Archive for October, 2012
If it turns out the life of Barack Obama’s presidency is measured in months, left-leaning analysts will agonize over what went so wrong. Their explanations will range from confusion over how a stunningly gifted orator never mastered the greatest national pulpit, to consternation about the intransigence of Republicans and the eruption of the Tea Party, to sober hand-wringing about the intractable nature of 21st Century democracy.
But the mourning will not match the genuine misery and perplexity many Americans feel regarding the state of the nation. For all the explanations of how Obama has fallen short of his promise, the simplest one is in the discontent of those 23 million plus individuals who are under or unemployed, some for such long stretches that they have fallen through the cracks of the government’s official statistics. These men and women are the source of a national fury over why things are the way they are, and they and the Americans who know them have proved resistant to deflecting responsibility or changing the subject.
To be sure, as his defenders never cease to point out, Obama was greeted with the debris of a national calamity. The country seemed to be teetering on the edge of depression for stretches in late 2008 and early 2009, a casualty of a Washington environment that privileged and made unaccountable the giant government sponsored housing enterprises and a reckless Wall Street culture that took the risk out of lending for the mortgagor. But rather than tackle the crisis with single-mindedness, Obama veered off in too many scattered directions: a stimulus whose legacy is a slew of poor returns on investments in alternative energy and uncompleted construction projects, a partisan healthcare law that drained off a year of the administration’s efforts, a massive overhaul of the carbon producing economy that was too unwieldy for even many Democrats to embrace, a financial industry bill that has not stopped excessive leveraging in the capital markets. The portfolio is one that Obama and his allies have strained to explain, much less justify.
So much of the defense of Obama’s results is weighted with excuses. But the record is one that Democrats would be mortified by if it had John McCain’s name on it: unemployment ratcheting up to as much as 10% before it headed back down; the limpest recovery in modern times; staggering levels of poverty among minorities and children; appalling losses of middle income savings and stagnant worker wages. It is an inventory that has caused millions of American to lose faith in both Wall Street and Washington, and that has left America decidedly more stratified between rich and poor (imagine the Democratic angst if a McCain recovery had left massive corporate profits while workers stayed in an uncertain, desperate state, precisely the state of play for the second half of Obama’s terms)
The debates, especially the first one in Denver, signaled how thin the prospective agenda for four more years really is: beyond the old pledge to add to the tax burden on American small businesses and entrepreneurs—an eventuality that would barely dent the deficit—and generalized promises to try again on tax reform, immigration, and energy policy, the cupboard seems light, without much reason to think that initiatives that Obama’s own party balked at would suddenly become viable. There is certainly little that would rally Americans who have lost ground on Obama’s watch.
It is impossible to assess Obama without addressing the central Democratic thesis about why he has disappointed. From African American talk shows to the editorial pages of the nation’s establishment papers, the argument is advanced that Obama has been undone by a ferocious kind of Republican opposition. The case does not survive scrutiny: Mitch McConnell’s vaunted pledge to impede Obama was made with a weakened hand of forty Republican votes in the Senate, not even enough to sustain the dreaded filibuster. Even the addition in early 2010 of one more GOP seat did not result in actual blockage of one Obama initiative during the first two years of this presidency. To a degree that Obama’s partisans don’t understand or won’t concede, the entirety of his economic agenda was written into law in those first two years.
The bracing truth is not that Obama was denied a chance to govern, but that the government he produced has proved so unappealing and been so inadequate to the challenges of the times. The healthcare reform, Obama’s most notable victory, is illustrative. The law’s convoluted path, the single instance since the thirties of a party-line vote carrying landmark legislation, has contributed to Washington’s distance from Main Street. That gap will only grow more distressing as middle income Americans are subject to new taxes if they don’t purchase insurance, as small businesses minimize their work force to avoid the law’s mandates, and the estimates of higher premiums touch the pockets of ordinary families.
Obviously, the case against Obama is just one half of the equation in this election. Mitt Romney’s campaign took time to find its footing, and the exigencies of winning his party’s nomination damaged his standing for months. But as Romney has come into full view, it is evident that his central virtue is experience in effectively managing complex systems, a trait rare in national politicians. As much as the President demonized it, Romney’s development of Bain Capital into a private equity model required him to master the challenge of maximizing investor earnings in extremely unfavorable circumstances: Romney’s tenure there was a consistent narrative of turning companies around and if anything, his campaign should have touted it more. His gubernatorial term in Massachusetts happens to be exactly what a successful presidency would require, from a capacity to bargain with as well as outmaneuver a hotly partisan opposition, to a willingness to experiment with the fine points of policy. Romney’s is the record of a consistent conservative, but not one who would wage his own distracting counter-revolution. His history is one of grappling with hard political questions while showing a respect for the side of a dispute that does not share his views.
