Schoolyard power-plays are the problem
Josh Marshall helpfully explains everything I loathe about American politics:
Contemporary American campaigns are much more meta-battles over power, masculinity and dominance, what I once called “bitch-slap politics.” Not pretty perhaps but you’ll never understand campaigns without understanding things through this prism. And that’s very much what’s happening with the Obama campaign’s latest fusillade against Mitt Romney. This isn’t simply - maybe not even mainly — about the actual decision to risk so much to kill bin Laden. It’s a dance to - let’s not run away from what it really is - unman Romney in his contest with the president.
People don’t expect Democrats to make such brash moves on national security politics. It’s been a very long time since a Democratic president has been in a position to do it. It’s aforementioned obviousness aside, it’s garnered a collective gasp from the pundit class. It was a smack right across the face of Mitt Romney right as he’s making a reasonably successful reintroduction of himself to the American people.
The key is less the attack itself than how Romney responds. In this sort of schoolyard power play, if you attack someone and they’re unwilling or unable to defend themselves they become weak, dominated, pathetic. And the perception among voters is much more important than most of the policy minutiae political types focus on. This is what the Swift Boat attacks were really about. I’ve always doubted that many people actually believed the attacks on John Kerry. That wasn’t the point. It was his inability to defend himself that was devastating politically. It made him an object of ridicule and contempt, demoralizing supporters and inspiring opponents. Bush owned Kerry as a result. This is the position that the Obama team is trying to put Romney in.
Earlier in the piece, Josh seems to more or less congratulates Obama for having such a potent example of machismo to brag about. I'm not quite as ecstatic that we have an awesome manly man who can out macho the opposition with tough orders to kill our evil enemies. I tend to think it reinforces some unfortunate characteristics of our politics, which Marshall defines above. Not to mention that I don't know anyone who really believes that Democrats can possibly be masculine enough to win this in the long term. The Party of gays, women and kids is never going to out-macho the Republicans. (They might be able to do it if they commit to totally abandoning those constituencies, so I suppose there's still hope ...) I have no doubt that Barack Obama will be remembered as a very manly president because of his national security policies. But if you're on Team Blue, enjoy it. It's a one-time thing. I doubt very seriously that will mean a thing to any other Democrat running for office now or in the future.
As we were watching some functionary or the other extolling the order to kill Osama bin laden as a unique act of leadership and courage this morning, Mr Digby muttered to me, "they're beating them at their own game." And that's what's wrong with it. It's not that Republicans are uniquely evil people in this regard, obviously. This stuff is very human. It's that the game itself is evil.
I get why the Democrats are doing it. I'm sure it's extremely satisfying to land those punches on the right wing blowhards after all the years of taunting and jeering about liberal cowardice. To be able to say they killed the evil mastermind where the swaggering codpiece failed is probably too much of a temptation for them to pass up. I get it.
But I hate it. I hated it when the Republicans did it and I hate it now. I don't believe the most powerful nation on earth should be running its democracy via schoolyard power plays. This is how we ended up stuck in Vietnam and how we have found ourselves floundering about in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It's why we can't stop spending trillions on useless weapons systems, why we "have" to continue to fund ridiculous programs like Star Wars and why everyone in the political establishment assumes that the only answer to budget problems is to cut the so-called "entitlements."
I know we live in a dangerous world. But this nation is extremely rich and extremely powerful and its most important assets are morality and mystique. I'm not going to argue about the morality of killing Osama bin laden, but it should be remembered that our unilateral wars,torture regimes and insistence on imperial prerogatives have already taken a toll on America's reputation for moral behavior.
As for mystique, well let's just say that schoolyard taunts and manly chest beating doesn't leave much to the imagination. I don't expect the macho worshiping conservatives to ever change this. It's fundamental to their very identity. I was hoping for something a little bit more sophisticated and a little bit more mature from the so-called "reality-based community."
Update: For anyone complaining that I'm not hard enough on the Republicans in this controversy, I wrote about that a few days ago.