The West Wing remains unsatisfied. A White House official: “The Times is just flat-out, 100 percent wrong. The first time Obama’s advisers heard about a national ad campaign is when the story showed up on The Times’ website last night.”

–Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet responds: “The piece is accurate.”

Democrats should hope that the story is a fabrication.

Quick, what do Democrats stand for? What does the Tea Party stand for?

September 17, 2010 by Peter · 1 Comment 

I’d wager that the first thought that comes to mind is:

Democrats stand for higher taxes and big government.

The Tea Party stands for protecting the Constitution and taking back America.

Obviously simplistic and false, but this is what America is led to believe through the relentless pounding of well-crafted soundbites designed as a substitute for critical thinking.

Here’s what the Tea Party really stands for.

Until Democrats deal with this information imbalance, their sinking fortunes won’t improve.

Age of Denial: win or lose chambers in November, it’s soul searching time for Democrats

September 15, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Delaware Republican Senate primary had Democrats exuberant – cheering victory by the ‘crazy Tea Party candidate.’ But when your electoral strategy is “let’s hope the lunatic wins cause we can’t beat a sane Republican,” it’s time for some serious soul-searching.

Nate Silver injects a dose of realism into overblown prognostications about a GOP landslide:

There’s the possibility that Republicans end up with a lot of half-loaves: independent voters get them almost close enough in some states and districts, base voters in some others, but they come up a few points short in a lot of key races and wind up winning “only” 30 House seats and 4 or 5 Senate seats. Or, just the opposite could be true. Independent voters rally them to surprising wins in some blue-leaning states, while base voters shore up the home front, and allow them to roll back the gains that Democrat made into Republican territory in 2006 and 2008.

He’s absolutely right – anything can happen on Election Day and expectations are beginning to get out of hand for Republicans. Unfortunately, if Democrats lose badly but retain the House and Senate, it will be hailed by the White House and pundits as a victory, perhaps a great victory, dampening the urge for introspection, the self-awareness needed to battle a dangerous radical rightwing resurgence.

Of course, it will be anything but a victory. The whiplash-inducing right turn America has taken since 2008, the deflation of hope, compel a sober and serious look at what Democrats have done wrong. We can take solace all we want in previous presidential poll numbers, we can say this is a normal cyclical dip, but that doesn’t explain or excuse this:

  • George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
  • Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
  • Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
  • In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
  • From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
  • Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
  • Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
  • Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
  • The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
  • We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
  • An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
  • Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
  • The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
  • Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.

O’Donnell’s shock victory is part of this larger picture. Granted, it may imperil GOP chances to grab one more senate seat, but if you see it as a loss leader, as one more huge step to the right, it’s cold comfort to those who have fought the radical right’s takeover of our national discourse.

Yesterday I posted what I believe is the photo that defines our age of denial, a Biblical image of dead sea life:

When things like this are happening before our eyes and we can’t muster the will to do something dramatic to fix it, when Democrats seek comfort in radicals winning primaries, when a great nation abruptly reverses course and barrels headlong toward the 19th century, we have no choice but to dig deep and ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong.

Die-hard Obama supporters demand incessant cheerleading, but their blinders are part of the problem not the solution. As citizens, we’re tasked with making sure elected officials do their jobs. If Democrats and progressives are satisfied with the direction we’re heading, it’s their prerogative. Some of us are not in denial and we’ll keep speaking out until there’s a legitimate reason to believe that we’re righting our ship, reclaiming the moral high ground and making actual – not imagined – progress.

Democrats hit rock bottom with desperate “Boehner Strategy”

September 14, 2010 by Peter · 2 Comments 

You know a political party has lost its bearings when it hinges an entire electoral strategy on raising the name recognition and negatives of an Ohio congressman whose name most people can neither spell nor pronounce, whose most notable trait is his perma-tan, and who is unknown even to voters in his home state:

42% of Ohio voters say they don’t know enough about Boehner to rate him one way or the other. Among those who do 27% see him positively and 31% have an unfavorable view. Democrats (53%) dislike him more than Republicans (51%) like him and independents go against him by a 22/27 margin as well.

