Maybe everyone gets locked in early, when high school is over and it’s off into the real world on your own – off to college or work or the military, or for some women, quick marriage and motherhood. That’s when most people become who they really are, or what they will be by default. In legal terms it’s a matter of coming of age – you can drink and vote and sign contracts you’ll regret later, because no one will rescue you now – and in personal terms this is when your attitudes and ideas and opinions get locked in too. The attitudes and ideas and opinions everyone has at eighteen or so are pretty much the same attitudes and ideas and opinions they’ll have at twenty-five, or fifty, or on their deathbed. It’s a matter of survival, of deciding how things are and how you fit into the scheme of things, and also a sense of how everyone else should behave. You decide how the world is supposed to be – what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s just weird – and make the appropriate adjustments, and also make the appropriate judgments of all those others who’ve just got it all wrong. That adds a political dimension of course – this is when folks become lifelong Republicans or lifelong Democrats or lifelong uninterested casual observers, who may or may not vote, depending on the weather that day, or what’s for dinner that night. In short, things harden up – your personality is formed and fixed. Everything you think and do flows from that, from that point forward.
The problem is it’s not that simple, as choice and free will aren’t the only things at play. People come of age in an age, and a large number of Americans, the population surge known as the Baby Boomers, came of age in the Age of Aquarius – the sixties, when the whole culture was shifting around and all sort of new ideas were in the air, and staying in the air for years. The kids in a high school class of 1965 that finished college in 1969 didn’t come of age in a vacuum – they had to decide what was right and what was wrong and what was just weird in the middle of a sexual revolution and the upheavals over Vietnam and civil rights, just as all sorts of new music were in the air and weed and acid and other stuff didn’t seem nearly as bad as old men getting plastered on scotch. The sixties didn’t produce that many lifelong Republicans – those weren’t the Eisenhower years. The sixties produced a lot of idealistic antiwar intellectual types out to change the world for the better, at least as they saw it – and they never changed all that much. The age in which one comes of age also determines who you decide you should become. For many, who they became was set in stone about the time the Beatles’ White Album was released.
This was the cohort that got Obama elected in 2008 and they may have put him over the top. He was young and black and cool, and idealistic to a fault, and a true-blue liberal – unless you listened to him carefully. He was and is a pragmatist, willing to incorporate what the musty old Republicans suggest, if he could get most of what he wanted. You saw that with the Affordable Car Act. That wasn’t single-payer everyone-chips-in universal care at all. It was leveraging the use of giant for-profit insurance corporations to create an approximation of something like universal healthcare – those guys still got to make a ton of money for no apparent reason. But it was something, and maybe the best that could be done under the circumstances, and at least Obama was antiwar. Except if you listened carefully he wasn’t – he had said he was against dumb wars (Iraq) but not all wars (Afghanistan) and acted appropriately. We’re out of Iraq and still in Afghanistan, and he got that Osama fellow when George Bush only talked about it, and the drone strikes go on and on, almost always wiping out the bad guys – and quite a few civilians now and then. Face it, Obama’s just not an antiwar kind of guy. Sixties folks seem dumbfounded by that. Obama orders drone strikes – he issues actual kill orders all the time, on his authority alone. No one really knows what else he’s doing.
This is not what the Boomers expected – this is not what anyone expected – unless they had been listening carefully. They expected something else. Since the late sixties Democrats were supposed to be idealistic peacemakers, not big on killing others to get our way in the world. Democrats had run George McGovern against Nixon after all, and Bill Clinton was a bit of a draft-dodger himself and so on. The Republican Party was the party that was all about America being massively aggressive and nasty, and all about spending more and more on the military, and all about being an intimidating presence anywhere in the world we sensed someone was getting too uppity. Vietnam – hell yes! Iraq – hell yes! The Republicans were the strong and stalwart guys, who would make the world safe for America and Americans, and maybe for everyone else. The Democrats were the girly-men. Everyone knew this.
Now everyone’s sense of how the world is supposed to be – what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s just weird – is all upside down. It’s a new age, where one must make adjustments, or maybe not:
Mitt Romney is once again going after President Obama’s handling of the deadly attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, this time accusing him of minimizing his death’s importance.
In two separate interviews Monday, Romney took aim at Obama’s remark in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday that “there are going to be bumps in the road” as the US builds a relationship with new governments emerging from the Arab Spring. The Republican nominee said Obama trivialized events overseas. “I can’t imagine saying something like the assassination of ambassadors is a bump in the road,” Romney said in an interview with ABC News Monday.
It’s the tried and true attack. The girly-man just doesn’t get how serious this is, and it’s a reboot after Romney went after Obama’s handling of the what happened in Libya and Egypt, getting the basic facts wrong and then getting hammered in the polls as a bit of a jerk for trying to get votes by exploiting the death of our guys. That didn’t work out, but Romney seems to have thought it was worth another try:
The president – I can’t imagine saying something like the assassination of ambassadors is a bump in the road, when you look at the entire context: the assassination, the Muslim Brotherhood president being elected in Egypt, 20,000 people killed in Syria, Iran close to becoming a nuclear nation. These are far from being bumps in the road.