Critics will argue that Romney’s tax and spending cut proposals are too weighted toward the wealthy, and there is no question that like any set of campaign promises, the details will need to be refined. (The governor’s plans are notably more specific than Obama’s wafer-thin outline on healthcare and financial reform in 2008). But Romney has laid down a marker that he can be judged by, that consists of prioritizing budget discipline and that evokes strategies that even many Democrats embrace, like scaling back the corporate tax rate and simplifying the tax code. The blueprint is the basis for an authentic bipartisan compromise in 2013.
There is one final story: one of how the Obama administration misread the American people by governing against the sentiments of a center-right country and confusing its isolation with moral authority. It is the signature not just of a flailing presidency but a weakened liberal philosophy. Herein lies the final Obama tragedy: an inability to refashion his party’s philosophy in a way that strengthened public trust. The case that another term would magically improve things rests too much on blind faith, and Obama has drawn from that well once before. The national interest demands a change in our leadership.
The eulogies for George McGovern, who just died at 90, have taken a predictable form: plaudits from the left for his inspirational effect on a class of aspiring liberal politicos combined with an acknowledgment that he was a singularly ineffective, disastrous candidate whom the same left never needed or cared to rehabilitate. To be sure, the evidence of McGovern’s incompetence and irrelevance is a narrative that Democratic analysts have had their own reasons to spin over the last two generations. It can’t possibly be, so the conventional wisdom goes, that a 49 state loser who spectacularly blundered the selection of a running mate and who is still synonymous with epic loss, was much more than an incidental character in a decade of unusual turbulence. And if McGovern’s legacy is just ineptitude, it is easier to dismiss him as a blip, an anomaly, in the liberal tradition.
But the theory of McGovern as a woeful bumbler has always shortchanged two features of the South Dakotan: the first is the novelty of the liberalism that McGovern helped foist on the Democratic Party in the early seventies, and the second is its durability in a party that putatively disowned him while absorbing most of his ideological sensibilities.
To grasp the novelty, it’s worth noting what post-war liberalism was prior to McGovern’s insurgency: a populist sounding, rhetorically lofty politics that had a transactional, anything but radical reality at its core. Adlai Stevenson was more of a trimmer on school desegregation than Eisenhower era Republicans. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson pursued conventionally growth oriented economic policies with tax cuts and balanced or near balanced budgets at the centerpiece. The Great Society’s vaunted anti-poverty initiatives were invariably complements to urban political machinery, as Geoffrey Kabaservice documents in his work on the erosion of moderate Republicans, “Rule and Ruin”. Hubert Humphrey disavowed interpretations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that endorsed mandatory hiring goals for minorities. And on foreign policy, the liberal vision was enamored enough of American power that Robert Kennedy’s announcement of his presidential candidacy styled the campaign as a contest to claim the “moral leadership of the planet”, even while pledging to wind down the conflict in Vietnam.
In other words, the liberal enterprise spent an enormous amount of energy in sustaining an unwieldy coalition of conflicting interests and values, and was not always distinguishable in its words and symbols from at least the establishment wing of its conservative rival. Not many of those vestiges survived McGovern’s trench warfare in the primaries in 1972. In a manner that oddly imitated the Goldwater right’s critique of American society as corrupt and shattered, the McGovernites opened fire on the accommodations that fueled liberalism. In their telling, the whole compromised foundation needed to be razed to the ground: in specific policy terms, tax cuts were discarded in favor of advocating steep corporate tax hikes; gender and racial advancement had to be codified by specific numerical quotas; and the explosion of rights and entitlements from welfare to abortion emerged as official Democratic orthodoxy. The anti-war culture flourished into a full-scale suspicion of American interests and allies abroad.
Calling the McGovern phase a momentary lapse, or some short-lived over-reaction to the Right’s growing hold on Republicans, is a historical rewrite that glosses over the permanent shifts in the Democratic Party in the wake of McGovern’s triumph. The migration of working class whites to the Republican Party, the emergence of a cosmopolitan elite that is small in actual numbers but has a disproportionate megaphone, and the epicenter of racial and sexual identity camps in the Democratic Party are structural features of American politics that seemed inconceivable in the era of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, and they remain fixtures in our electoral life. (Even the foreign policy strains of McGovernism that seem weakest in this election season were vibrant as recent as four years ago, when major elements of the Democratic universe fixated on undoing George Bush’s policies on terror and electronic surveillance, and then Senator Obama’s candidacy might have languished but for its appeal to anti-Iraq War activists.)
