Trapping The Apostle
I like dday's optimism below, but if you want to see what the village elders are saying about all this "change", this morning's Fareed Zakaria show on CNN will give you a clue.
Zakaria hosted a panel of historians and establishment icons, Walter Isaacson, Jon Meachum, Robert Caro and Joseph Ellis, to talk about what it all means. They were, across the board, giddy with excitement about Obama. They believe he is a nearly magical, transformative figure.
Any president is lucky to have such enthusiastic support of opinion makers and learned men of letters --- it makes his job easier. The question is whether the transformation they want is the same transformation as the people wanted --- or Obama promised.
Zakaria's first question was this:
Q: What do you think Obama needs to do make a mark in foreign policy?
Isaacson: I do think it would be great to rise above partisanship and have a non-partisan foreign policy. We all agree on the basic goals.
We do? I think we just went through a presidential campaign in which the Republican candidate said that we should stay in Iraq, be more confrontational with Russia and bomb,bomb,bomb Iran at the least provocation. He endorsed the Bush Doctrine. There is no foreign policy consensus. Sure the basic goals are for everything to "be ok" but I don't think that gets us very far. There is no reason to believe that Republicans are on board with Obama's proposed foreign policy. In fact, at the end of the election, half the voters still thought that the crazed coot McCain would be better on terrorism. Don't think the GOP didn't notice that.
If you look back at what Truman did, he was faced with a great global struggle and he brought in people without regard to party.
Zakaria: the Marshall plan was run by a Republican!
Here's the problem. After World War Two, Truman wasn't faced with a Republican party that had illegally invaded Czechoslovakia. The Republicans had been isolationists and basic pains in the ass, but America wasn't perceived by the rest of the world after WWII as being an immoral and incoherent superpower at their hands. If Obama wants to make the world think that nothing has changed, a bipartisan foreign policy is just the ticket.
Turning to domestic policy, Zacariah asked Jon Meechum if this is like 1932:
Meechum: Well, it's a crisis of confidence. I think it's like 1932 and 1980 in terms of coming in when confidence in ourselves at home and in our capacity to project power around the world is in great jeopardy. And I think like Reagan, Obama has a very great opportunity here because of his character and his personality to keep the faithful happy but be able to forgive him his compromises because he's inevitably going to have to do it.
And there's a good bit of conventional wisdom at the moment that says, "well, if the millenium doesn't dawn by Christmas, the left is going to walk out and the netroots are going to explode." I think this is a new Teflon president, that there is such firm belief in the apostle. A Democratic senator during the Jackson administration said that the thing that struck him about American politics was that followers tended to believe more in the apostle than in the creed. And if the apostle was strong then they would go with him.
And it sounds like a cult of personality, but Obama has barely set a foot wrong as a tactical matter and I think the character of his detachment and capacity to analyze is something that is exactly right for the moment.
Aside from that last part, which is incoherent gibberish (it sure sounds like a cult of personality he's describing --- and none of it has to do with detachment and analysis) I think this is really a trap for Obama. They are imbuing him with magical powers to keep everyone happy and when he is unable to do it, it will be because he's weak (if the left exerts its muscle) or a failure at fulfilling his mandate (if the right declares that Obama is being too partisan for them to work with.)
This is why this bipartisan fetish is so dangerous. It sets up an expectation among the villagers that actual politics can be like a DC cocktail party (or the CNN green room) where everyone has a spirited conversation and then pat each other on the backs agreeing that only reason these things are so contentious is because the silly people out in the country just don't understand how things really work.
When real politics are unavoidable -- power plays, backstabbing and sausage making --- they get the vapors about the ugliness of it all. After all, it makes the personal interactions of wealthy people quite unpleasant and who wants that?
Zakaria then asked:
Bob, Lyndon Johnson had a big Democratic majority in the Senate and the House --- people are saying it looks good, but they're gonna squabble and it's going to drag him to the left. What does history tell us?