That’s not what Obama said:
Obama’s “bumps in the road” comment on “60 Minutes” came in response to a question about whether recent events in the Middle East have caused him to reconsider the United States’ supportive relationships with governments that were formed as a result of the Arab Spring.
“I think it was absolutely the right thing for us to do to align ourselves with democracy, universal rights, a notion that people have – have to be able to participate in their own governance,” Obama said in the interview. “But I – I was pretty certain and continue to be pretty – pretty certain that there are going to be bumps in the road because, you know, in a lot of these places, the one organizing principle has been Islam.”
Once again Obama chose the wrong words – inevitable setbacks in the long process, not bumps in the road, might have been better – but this was an argument without substance, about no more than syntax. It’s just that Romney had to give it a go. If the whole narrative about how the world works, locked in so long ago, is still locked in, it was a fine strategy.
It was a lousy strategy because someone wasn’t paying attention. Paul Waldman, in American Prospect, explains the Republicans’ new foreign policy problem:
Pop quiz: if you had to describe the Obama foreign policy in one sentence, what would you say? Not easy, is it? Back in 2008, it was pretty simple: “Not Bush.” Now back then, there was something called the “Bush doctrine,” which may have had a subtle meaning to those working in the administration, but as far as the public was concerned mostly meant “invading lots of countries and making everyone in the world hate us.” So it was easy to imagine Obama as a breath of foreign policy fresh air. He’d use a less-bumbling combination of diplomacy, “soft power,” and carefully restrained force. He’d get us out of Iraq. Things would change for the better.
But now that Obama has been president for four years, “Not Bush” has lost its relevance. Obama’s actual foreign policy is too complicated to sum up easily and probably therefore too complicated for most voters to understand. We did get out of Iraq, but things don’t seem to be going too well in Afghanistan; Obama has dramatically increased the use of drone strikes, which have solved some problems and created others; though opinions of America are somewhat better, lots of people still don’t like us. It’s a complex picture, and in the context of an election, the Obama campaign is going to react to most foreign policy questions with, “Remember that guy Osama bin Laden? He’s dead.”
The old narrative is gone, and Waldman cites Conor Friedersdorf arguing here that Republicans just can’t figure out what to say now:
President Obama’s foreign policy is vulnerable to all sorts of accurate attacks. But Mitt Romney, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement are totally unable to exploit them. This is partly because the last four years have been spent advancing critiques so self-evidently implausible to anyone outside the movement that calling attention to them seems impolite. There is no factual basis for the assertion that Obama rejects American exceptionalism; or that he embarked on an apology tour; or that he is allied with our Islamist enemy in a “grand jihad” against America; or that his every action is motivated by Kenyan anti-colonialism. And while those critiques are especially inane, they aren’t cherry-picked to discredit conservatives. They’re actually all critiques advanced by prominent people, publications, and/or Republican politicians.
This happens when you lose the thread, when what was true when you were eighteen isn’t true any longer:
The fact that the vast majority of conservatives give no indication of having learned anything from the Iraq War is an even more significant reason that the GOP has lost its traditional edge on national-security issues, with a majority of Americans telling pollsters they trust Democrats more. Romney himself said that (what he saw as) the quick pace of the U.S. drawdown in Iraq was “tragic.” Romney also says Russia is America’s number one enemy in the world, and that if elected he might commit U.S. troops in Syria to contain chemical weapons. Nowhere has he been worse than on Libya. I don’t mean his recent, much-ridiculed response to the embassy attack, so much as his insistence that Obama was too slow to commit U.S. troops to oppose Moammar Gadhafi … until Obama committed troops, at which point Romney said that he did so too precipitously.
Then Friedersdorf looks at the latest polling – on “traits” like “good judgment in crisis” and “a strong leader” and on “issues” like “making wise decisions on foreign policy” and “dealing with problems in the Middle East”, Obama polls miles ahead of Romney, and it’s even worse when Pew polls likely voters. Friedersdorf, a conservative even if he lives out here in Venice, thinks the Republicans have simply wasted four years:
What’s notable is that movement conservatives have no alternative explanation. As far as they’re concerned, Obama isn’t just incompetent on foreign policy, he’s borderline treasonous. Yet Americans trust him more by a wide margin – and these same Americans trust him less on the budget deficit, and basically the same as Romney on “improving the job situation,” so they aren’t just in the tank for Obama. You’d think that conservatives would try to grapple with why they’ve lost their historic foreign-policy advantage, en route to remedying the situation. Instead it goes all but unmentioned. Reading most blogs and magazines on the right, you’d never know that public attitudes have changed. But once you see the reality of the poll numbers, there’s no denying that the GOP has failed to make its case.
Friedersdorf, deeply unhappy with Obama’s foreign policy, is also one very unhappy conservative:
So when I conclude that the opposition party’s critique of his atrocious record is an utter failure, and often so ideological and disconnected from reality that it’s laughable, I really wish it weren’t so. I’d replace Obama with a George H. W. Bush-style foreign policy in an instant. I even tried to tip the GOP off to a better strategy way back in 2011. Instead the choice the party has given voters is a hawkish incarnation of Romney guided by a bunch of neoconservative advisers eager for wars of choice.
