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

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.

Facing an energized and unscrupulous right, Obama brings a water gun to an artillery battle

Two things are crystal clear from President Obama’s lengthy sit-down with NBC’s Brian Williams:

  • He is a decent, thoughtful, intelligent man, trying to do the best he can for his country under extremely challenging circumstances.
  • He is completely outgunned by the rightwing attack machine.

Watch the interview and ask yourself what’s missing from the president’s responses:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

On substance, President Obama makes several critical points, among them that the spilled Gulf oil is “still out there” and that he stands firm in support of the Ground Zero mosque. He is realistic about the economy and he gets an excellent quip in, saying that he can’t spend all his time with his “brith certificate plastered to his forehead.”

Still, you can’t help notice the glaring lack of offense, the cautious answers, the muted tone, the inability to channel the profound alarm and financial pain Americans are feeling. There’s fire on the right, there’s no fire being expressed by Obama. There’s no blasting of Wall Street, no outrage at BP and oil companies, no fury at the lies and obfuscations of the GOP, no grand unified vision of what Democrats stand for and why they deserve to run the country.

I’ve argued that the GOP aims for the total destruction of Obama’s presidency. Charles Lemos puts it in stark terms:

Nothing else will satisfy the GOP’s lust for power than the wanton destruction of Obama’s Presidency. From day one, this has been their game plan, obstruct, rant and rave, delay, obstruct some more, rant and rave, delay, repeat as necessary as to make the nation look ungovernable and the Administration as pathetic and dangerous if not criminal. Throw enough mud, maybe some will stick. And if nothing’s there, invent something.

Posture is everything in politics. The White House and leading Democrats are in a defensive crouch. Much of it is their own doing. Elected to be the anti-Bush, they’ve given Bush and his team a pass on Iraq lies and outflanked Bush from the right on civil liberties and executive power. Given an opportunity to turn the Gulf spill into a historic inflection point, they raced to bury the story, outdoing BP in the rosy spin department. Passing major bills, they neglected to frame them as part of a progressive vision for America, allowing their opponents to frame everything they do as a socialist takeover.

In this interview, Obama mocks the “silly season” and shrugs off Glenn Beck’s outrageous legacy theft of Martin Luther King, Jr. but there’s nothing silly about what the GOP and rightwing attack machine are doing. They are dominating the national debate.  They are brazenly and unscrupulously pushing the envelope further right than anyone imagined. They are doing Orwell proud, denying climate change in the face of obvious warming, pushing for more drilling in the face of an epic spill, drumming up anti-Muslim sentiment, angling for more bailouts for the rich, stealing legacies, and claiming feminism as their own. They are “taking back their country” and returning it to the 19th century.

And worst of all, the only force on the left with the passion and experience to take them on, the netroots, are systematically being demoralized and marginalized by the White House.

So even though I respect and admire the Obama I see in Brian Williams’ interview, appreciate his honesty and integrity, I know in my heart he is bringing a water gun to an artillery battle. With an opponent who takes no prisoners.

The GOP aims for total destruction of Obama’s presidency, including impeachment

Sometimes it’s helpful to state the obvious: Republicans play hardball. Brazen hardball. Unscrupulous hardball. Yes, it’s couched in well-crafted soundbites about fighting “big government” and “judicial activism” and promoting “fiscal responsibility.” But in essence, it’s about no-prisoners political warfare. And when there’s a Democrat in the White House, it means total destruction of that presidency.

Of course, the campaign of destruction will be justified as being “for the good of the country.”

Impeachment is still working its way from the fringes, but it will inevitability move to the mainstream if Democrats lose the House. And read this Politico story for a sense of how November and beyond might play out:

If President Barack Obama needed any more incentive to go all out for Democrats this fall, here it is: Republicans are planning a wave of committee investigations targeting the White House and Democratic allies if they win back the majority.

Everything from the microscopic — the New Black Panther party — to the massive –- think bailouts — is on the GOP to-do list, according to a half-dozen Republican aides interviewed by POLITICO.

Republican staffers say there won’t be any self-destructive witch hunts, but they clearly are relishing the prospect of extracting information from an administration that touts transparency.

UPDATE: At MyDD, Charles Lemos expands on the story:

Nothing else will satisfy the GOP’s lust for power than the wanton destruction of Obama’s Presidency. From day one, this has been their game plan, obstruct, rant and rave, delay, obstruct some more, rant and rave, delay, repeat as necessary as to make the nation look ungovernable and the Administration as pathetic and dangerous if not criminal. Throw enough mud, maybe some will stick. And if nothing’s there, invent something.

Starring in the role of chief inquisitor is California’s Darrell Issa, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa, we are told, would like Obama’s cooperation. But it’s not essential.

“How acrimonious things get really depend on how willing the administration is in accepting our findings [and] responding to our questions,” says Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Issa who refers to his boss as “questioner-in-chief.”

If this sounds like a re-run to you, it is. Issa will be reprising the role once played by Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana during the Clinton years. Also starring in a supporting role is Texas Rep. Lamar Smith.