That’s the problem with the New York Times – no comics. And most people, although they won’t admit it, go to the comic strip pages of the morning newspaper, first thing. It’s a comfort. There’s Peanuts and Doonesbury and Dilbert and, oddly, Dagwood and Dennis the Menace. Dagwood should be dead by now and Dennis the Menace in a nursing home staring blankly at reruns of Wheel of Fortune in the Day Room. But it’s not all old stuff. There’s Boondocks and Drabble and Non Sequitur and Wizard Of Id to keep you on your toes.
And it’s all a slice of Americana, even La Cucaracha – or a compendium of daily tasty slices. It’s another way to get a sense of the zeitgeist – where people are these days, stuck between the absurdity of daily life and the absurdity of working life, with side trips into the absurdity of politics and public life. It’s the real news, striped of specific current events. But the folks at the New York Times – and the Wall Street Journal too – are serious, austere and severe people. You’ll get the news, and some analysis of the news, but no entertaining populist context and perspective about everyday life as it’s actually lived. You’re on your own there. One must eschew the frivolous or something. They like words like eschew. And Dilbert in his cubicle isn’t news, although you can learn much about the corporate world there. The Los Angeles Times runs the daily Dilbert strip in the business section. It’s often more informative than the surrounding articles are.
And the granddaddy of all the comic strips is Peanuts – now in its eleventh year of recycling old strips since the death of Charles Schulz, its only writer and illustrator. He died in 2000 but the strip refused to die. After all, in a way Peanuts, and Charlie Brown, are America. That comic strip just has to be there every morning. It’s a cultural anchor, and in fact, the recycled strips are important in their echoing timelessness. That’s the whole point of running them.
But then again, although no one is supposed to say anything bad about him, sometimes Charles Schulz just punted. He would fall back on tried and true formulas when his muse failed him, or he had a cold or was just grumpy and tired of the whole business. It would be back to Charlie Brown on the mound, losing another baseball game, or dealing with his absurdly recalcitrant kite, which always left him tangled in the string hanging upside-down in a tree, or the real classic, running to kick the football only to have Lucy pull it away at the last moment. Charlie Brown would end up flat on his back as Lucy smugly walked away. Schulz could always go back to those.
And they never failed, because that’s life – you lose, and common objects that give no one else any trouble utterly defeat you, and someone always offers to hold the football, and in spite of your experience with them, you run to kick it, and, as always, they pull it away and you end up flat on your back as they smugly walk away. These things are emblematic and Charlie Brown is everyman. Schulz knew what worked. He could always return to the basics. It was his way of tapping the Jungian universal consciousness. It was daily comics as archetypes. But all comedy is like that.
And although the New York Times has no use for such things, we see this playing out in our political discourse, as Steve Benen explains:
About 24 hours ago, shortly before President Obama presented an ambitious debt-reduction plan, the headline on MSNBC’s homepage read, “Abandoning consensus, Obama takes a populist path.” It wasn’t an unfair assessment – President Obama and his team is adopting a new posture when it comes to dealing with congressional Republicans.
I obviously can’t read minds, but if I had to guess, I’d say this road wasn’t the president’s first choice, and his instincts likely push him in a different direction. For all the complaints that people prefer Candidate Obama to President Obama, he told us in 2007 and 2008 exactly what he wanted to do – move past bitter partisanship, strive for common ground, accept compromises as part of incremental progress, make a sincere effort to bring people together.
Love the president or hate him, he’s done what he said he would do. Obama has reached out to Republicans, even when he didn’t have to; he embraced Republican ideas as much as he could; he’s given plenty of administration posts to Republicans officials; and he’s demonstrated, to a fault, a willingness to compromise with his opponents.
If the Republicans are willing to hold the football he has always been willing to run, full tilt, and kick the thing. But Benen reminds us of Lucy:
And how did Republicans respond to a conciliatory president’s outstretched hand? By slapping it away. GOP officials have rejected every idea the president has ever suggested, even occasionally rejecting their own ideas after Obama accepted them. Republicans have not only forcefully abandoned the very idea of compromise, over the summer they pushed the nation to the brink of an economic catastrophe, on purpose, rather than work in good faith with the White House.
Obama has banged his head against a wall for nearly three years, managing to do more harm to himself than the wall. And now it appears he’s done trying to appease those who refuse to even consider putting country above party.
And the New York Times may not run any comic strips, but they do run columns by the genial conservative David Brooks, who has seen all of these happen again and again in recent years, and now uses his column to rip into the president anyway:
The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals. I guess I understand the choice, but I still believe in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. I may be the last one. I’m a sap.
And Benen thinks Brooks has reached the appropriate assessment of himself, but for all the wrong reasons:
What the columnist refuses to understand is that Obama still believes in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. But I desperately want Brooks to answer one question: what happens when the president is the only one willing to adopt this posture, and his ostensible partners in governing – congressional Republicans – refuse to even consider compromise? In all sincerity, what choice has the GOP left for Obama?
