The Lay of the Land Now

Over the weekend the Republicans were at it again – this time the Nevada caucuses that Mitt Romney won handily – for what that’s worth. The New York Times ran this story – Romney Takes a Solid Win in Nevada Caucuses, Fueling Momentum – as his nomination seems more inevitable now. But no one was that excited – see Nevada Voters Stayed Home -More Voted For Sharron Angle In 2010 Than Turned Out For Caucus – as hating Obama is one thing, but loving this collection of clowns is another. And they’re nasty clowns – “Freedom Works chairman and former Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) blasted Newt Gingrich for his continued tough attacks on Mitt Romney saying Gingrich was carrying out a vendetta against the Republican frontrunner.” Politics is an unpleasant business.

But we may have a new president soon. The one authoritative poll of polls shows that none of these guys would beat Obama now – but when the Republicans settle on one candidate, if they can, those individual numbers don’t matter. This could be close. It’s a matter of consolidating the opposition. And maybe the yoking together of the big business pro-corporate anti-worker side of the party – the rich who wish to remain so – with the common-man evangelical values voters – the generally poor but armed and proud and angry white folks of the South – will work out – even if the rich guy, Romney, is also one of those strange Mormons and deeply distrusted by the armed and proud and angry crowd. But that crowd is used to taking the back seat in these matters, so things may work out, and Obama may be a one-term president.

And Obama has lost his momentum. The thrill is gone, so to speak. And Ryan Lizza in an almost book-length item in the New Yorker in January covered how that happened. He gained access to a trove of internal White House memos detailing how most everything in Obama’s first three years was decided – who was urging what, and why, and how Obama decided one way or the other. And along the way Lizza also shows how in recent years the mainstream right has moved much farther to the right than the left has moved to the left. The decisions were difficult, difficult because the world Obama imagined wasn’t the real world in which he found himself. The lay of the land had changed.

And Lizza opens with this now barely-remembered event:

On a frigid January evening in 2009, a week before his Inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at the home of George Will, the Washington Post columnist, who had assembled a number of right-leaning journalists to meet the President-elect. Accepting such an invitation was a gesture on Obama’s part that signaled his desire to project an image of himself as a post-ideological politician, a Chicago Democrat eager to forge alliances with conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill. That week, Obama was still working on an Inaugural Address that would call for “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Obama sprang coatless from his limousine and headed up the steps of Will’s yellow clapboard house. He was greeted by Will, Michael Barone, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Lawrence Kudlow, Rich Lowry, and Peggy Noonan. They were Reaganites all, yet some had paid tribute to Obama during the campaign. Lowry, who is the editor of the National Review, called Obama “the only presidential candidate from either party about whom there is a palpable excitement.” Krauthammer, an intellectual and ornery voice on Fox News and in the pages of the Washington Post, had written that Obama would be “a president with the political intelligence of a Bill Clinton harnessed to the steely self-discipline of a Vladimir Putin,” who would “bestride the political stage as largely as did Reagan.” And Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and a former aide to Dan Quayle, wrote, “I look forward to Obama’s inauguration with a surprising degree of hope and good cheer.”

Over dinner, Obama searched for points of common ground. He noted that he and Kudlow agreed on a business-investment tax cut. “He loves to deal with both sides of the issue,” Kudlow later wrote. “He revels in the back and forth. And he wants to keep the dialogue going with conservatives.” Obama’s view, shared with many people at the time, was that professional pundits were wrong about American politics. It was a myth, he said, that the two political parties were impossibly divided on the big issues confronting America. The gap was surmountable. Compared with some other Western countries, where Communists and far-right parties sit in the same parliament, the gulf between Democrats and Republicans was narrow.

Obama was wrong of course, but Lizza says that urge for conciliation was just part of who Obama was, a component of his temperament and his view of politics, and maybe something essential to the man:

In his mid-twenties, he won the presidency of the Harvard Law Review because he was the only candidate who was trusted by both the conservative and the liberal blocs on the editorial staff.

But one’s past experiences cannot always be applied to the here and now. And what we have now is this:

Most of Obama’s conservative dinner companions from his evening at George Will’s home now describe him and his Administration in the most caricatured terms. Will declared Obama a “floundering naïf” and someone advancing “Lenin-Socialism.” Charles Krauthammer called Obama “sanctimonious, demagogic, self-righteous, and arrogant.” Lawrence Kudlow described him as presiding over a government of “crony capitalism at its worst.” Michael Barone called it “Gangster Government.” Rich Lowry said that Obama is “the whiniest president ever.” Peggy Noonan, correcting some interpretations of the President by her fellow-conservatives, wrote, “He is not a devil, an alien, a socialist. He is a loser.”

And Lizza makes clear that Obama’s liberal allies are pretty fed up with him too:

When Steve Jobs last met the President, in February, 2011, he was most annoyed by Obama’s pessimism – he seemed to dismiss every idea Jobs proffered. “The president is very smart,” Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “But he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done. It infuriates me.”

