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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Goldilocks Triangulation

by digby

There's a ton of discussion this morning about this article in which unnamed White House functionaries run to Politico to complain that nobody understands them. I think it pretty much speaks for itself, but there are some points worth discussing.

First of all, the central premise seems to be that liberals should be happy that Obama has "gotten something done" without regard to what that "something" is. But the fact is that professional politicians always rattle off a legislative laundry list while activists care about process, politics and policy --- and average voters only care about the results. (The press cares about "the score", however they decide to define it that day.) A successful president is expected to know how to manage all of that --- and browbeating his voters is rarely a winning strategy.

Therefore, his political advisers should know that when the country is still reeling from unemployment and foreclosures after nearly two years, the passage of an inadequate stimulus bill, which unrealistic benchmarks and a giddy victory party ensured would be the only chance they got, the only people who will consider that a "success" would be beltway insiders. They should have realized that a health care bill that nobody in their right minds would have designed from scratch, the worst aspects of which liberals will be asked to defend for years to come, would be met with dampened enthusiasm by those who watched the process devolve from a sense of progressive purpose to an exhausting farce. They are expected to be able to predict that financial reform without accountability for what's gone before, combined with the administration's unwillingness to confront the civil liberties abuse of the last administration -- indeed expanding on them in some cases -- would show a lack of fundamental concern for justice among those who care about such things.

Since the Village is essentially a Republican town perhaps they assumed that liberals were all going to be the same dead-enders the Bush cultists were, defending their man until the day he was out of office (and then insisting they never liked him in the first place.) That's what "little people" (and paid political hacks) are supposed to do. But liberals are not known for cultlike devotion to their leaders --- ask Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.(JFK was on the verge of an insurrection over Vietnam and civil rights and we'll never know how he would have handled it.) In the last 50 years, the only president who maintained the support of his liberal base was Bill Clinton and it had far more to do with the nature of the congressional opposition and the extreme hostility of the press (and a big, fat tech bubble) than support for his policies. Plus, as Rick Perlstein pointed out to me the other day, he noticed while reviewing some of his speeches of the era that regardless of his Third Way proclivities, even the unabashedly centrist Clinton used populist rhetoric, which at least kept the notion of the middle class and support for those who "work hard and play by the rules" as a sacrosanct value, something which is obviously no longer true. The unemployed, foreclosed-upon and over-stressed middle class are now being openly told by Republicans that they get what they deserve and there's barely a peep of protest. ("There's not a great appetite for additional spending.") Indeed, they're being exhorted to sacrifice even more --- while the malefactors of great wealth get richer by the day.

Which brings us to the real problem for Obama among all Americans, not just his base, which is his neo-liberal economic policy and the often dry New Democrat political rhetoric that enables it. It does not surprise me much because he signaled early on in the campaign that he was going to govern like a cautious centrist and immediately upon taking office started chattering about "Grand Bargains" on social security and medicare. I took a lot of criticism for pointing that out at the time, from people who felt I wasn't giving him a chance (and who oddly believed the right had been completely vanquished...) But I don't think there was ever much of a mystery about whether or not he was a technocratic "pragmatist" who believed that this recession was simply a market correction that would turn itself around with a few tweaks here and there to make it more "efficient." Everything the administration did signaled they believed they were forced to intervene by political rather than economic necessity. Their eyes were on an "Obama Goes to China" legacy on so-called entitlement reform. The tepid stimulus and continued insistence on coddling Republicans all flowed from that.

And in the first year, political hubris was everywhere. The premature victory laps gave them little room to maneuver when things didn't go as planned. For instance, aside from serious misgivings about the substance, one of the reasons liberals didn't celebrate the final passage of the health care bill (which the Politico article holds out as an example of immature leftist pique) was the fact that the Democrats held at least four earlier victory celebrations each of which then had to be dialed back when some Senate princeling or braindead congressman decided to use the opportunity to punch another hippie. After a while one felt a little bit foolish for feeling even slightly positive only to find oneself once again ritually sacrificed to give Joe Lieberman another thrill up his leg. By the time it was over, it was nothing more than a relief at best.

A congressman pointed out this hubristic comment from the president early in the year when House members tried to tell him that things were grim in their districts:

“They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’

The expectations game has been very badly played by the administration all the way along. That they are now apparently calling on Bill Clinton to advise and Robert Gibbs is saying publicly that the House in is play is sadly ironic.

Still, running to Politico to complain about the immature liberals would seem to be even more counterproductive than usual. Indeed, it's so counterproductive that I have to assume this is a conscious triangulation tactic. After all, if what you are upset about is liberals failing to be properly supportive, it hardly seems wise to take to the Drudge Daily to complain about them, does it? But then even these anonymous whiners can't be so stupid as to think browbeating a bunch of liberal bloggers has any meaning among anyone but the Village elite so that's obviously what this is about --- creating a Goldilocks meme among the media that says because Obama is criticized by both the immature bloggers and the radical tea party, he must be juuust riiiight. That won't do the Democrats any good in the short run, but it sounds like a 2012 strategy in the making.