I leave it to the indispensable Glenn Greenwald to sketch the contours of Democratic desperation:

I personally find it hard to believe that large numbers of voters will be motivated by a fear-mongering campaign centered around people who do not currently wield power, do not occupy any positions, and are not even running for office.  But the more significant point is what this tactic says about the Democratic Party.  They have controlled both houses of Congress for almost four years and the White House for almost two.  Yet rather than run primarily on affirmative accomplishments (some Democrats are even running against them), they’re reduced to this not-very-inspiring or hope-laden message:  at least we’re not as bad as Sarah Palin.

It’s not hard to see why Democrats are relying on what Maddow called this “soul-sucking” tactic.  With no end in sight to the unemployment crisis, almost no real benefits yet in effect on their central legislative achievement (health care), a high likelihood of Social Security cuts following the election, few of the promises kept on the issues most important to their core base, and even hardcore Democratic pundit-partisans now finally — and angrily — acknowledging that Obama has continued the vast bulk of Bush/Cheney civil liberties/executive power abuses (ones which drove many progressives to remove the GOP from power), what else can they do to motivate people to vote for them besides try to scare people into thinking about the Sarah Palin menace?

…That the Right has become an even more twisted, malicious and primitive version of what they were during the Bush years is unquestionably true.  And it’s perfectly legitimate to point out the flaws and excesses of one’s political adversaries.  But the expectations which large numbers of Obama voters had — based on the promises made — are not going to be forgotten with these distracting, divisive strategies.

From the day President Obama took office, progressive critics have feared – and predicted – this day would come. The day when the right would return in full glory, when Republicans would rise again, when the promise of hope would fade. It was the inexorable consequence of the pathological unwillingness to present (and act upon) a grand unified Democratic/progressive vision, to frame Obama’s laudable legislative accomplishments rather than allow the right to frame them for him.

In March of 2009, I wrote:

I know it’s hard for Democrats to appreciate how quickly political fortunes turn — the glow of victory, the high of electoral success gives a sense of inevitability and invincibility, of permanence. But there’s nothing permanent about power. The tide will turn again, and the engine that will drive it is the fury stirred by the likes of Limbaugh.

In a recent post, I repeated the theme I’ve focused on for almost two years, that it’s the moral authority, stupid:

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.

Pundits put forth myriad reasons to explain the GOP wave (jobs and the economy topping the list), but they invariably overlook the biggest one: that Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policies.

Everything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values.

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.

The image of Obama railing against “Boehner, Boehner, Boehner” is one I wish we’d never seen. It’s beneath him. It’s a gift to conservatives, who are literally flabbergasted at their good fortune:

It must have been a sad, desultory meeting of White House strategists when they settled on an anti-Boehner campaign … According to a Fox News poll earlier this year, 55 percent of people nationally had never heard of him. The White House figures people will hate Boehner with an unbridled passion — if only they could remember his name.

This is the very definition of sliding-off-a-cliff, grasping-at-saplings desperation. Obama traveled to Cleveland last week to give a speech responding to an economic address by Boehner there a couple of weeks prior. Boehner’s speech had mostly been ignored by the press at the time, since it hadn’t occurred to anyone that he was the pivot upon which the future of the nation would turn.

The Republicanism of John Boehner is not particularly inspiring, but neither is it threatening. You’re likelier to see him at an outing at a fancy golf resort than leading a fanciful, ideological crusade. .. The White House doesn’t seem to care that in sending Obama out after Boehner in attack-dog mode, it is diminishing the president.

Why are we giving the likes of Rich Lowry this kind of ammunition?

And does anyone really think this will turn back the GOP wave:

The silver lining is that it can’t get much worse and it’s fair to assume that there will be some sort of a dead cat bounce off this low.

The great rightwing resurgence: right or wrong, Republicans project strength, Democrats project weakness

September 7, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

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.