But what Lizza is offering here is the idea that our political system was designed to be infuriating – as it is essentially confrontational – and what Jobs didn’t realized, and Obama hadn’t realized until it may have been too late – is just how the confrontational had morphed into systemic gridlock:

In the past four decades, the two political parties have become more internally homogeneous and ideologically distant. In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama wrote longingly about American politics in the mid-twentieth century, when both parties had liberal and conservative wings that allowed centrist coalitions to form. Today, almost all liberals are Democrats and almost all conservatives are Republicans. In Washington, the center has virtually vanished. According to the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have devised a widely used system to measure the ideology of members of Congress, when Obama took office there was no ideological overlap between the two parties. In the House, the most conservative Democrat, Bobby Bright, of Alabama, was farther to the left than the most liberal Republican, Joseph Cao, of Louisiana. The same was true in the Senate, where the most conservative Democrat, Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, was farther to the left than the most liberal Republican, Olympia Snowe, of Maine. According to Poole and Rosenthal’s data, both the House and the Senate are more polarized today than at any time since the eighteen-nineties.

It would be hard for any President to reverse this decades-long political trend, which began when segregationist Democrats in the South – Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond – left the Party and became Republicans. Congress is polarized largely because Americans live in communities of like-minded people who elect more ideological representatives. Obama’s rhetoric about a nation of common purpose and values no longer fits this country: there really is a red America and a blue America.

Obama was imagining the wrong country – it was 1893 again and Obama just didn’t get it. And then add the additional factor, that polarization also has affected the two parties differently. The Republican Party has moved, decisively, much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left:

Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.

And asymmetric polarization is a real bitch:

Two well-known Washington political analysts, Thomas Mann, of the bipartisan Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agree. In a forthcoming book about Washington dysfunction, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” they write, “One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

So three years ago Obama explained to George Will and his guests his theory of a centrist Washington, and Obama was telling people in Washington, just before taking office, that politics is played “between the forty-yard lines.”

But it isn’t, and Obama had to learn that hard lesson:

George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A. & M., who has sparked a quiet revolution in the ways that academics look at Presidential leadership, argues in “The Strategic President” that there are two ways to think about great leaders. The common view is of a leader whom Edwards calls “the director of change,” someone who reshapes public opinion and the political landscape with his charisma and his powers of persuasion. Obama’s many admirers expected him to be just this.

Instead, Obama has turned out to be what Edwards calls “a facilitator of change.” The facilitator is acutely aware of the constraints of public opinion and Congress. He is not foolish enough to believe that one man, even one invested with the powers of the Presidency, can alter the fundamentals of politics. Instead, “facilitators understand the opportunities for change in their environments and fashion strategies and tactics to exploit them.” Directors are more like revolutionaries. Facilitators are more like tacticians.

So Obama became an uninspiring leader, because he had to:

Directors change the system. Facilitators work the system. Obama’s first three years as President are the story of his realization of the limits of his office, his frustration with those constraints, and, ultimately, his education in how to successfully operate within them. A close look at the choices Obama made on domestic policy, based on a review of hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, reveals someone who is canny and tough – but who is not the President his most idealistic supporters thought they had elected.

Forget hope – canny and tough will have to do. George Edwards in his study of Presidents as facilitators does point out that the American system “is too complicated, power too decentralized, and interests too diverse for one person, no matter how extraordinary, to dominate.” So you do what you can, even if Steve Jobs thinks you’re a wimp.

As for Obama and all those memos Lizza explains and analyzes, Lizza says this of Obama:

He is frustrated with the irrational side of Washington, but he also leans on the wisdom of his political advisers when they make a strong case that a good policy is bad politics. The private Obama is close to what many people suspect: a President trying to pass his agenda while remaining popular enough to win reelection.

Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street. Along the way, Obama may have changed his mind about his 2008 critique of Hillary Clinton. “Working the system, not changing it” and being “consumed with beating” Republicans “rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done” do not seem like such bad strategies for success after all.

You do what you can. But that may not get you reelected. And after the rise of the Tea Party there’s a new factor which Arthur Goldwag explores in his new book The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right –and he argues that the racist and conspiracies-everywhere approach of the far-right pundits these days isn’t much different than it was fifty years ago. Their language and theories are taken, sometimes word-for-word, from right-wing populist stuff from earlier in American and European history – from earlier American Nazis, Joe McCarthy and over-the-top anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic Protestant preachers of the nineteenth century. We’ve been here before.

And Katie Ryder interviews Arthur Goldwag and elicits more detail, and Goldwag explains why we’re back to this stuff again:

We’re going through a historic shift in this country. We were on an incredible run of prosperity in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, thanks to the New Deal social compact, thanks to big unions, thanks to very strong regulation – thanks to all the things that Glenn Beck’s followers think are the most evil things in the world. Fairly unskilled, uneducated people were able to earn a good living, and send their children to college. And that’s changed. Income inequality is growing. If you look at American history, the bottom has dropped out of rural people’s lives every five years, but there used to also be a manufacturing class that made a decent living. There used to be a route for people that weren’t well educated to make a decent living. There isn’t anymore. There’s a lot of anxiety about our individual positions in our society, and our country’s position in the world. If you’re not educated to be able to understand it, and you’re trapped in a disadvantaged life, you might become really, really angry.

