You know things are bad when Democrats are message-hopping faster then John McCain in 2008 and when Democratic leaders and pundits take comfort in comparing President Obama’s approval ratings to the low points of previous presidents.
We shouldn’t find much solace knowing that Reagan also experienced a trough and climbed out of it. History and politics may be cyclical, but life is not. Our trajectory on global warming, for instance, is linear: the longer we allow the forces of denial to hold sway, the more likely we are to hit the point of irreversibility.
Moreover, the election of Barack Obama was a singular moment: the first African-American president elected to replace the most reactionary and radical administration in our history, following a campaign where a woman nearly shattered the ultimate glass ceiling. The force and momentum of those factors and the unprecedented engagement and hope it generated should never have dissipated so rapidly. This is not some mundane political cycle, this is a travesty.
It didn’t have to be this way.
There was a telling paragraph in Peter Baker’s recent Education of a President:
“We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me. The easy answer is to blame the Republicans, and White House aides do that with exuberance. But they are also looking at their own misjudgments, the hubris that led them to think they really could defy the laws of politics. “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. “ ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.”
It’s easy to cross the line from confidence, an essential component of success, to over-confidence, an ingredient of failure. Thinking back to the (justified) euphoria around President Obama’s inauguration, it’s easy to understand why many Democrats crossed that line. But that’s not to say there weren’t warning signs of the disaster to come. The flaps over Donnie McClurkin and Rick Warren were portents, signaling to Obama and Democratic lawmakers that the transition from hope to action was beginning.
I warned about over-confidence as far back as March of 2009, when I argued against bickering with Rush Limbaugh from the White House podium:
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. Feeding that machine, expanding and enhancing it is a mistake. A serious one.
It’s a truism that victory makes every decision seem genius, defeat, the reverse. Democrats, now in power, have a sense of triumph that makes every decision feel smart, every chess move a checkmate. Thus the “Rush strategy” foisted on those of us who have spent the past decade trying to point out how noxious and pernicious Limbaugh and his ilk have been (and continue to be), and how detrimental the anger they’ve stoked.
Empowering Limbaugh in the hopes of a bank-shot against Republicans will yield the opposite result: Limbaugh will become more powerful, Republicans will relish his increased influence and allow him to do their dirty work.
It’s easy to feel like the old era is gone, the old demons slain, that we WON, that nobody’s afraid of the once-vaunted Republican attack machine. … but the seeds of Democratic defeat are planted not by Republican elected officials, who, like McCain, will carry the Bush albatross for years to come, but by those who can freely fan the flames of outrage, who can fight dirty, who can bend and break the rules with impunity, who can tear down their opponents’ integrity and character, and whose apparent reward (as in the case of Ann Coulter) is to be given yet a larger platform. No thanks.
My narrow point was that the dirty work of battling Limbaugh should not rise to the level of the White House. It would only empower him and his blathering cohorts. Surrogates could do that. My larger point was that the lesson from campaign 2008 should not be that there was now an indomitable, web-fueled Democratic force that would sweep away all rightwing resistance. If anything, the right would now fight harder and uglier. Decades in the making, the well-oiled rightwing attack machine wasn’t about to sputter out and die.
So who exactly was the White House official referring to when he/she told Peter Baker “we were overconfident”? I doubt it’s President Obama, since he is too disciplined, introspective and self-aware to lapse into over-confidence. I don’t really think it’s a single individual (though Rahm Emanuel’s famous bluster is emblematic of it) but it’s more a mindset that took over the White House and Democratic leadership, a mindset that denigrated the left’s concerns, that toyed with Limbaugh, that embraced faux-bipartisanship, that began taking measurements for Mount Rushmore, that scoffed at the Tea Party, that relied on an ephemeral email list and the myth of online dominance to convince itself that the GOP was permanently marginalized.
The problem with over-confidence as opposed to mere confidence is that the former makes you insular, the latter motivates you to solicit – and appreciate – external advice. The former leads Democratic insiders to slap down the ‘petulant’ left, the latter compels them to crowdsource strategy rather than rely on the “wisdom” of the same old Beltway strategists, pundits and pollsters.
The big question now is whether the impending electoral train wreck will convert Democratic over-confidence to defeatism or whether the White House can find confidence where they should have sought it all these months, in core progressive principles and values.
Mike Allen previews the NYT Magazine’s “Education of a President.”
[President Obama] reflects on what he called the “tactical lessons” of his first two years: He let himself look too much like “the same old tax-and-spend Democrat,” realized too late that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects” and perhaps should have “let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts” in the stimulus. He said he and his team took “a perverse pride” in focusing on policy while ignoring the need to sell it to the country and that he realizes now that “you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”
This is mind-boggling on so many levels. Why would the White House do this before the midterms?
–He says the next two years will focus less on passing ambitious legislation and more on implementing what he has already passed: “Even if I had the exact same Congress, even if we don’t lose a seat in the Senate and we don’t lose a seat in the House, I think the rhythms of the next two years would inevitably be different from the rhythms of the first two years. There’s going to be a lot of work in this administration just doing things right and making sure that new laws are stood up in the ways they’re intended.”
–He rejects the notion that he was better at campaigning than governing: “The mythology has emerged somehow that we ran this flawless campaign, I never made a mistake, that we were master communicators, everything worked in lockstep. And somehow now, as president, things are messy and they don’t always work as planned and people are mad at us. That’s not how I look at stuff, because I remember what the campaign was like. And it was just as messy and just as difficult. And there were all sorts of moments when our supporters lost hope, and it looked like we weren’t going to win. And we’re going through that same period here.”
–Also in the piece are frank conclusions of other Obama insiders, who in their dark moments concede that Obama cannot be another Lincoln and wonder if the best of his presidency is now behind them. Among the things presidential advisers said: “We’re all a lot more cynical now.” “Arrogance isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.” “He’s opaque even to us.” “It’s not what people felt they sent Barack Obama to Washington to do, to be legislator in chief.” “He’s a little frustrated with the internal dysfunction.”
I realize Democrats are chronic apologizers and pathologically incapable of explaining the grand vision of what they stand for, but is there some purpose in projecting a defeatist attitude in the run-up to a pivotal election? Because if there is, I’m missing it.
UPDATE: Here’s the link to the full NYT piece. It’s a mish-mash of competing narratives and musings, but manages to sidestep the main problem for Obama and Democrats: people don’t think they stand for anything.
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.