Caro (who actually spoke like a historian instead of Cokie Roberts throughout this discussion) reasonably pointed out that a president needs to have "two hands" --- the outstretched hand of the great speechmaker, like John F. Kennedy, but that you also have to have the fist of a Lyndon Johnson who can control the congress. He pointed out that sometimes the larger majority is unwieldy and expectations are high, so it actually can make it harder for a president. He failed miserably in his duty to pound home the notion that the only problem with the congress is that Obama might be "dragged" to the left. (I doubt he'll be invited back.)
Joseph Ellis quickly stepped into the breach and soothingly explained that Obama was not going to be a big bad lefty like Roosevelt, Johnson or Clinton:
I think everything we know about him suggests he's not going to go to the left. He's going to go to the center, perhaps the center-left and put together a coalition and a cabinet and reach across the aisle. And that's not compatible with the behavior we've discussed earlier with regard to Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt.[Those partisan bastards!] I think to bring it even closer, that Clinton made a mistake in going too far to the left in the year or two of his administration.
I'm virtually certain when Obama was made head of the Harvard Law Review all the blacks thought he was going to appoint them. He only appointed one! (Big smile.)
Isaacson added this:
If you look at the really big issues that you've got to tackle, the four or five big ones, you've got to deal with terrorism, with the financial crisis, with health care, climate change and K-12 education in this country --- you're better off doing it as a coalition reaching out to the other side because that's how transforming policies can be made.
Isn't it pretty to think so? I'm so sorry to intrude on the kumbaaya fantasy where the right graciously accepts Obama's hand in friendship and they all skip off into never-never land together, but the fact is that these changes are more often made by using political power to either win with a partisan mandate or force the other side to capitulate. These people think it's all about "reaching out" and telling your own constituents to take a hike when it's much more about skillfully using the bully pulpit and institutional leverage. (I guess they really think it's possible to solve huge intractable ideological, tribal differences by putting people in a room together and saying "stop the bullshit" --- or maybe in Obama's case, "I hear you." )
I would remind everyone that a (still popular with the GOP base) Republican president tried to pass a bipartisan compromise bill on immigration last year. It had many things in it that the "left" did not like. But they bit their tongues and went along. Who didn't go along? That's right, it was the far right that tanked their own president's bill and they did it with a grassroots campaign that scared the hell out of their political leadership. And they'll do it again.
Here's what the leader of that grassroots thinks about all this transpartisanship:
RUSH: Would you define for me a "moderate conservative."
CALLER: A moderate conservative has gotta be someone that is a fiscal conservative first and foremost. Second, a moderate conservative is one that sides with the left on other issues, whether it's gun control or abortion rights or whatever.
RUSH: He's not a conservative if he sides with the left. See, conservatism is what it is. It doesn't need to be moderated. It doesn't need to be redefined. It doesn't need to be upgraded. It's based on personal liberty: individual freedom, a small state that functions for the express purpose of defending and protecting the population...
"The Republican Party, we gotta be a big tent," and that's code words for, "We gotta have some pro-choicers in our party to get rid of the influence of these hayseed hicks in the South who are pro-life." Well, they have gone, and I, for one, say, "Damn well good riddance!"
Now I don't know how powerful Rush is going to be. Perhaps his day is done. But he believes that it was McCain's "maverickness" that lost the election. And let's just say that what he represents --- Republican conservatism --- has been far more active and destructive to bipartisanship, comity and compromise than anything the left has done since about 1972. And yet, he's nowhere in this conversation about Obama's governance challenges.
Considering that the Republican party really has been purged of moderates now, I'd say that the GOP is going to be the much bigger roadblock to compromise than the left. They're more radical than ever. The Republican party is now led by Rush Limbaugh. There's nobody else. And when Obama reaches out his hand to Rush Limbaugh he's going to get it whacked off with a chainsaw, at which point, these villagers (who haven't even considered this political problem) are going to blame Obama for being unable to govern in a bipartisan fashion.
All over television this morning the gasbags seemed convinced that Obama had been elected to stop the left from ruining the country. And when it turns out to actually be his supposedly cooperative new partners in governance --- the right --- that stands in his way, they will blame him for being too far left. It's a trap.
What these people really want is a wizard who can solve all problems without a fight, a leader who gives them tingles down their legs and an historic figure who makes them feel really, really good about themselves for being the agents of America's transformation from country to Nirvana. It's not the left who sees him as an apostle. It's the Village.