Monday, February 27, 2012
Setting it up for the next phase
Following up on my earlier post, here's a great new piece by Perlstein in Rolling Stone. This is just so right on:
Here's the problem: Even if Obamaism works on its own terms – that is, if Sullivan is right that Obama’s presidency is precisely on course – it can't stop Republicans from wrecking the country. Instead, it may end up abetting them.
To understand why, let's look at Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama has famously cited him as a role model for how transformative a president can be. Well, what did he transform, and how did he do it? Here's how: He planted an ideological flag. From the start, he relentlessly identified America's malaise with a villain, one that had a name, or two names – liberalism, the Democratic Party – and a face – that of James Earl Carter. Reagan's argument was, on its face, absurd. For all Carter's stumbles as president, the economic crisis he inherited had been incubated under two Republican presidents, Nixon and Ford (see this historical masterpiece for an account of Nixon's role in wrecking the economy), and via a war in Vietnam that Reagan had supported and celebrated. What's more, to arrest the economy's slide, Jimmy Carter did something rather heroic and self-sacrificing, well summarized here: He appointed Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chairman with a mandate to squeeze the money supply, which induced the recession that helped defeat Carter – as Carter knew it might – but which also slayed the inflation dragon and, by 1983-84, long after Carter had lost to Reagan, saved the economy.
In office, Reagan, on the level of policy, endorsed Carter's economics by reappointing Volcker. But on the level of politics, in one of the greatest acts of broad-gauged mendacity in presidential history, he blamed Carter for the economic failure, tied that failure to liberal ideology and its supposed embrace of "big government" (Carter in fact took on big government), and gave conservatism credit for every success. Deregulation and supply-side tax-cuts brought us "morning in America," he said. That was bullshit, but it won him a reelection landslide against Walter Mondale, Carter's VP, whom he labeled "Vice President Malaise."
What's the lesson? It’s not that you have to lie – Republicans had to do that to win, but Democrats don't. No, Democrats, in 2009, could simply have told the truth, and called it hell. The truth was this: For the first few years of this new century, America had ventured upon a natural experiment not attempted since the 1920s – governing the country with conservatives in control of all three branches of government. The result, of course, was – smoking ruins. Everybody knew it. A majority of Americans was receptive to "liberal solutions," and even conservatives knew it – which was why, after Obama delivered his February 24, 2009 speech defending the stimulus that, as I noted last week, got a 92 percent approval rating, and Bobby Jindal responded to it by excoriating the $140 million in stimulus spending "for something called 'volcano' monitoring," David Brooks said his "stale, government-is-the-problem, you can't trust the government" rhetoric was "a disaster for the Republican Party.”
Barack Obama knew it too. He just wouldn't say it. He refused to criticize right-wing ideology. Or to make a full-throated case that Democrats offered an ideological alternative.
Instead, his favorite campaign line on the Republican record was a story about competence: The Republicans "drove the country into the ditch," and "now they want the keys back." But Republicans aren't bad drivers; they drive exactly where they want to go, pedal to the metal. Sure, they sometimes compromise on tactics – certainly Reagan did. But he, and they, never waver on strategic aims. They plant their flag in an uncompromising position, and wait for the world to come around – which, quite often, it eventually does. This is because in a media environment based on the ideology of "balance," in which anything one of the parties insists upon must be given equal weight to whatever the other party says back, the party that plants its ideological flag further from the center makes the center move. And that is how America changes. You set the stage for future changes by shifting the rhetoric of the present.
And it's the lack of doing that, and not just on Obama's part but virtually all national Democrats, that has brought us to the point at which the country no longer has any sense of what liberalism stands for. Sure they all like the individual policies, but they don't understand that they are liberal, based upon a coherent set of values and philosophical worldview. In fact, they often believe they are conservative because the Republicans pretty much tell them that anything they like, by definition, cannot be liberal.
I've been railing about this for years. Yes, the president has little real power when it comes to domestic issues and yes, he is hamstrung by his feckless congressional caucus and yes, the bully pulpit is bullshit, etc, etc. But I simply do not agree that it isn't the president (and the party leadership's) job to use their rhetoric and national forum to articulate a political vision and set the stage for future progress. It's not enough to be personally inspiring. In order to make advances and secure the ones you have, you have to appeal to people on the level of cultural, political, and ideological identity. The left and center left in America today is a mishmash of inchoate political confusion and discrete issue advocacy. We don't even agree on what to call ourselves.
What we are seeing happen right now as a result of this failure to stake an ideological flag is the mainstreaming of Paul Ryan's dystopian Randism and a foreign policy (in both policy and political terms)in which the only daylight between the parties is so slight that the greatest danger ahead is that the right wing will feel compelled to ever more dangerous adventurism simply in order to make a statement.(Unless they adopt Paulist isolationism, which I greatly doubt, they have nowhere to go but all the way down the rabbit hole.)
Read Perlstein's whole piece. It's a gem. And worth thinking about if you want to understand why some liberals are so disillusioned and depressed about the missed opportunity of the Obama mandate coupled with an economic crisis. The prospect of having to reinvent the wheel again next time is just exhausting. It gets harder and harder to do that the further both parties continuously move toward neo-liberal policies and authoritarianism.
digby 2/27/2012 12:15:00 PM