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.
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.
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.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about Pastor Terry Jones. He gave a press conference today. Says he’s going to go through with burning the Korans. Is there anything you can say to him to convince him not to?
OBAMA: If he’s listening, I just hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values of Americans. That this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance. And as a very practical matter, as commander of chief of the Armed Forces of the United States I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan. We’re already seeing protests against Americans just by the mere threat –
Republican leaders have also spoken out against the planned Quran-burning. President-in-exile Sarah Palin and Speaker-to-be John Boehner chose a different approach, equating the burning of a religious book with the construction of a mosque and cultural center.
“To Pastor Jones and those who want to build the [so-called Ground Zero] Mosque,” Boehner said (drawing an equivalence between Koran burning and the Cordoba House Project in lower Manhattan) “Just because you have a right to do something in America, does not mean it’s the right thing to do. We’re a nation of religious freedom — we’re also a nation of tolerance. I think in the name of tolerance, people ought to really think about the kind of actions they’re taking.”
Book burning is antithetical to American ideals. People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.
Boehner basically defines religious tolerance as not inflaming passions on both sides. What that means in practice is that Christians shouldn’t burn Korans and Muslims shouldn’t build mosques. Can we see what’s wrong with that picture?
It’s distressing, but the public discourse in the Obama era is even more unhinged than it was under Bush. Any hope for a return to sanity and rationality is out the window. The rightwing noise machine is at full throttle and Orwell would be proud of our strides backward:
- 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).
- Guns abound and the far right’s interpretation of the second amendment (the only one that seems to matter) is now inviolate.
- 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.
You can add to the above list equating building a place of worship with burning a religious book.
Imam Rauf, the man behind Park 51, appeared on Larry King Live and spoke about his objectives and the controversy around the “Ground Zero mosque.”
Contrast Imam Rauf’s appearance with Pastor Jones’ CNN interview:
Palin and Boehner don’t see the difference?
America, a deeply religious nation, is becoming unhinged from reality. There are numerous indications: the success of climate deniers is a glaring example. An increasing percentage of the population is willing to risk the future of humanity for no good reason other than to spite environmentalists.
The Republican Party, marching in lock step with the radical right, embraces illogic, courts cognitive dissonance, defies common sense. Unfettered, they’d return America to the 19th century. Democrats, mortified of appearing weak, more often than not refuse to resist, refuse to seize the moral high ground, refuse to fight for rationality.
How else to explain this:
Among other policies, the Obama national security team has authorized the C.I.A. to try to kill a United States citizen suspected of terrorism ties, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas corpus lawsuits challenging the basis for their imprisonment without trial, and continued the C.I.A.’s so-called extraordinary rendition program of prisoner transfers — though the administration has forbidden torture and says it seeks assurances from other countries that detainees will not be mistreated.
I shudder to think of where things are headed with this leadership void.