And Obama didn’t account for that:

It’s an old stereotype (it’s also a true stereotype) that rich Southerners drove wedges between poor whites and poor blacks so that they wouldn’t see that they were all in the same place. That’s very connected to the anger people have today. One of the most infuriating things about Obama to people is that he walks into the White House like he belongs there. But their anger is not really about him. It’s about them: their place in the world. Because he does belong there. But their kids will never go there, because they’re poor and feel they’re without open avenues.

No wonder Obama might lose the next election, and Goldwag suggests there is not much that can be done about this:

I look at that like psychology. You’re never going to cure a neurotic. But if you get the neurotic to recognize that some of the things that scare them and agitate them are things that they construct themselves, then maybe they can move forward. …

As far as the snarky racist things that mainstream pundits are able to say about Obama – using the word “ghetto” and so on – that’s just pandering to the lowest common denominator. There’s crappy racism in American society, but every year there is a little bit less of it. Political correctness creates a burden, and coded messages and dog whistles become more of the main operating mode.

But of course no one is racist really. They’ll tell you so, but Goldwag finds that laughable:

White supremacists repeatedly use a tactic where they claim that they are really just conservative, white-loving, white people. They say: “I don’t hate black people, I love my own kind. What’s wrong with loving your own?” And one of the things that comes with loving your own is obsessing over dark races moving into America and the low white birthrate. It’s about “blood and soil.” Millions and millions of people died because of “blood and soil”.

Another thing that these groups go out of their way to say is that it would be “absolutely wrong” to say terrible things about people that weren’t true. But, if I say that Jewish people are greedy and criminal and are trying to destroy the world, and if it’s true, then there’s nothing anti-Semitic about it.

Beyond that, people really have a hard time being mean to people’s faces. If you meet one of these people, or they’re publicly confronted, they sometimes bend over backward to be polite to you. It’s really terribly inconsistent and weird.

It’s all weird, and Obama does have to govern this country, not the one he imagines. And all Goldwag can add is this:

But there will always be haters, and there will always be fanatics, and it’s the role of the press and the role of writers and the role of thoughtful people to call it out. It’s our job to remind people that even though you’re angry and somebody’s appealing to your worst instincts, you do have better instincts too. You can be better than that. That’s my hope anyway.

Goldwag may see it as his job to remind people that even though they’re angry and somebody’s appealing to their worst instincts, they do have better instincts too, and they can be better than that. But this year it’s the Republicans’ job to remind them of the exact opposite. Obama’s in trouble.

But there’s this piece which introduces The 99-Percent Plan:

At its core, the conservative economic vision rests on a three elements. First, it views freedom as “noninterference” – we are only free to be left alone, and the state is limited to protecting basic liberties. Second, it sees individuals as equally situated such that market activities – bargains, transactions, the starting of a business – reflect each individual’s creativity, innovation, agency and merit. Finally, this vision sees markets as the most efficient way to run a society. Because markets aggregate millions of individual transactions into metrics like prices, they appear more able to incorporate a wide diversity of preferences and beliefs into a smoothly-functioning system than centralized “elite” policymakers in Washington.

These elements form the basic building blocks of conservative economic policy: a preference for free markets, willful blindness to the inequalities of opportunity that arise in a market economy, and hostility to taxes, government regulations and social safety nets.

This conservative account is compelling because it is more than just ideology. It is also a moral vision of the good society, and it tells a clear story about what went wrong and who is to blame: The fault is the government and the solution is to deregulate everything from the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to the social safety net.

And the alternative:

First, freedom for progressives means more than just being left alone; to really be free we each need protections from not only the power of the state but also the power of powerful private actors like big corporations. Further, each of us needs some basic capabilities – from healthcare, to minimal income and sustenance – in order to experience genuine freedom. Free individuals are those who have full moral standing and the capacity to act effectively in society.

Second, the conservative view of market freedom ignores background inequalities of power and wealth. Markets are not purely arenas of equal exchange fairly earned, but instead are often domains of power and politics, where rents are extracted through regulatory arbitrage or outright fraud, and profits may be just as easily the product of exploitation or malfeasance as of innovation and merit.

Third, market freedom ignores the degree to which politics can be more than a space of corruption and ineffectiveness and instead can serve as crucial arena for freedom and creativity as citizens engage in the project of making a more just and desirable society.

Well, that’s nice. But it’s not the year for that sort of thing. That’s not the lay of the land now. We’re all learning the lesson Obama learned.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Disappointment in Obama, Political Deadlock, Politics of Resentment, Populist Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Lay of the Land Now

  1. James Work says:

    Bill Moyers had a most interesting conversation this weekend that focuses on much of what is written above.

    “How Do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?”
    Bill talks with psychologist Jonathan Haidt about the moral underpinnings of our contentious culture. Haidt has a book coming out in March and also had a talk on TED.

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