Brooks seems genuinely disgusted that the president and his team aren’t sticking to a failed script: preemptive concessions, starting in the middle and working to the right, and a deliberately weak negotiating position built around the notion of making insatiable Republicans happy. And to be sure, the White House has tried this in the past, to no avail.
The New York Times columnist apparently wants Obama to keep trying anyway, making the same mistake, regardless of Republicans’ recklessness or immaturity.
But Benen argues that Obama’s decision to ignore this sort of bad advice is heartening. As Benen says, don’t blame Charlie Brown for learning Lucy’s lesson.
But Brooks was rather specific:
I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.
But remember, I’m a sap. The White House has clearly decided that in a town of intransigent Republicans and mean ideologues, it has to be mean and intransigent too. The president was stung by the liberal charge that he was outmaneuvered during the debt-ceiling fight. So the White House has moved away from the Reasonable Man approach or the centrist Clinton approach.
And there’s this:
I still believe that the president’s soul would like to do something about the country’s structural problems. I keep thinking he’s a few weeks away from proposing serious tax reform and entitlement reform. But each time he gets close, he rips the football away. He whispered about seriously reforming Medicare but then opted for changes that are worthy but small. He talks about fundamental tax reform, but I keep forgetting that he has promised never to raise taxes on people in the bottom 98 percent of the income scale.
That means when he talks about raising revenue, which he is right to do, he can’t really talk about anything substantive. He can’t tax gasoline. He can’t tax consumption. He can’t do a comprehensive tax reform. He has to restrict his tax policy changes to the top 2 percent, and to get any real revenue he’s got to hit them in every which way. We’re not going to simplify the tax code, but by God Obama’s going to raise taxes on rich people who give to charity! We’ve got to do something to reduce the awful philanthropy surplus plaguing this country!
The president believes the press corps imposes a false equivalency on American politics. We assign equal blame to both parties for the dysfunctional politics when in reality the Republicans are more rigid and extreme. There’s a lot of truth to that, but at least Republicans respect Americans enough to tell us what they really think. The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths. To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.
In short, Brooks reverses the Lucy with the football metaphor, but Andrew Sullivan will have none of that from Brooks:
He’s venting at Obama today for finally absorbing the ineluctable fact that the current GOP will never, ever support increasing government revenues, and thereby cannot get to the Grand Bargain so many of us want. But look: Obama has put Medicare on the table before and got nothing for it. He has even cut Medicare and been pilloried by the GOP for it. He has been open to major tax reform: they are uninterested until they regain the White House. He compromised on the extension of the Bush tax cuts … only to be ambushed by the debt ceiling fiasco, which seriously hurt him.
And there is the question of just who is the Charlie Brown sap here:
I agree with David that Obamaism matters; but I don’t think Obama has treated us all like saps for proposing a second stimulus now and less radical ($3 trillion) debt reduction later. Yes, it’s not Bowles-Simpson. Yes, its tax proposals will not radically simplify the system (which is what we need) and are geared for political purposes … but at this point, what’s he seriously supposed to do?
The only way forward to a Grand Bargain is by calling the GOP bluff on taxes and going to the country on it. Once the Tea Party seized the House, this was always the likeliest scenario. Obama tried extremely hard to avoid it – which is what precipitated the last year of humiliations – which have taken a toll on his ratings and, far more dangerously, wounded his authority as president. And so, he has been forced into political contrast. To blame Obama for this seems absurd to me – and is only in the column because David is leerier of saying what needs to be said: that the current Republican party is a radical, extremist, reckless force that is far more concerned with defeating this president than in reforming the country on bipartisan lines.
But Brooks already said that – he had previously boldly declared the radical elements in charge of the Republican Party were “unfit to govern“ – and that was not so long ago. And Jonathan Cohn comments:
I always believe that Brooks is on the verge of breaking out of conventional punditry and admitting that, in today’s political environment, the Republicans are simply less high-minded and reasonable than Obama and his allies. Then he always pulls the football away.
And Sullivan is okay with this Charlie Brown just walking away:
And the political logic of the shift, even if it is a Plan B, is compelling. If Perry is the candidate, the choice in 2012 will be between an incrementalist like Obama who is prepared to put entitlement cuts and tax hikes on the table, and a radical who has called social security a “monstrous lie” and wants all the fiscal sacrifice to come from the middle class and poor.
I wish it hadn’t come to this. But Obama, to my mind, has successfully demonstrated he has been willing to compromise, and the GOP has successfully demonstrated they cannot. I think most Americans get that. I think they get that if there has been a sap in all this, it isn’t David Brooks for hoping for bipartisan reform, but Obama for hoping for sanity from today’s GOP.
Yes, you can hope Lucy won’t pull the football away at the last instant, but you know better. The joke in the cartoon is that Charlie Brown does know better – everyone knows Lucy, the casually cruel girl – but he just cannot help himself. It’s the triumph of hope over experience. It’s funny. It’s inevitable. It’s pathetic. And damn, life really is like that.
But life doesn’t have to be like that. No one elected Charlie Brown president. That’s just a comic strip.