Unsurprisingly, voters don’t trust that combination.
Waldman argues something else, that the Republicans have two problems here:
First, their impulse is to just say that their foreign policy is “Not Obama,” and that just doesn’t have the same persuasive power as “Not Bush” did four years ago, because American foreign policy doesn’t look like a disaster. For instance, when Mitt Romney criticizes Obama for getting out of Iraq too fast – since if Obama did it, it had to be wrong – most people are going to respond, “Are you crazy?” Second, the closest thing to an articulation of their own foreign policy vision they can come up with is “Obama weak! America should be strong! Grrr!” And voters don’t actually think Obama is weak.
And there’s something else:
That’s partly because of his own actions, and partly because in 2012, Americans aren’t actually fearing for their lives. They did during the Cold War, and they did in the aftermath of 9/11, but that feeling has faded. There have actually been some experiments showing that when you remind people of the possibility of their own deaths, they’re more likely to support conservative candidates (it’s called “Terror Management Theory”). I’ve heard pollsters say that one of the key moments of the 2004 campaign was the horrific Beslan school massacre that September in which 330 people were killed, over half of them children. It brought terrorism and fear back on to the front pages, to George W. Bush’s advantage.
But today, for all the world’s problems, Americans aren’t feeling like they might be killed tomorrow. That’s a good thing. But it leaves the Republicans without much of a coherent foreign policy critique.
Daniel Drezner adds this:
So what should the GOP do? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know two things:
1) The Republican Party can’t summarily reject the hawk brand it’s built for more than a half-century;
2) Unless and until the GOP acknowledges that Iraq was a tragedy and a mistake, it will be as enfeebled on foreign policy as the Democratic Party was on this issue for a generation after the Vietnam War went south.
The Republican Party can’t summarily reject the hawk brand it’s built for more than a half-century? During the Republican primaries, Conor Friedersdorf said that they certainly could, because the base wouldn’t really put up a fight:
A lot of them are war weary, averse to nation building, ready to freak out about the government spying on their phone calls and email accounts, and uninclined to go deeper into debt by prolonging our foreign wars. Their secret wish is for a truce on national security that reorients our focus toward the economy and the deficit. The only faction that wouldn’t go along: the neo-cons and the Dick Cheney, Andy McCarthy, David Addington, John Yoo wing of the Bush Administration (groups with some overlap). Given the wrongheaded beliefs that they hold, it’s to their credit that they’d refuse to embrace the expedient position.
I’d never advocate the critiques above if I didn’t basically believe them. But I don’t think that I am letting my libertarian beliefs cloud my political analysis. It just isn’t effective to run on implausible narratives, like “Obama is weak on terror,” and the Republicans trying it now are twisting themselves in knots. Whereas the strength of calling Obama a promise-breaker, or a target of civil liberties groups on the right and left, or someone who violates the Constitution even as he himself articulated it, is that it’s rooted in fact.
That was his advice. They didn’t take it, even if, at the time, he had his hopes:
There are Republicans who could make all those critiques, whether the libertarians who are already doing so, someone like Mitch Daniels, who has been mostly silent on matters of national security, Mike Huckabee, credibly anti-torture for religious reasons, or other candidates besides. A lot of partisan Republicans don’t have any actual national security convictions. They just go along with whatever program their side is offering at a given moment, such that terrible abuses in the Clinton years became national security imperatives under Bush. They might as well think Obama’s policies represent fresh outrages – they’d be the mirror image of Obama voters unbothered that their man does things they abhorred from 2001 to 2008.
Friedersdorf actually wanted the party to go left:
Running to Obama’s left on national security also jives better with the inevitable domestic critique of his presidency: that he is a big government ideologue so bent on increasing the role of the state in American life that he doesn’t care if implementing his preferred policies reduces your liberty. It’s sorta weird to argue as much, and then say, “And his problem on national security is that he is too solicitous of so-called ‘rights’ and unwilling to aggrandize enough power to himself.”
Despite the powerful case for running to Obama’s left, it is unlikely to happen, both due to the kinds of positions already staked out by the majority of likely contenders, and the disproportionate influence extreme hawks have on conservative discourse. It goes beyond Commentary, The Washington Post opinion section, and The Weekly Standard. National Review’s national security writer imagines that President Obama leads a faction of leftists who are allied with our Islamist enemy in a grand jihad against America! What a waste – good politics and good policy so rarely go together, and it’s a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity.
But that wasn’t to be. They’re locked into the idea that Democrats are weaklings, the girly-men everyone despises, and they are the awesome manly men everyone admires. Heck, even most Democrats buy into that too – Obama is a disappointment, a stone-cold killer and a disappointment to all the aging Boomers who once had long hair, or even any hair, and marched in the sixties and loved George McGovern and then Gene McCarthy and so on. Now, with Obama, everyone’s at a loss.
The odd thing was that this was inevitable. William James put it best – “The ideas gained by men before they are twenty-five are practically the only ideas they shall have in their lives.” That means everyone’s stuck, as Obama simply does what’s necessary. Someone has to.