To be sure, winning Democratic candidacies, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, have seen fit to do their share of strategic rebranding: hence Carter touting his religiosity, and Clinton’s reform of welfare, and Obama’s 2008 emphasis on post-partisanship. But each successive Democrat has shifted rightward only in the context of a left-leaning foundation that McGovern legitimized, and none have cast off the alliance of social or racial minorities and urban, educated elites who have determined Democratic nomination outcomes since 1972. The slow but now almost complete deterioration of social or economic conservatives in Democratic circles means that McGovern’s purge at the Miami convention ended up being prophetic.
It is telling that in most polling, liberalism as a self-identified label remains as weak today, just more than 20 percent of the electorate, as it was when McGovern lost by a landslide. The public’s perception of the liberal worldview is as skeptical now as it was then for largely similar reasons: an association of liberalism with excess and a suspicion that it is more the sum of its constituencies than a coherent, workable vision in its own right. Undoubtedly, McGovern laid those seeds with an inept, ideologically self-absorbed presentation of his ideal American future. But McGovern has been invisible for at least a generation: that the damage lingers suggests that this supposedly catastrophic loser arguably managed the impressive feat of redefining a party in one cycle. Or maybe it’s the seventies that have never really ended.
Please click below to view Rep. Artur Davis’ speech at the ‘Accuracy in Media’ Conference, from September 21, 2012. “Not Winning Ugly: How Conservatives can Persuade” has additionally been transcribed in-full, available here.
Joe Biden’s alternately snarling, eye-rolling, interrupting, grinning, occasionally weird performance seems to have traded off two conflicting outcomes: temporarily motivating Democrats who were unsettled by Barack Obama’s passivity in the first debate while repelling independents who got a florid reminder of just what it is they find distasteful about political combat.
But Biden unleashed revealed something about what has happened to the liberal political mood in this season. Beneath the back and forth over the quality of Obama’s economic stewardship, and the predictable jabs at the wealth and tax records of the first nominee since 1940 who has substantial private sector experience, there has been another context to this campaign, that is both retrograde and novel at the same time: namely, the left’s strategy of attack by caricature and ridicule, and the implicit worldview that conservatism is an oddball blend of plutocracy, racial resentment, sexual backwardness, and selfishness.
The backward leaning part of the theme is the resemblance to Franklin Roosevelt’s and Harry Truman’s exuberant Republican bashing, at least in the brutal depiction of the GOP agenda. But FDR’s tongue-lashing had a notable high-mindedness: the broadside in his 1936 acceptance speech about mastering the forces of greed in a second term was exquisite rhetorical theater of a kind Barack Obama as president has utterly failed to master. Moreover, the New Deal’s anti-Republican barbs were accompanied by a raft of prospective domestic legislation.
The core of the modern liberal sneer strategy, and Biden made it fairer than ever to describe it that way, is much more novel, not terribly high-flown, and not at all forward-looking. The technique unfurls itself daily behind the desks in MSNBC’s studio, where all but a select few anchors (Joe Scarborough, Chuck Todd) moderate rolling denunciations of all things Republican, without much pretense at balance, in the august editorial pages of the New York Times, which has traded in its vanishing profits as the paper of record for the mantle of intellectual enforcer of the left, and in a coherent, organized blogosphere which ritualistically strikes at every conservative pretense imaginable. Missing is any sustained rationale for what an Obama second term might look like, beyond the standard fare hike in upper income tax rates and a generalized commitment to more “investments” in conventional Democratic objectives.
The novelty is in the reversal of a generation of Democratic attempts to soften Republican/conservative opposition through persuasion. During the Clinton era, Democrats regularly sought to co-opt Republicans by shifting right on welfare and budgets, and moved back and forth between partisanship and outreach. Nor is there much trace of the feints liberals made a decade ago toward evangelicals, much less Obama’s 2004/2008 emphasis on reducing partisanship.
Spared the tactical imperative of persuading even mainstream conservatives, or crafting a legislative portfolio that could overcome gridlock, liberalism circa 2012 is largely a negative project aimed at dismissing the Right’s substantive and intellectual credibility. Nancy Pelosi’s eye-rolling at doubts about the constitutionality of the healthcare law, the establishment media’s persistent denunciations of the Tea Party as Neanderthal relics of George Wallace, the African American media’s trope that conservatism is racial backlash are all of a piece with Biden’s tactic of describing conservative economic policies as discredited claptrap.
Notably, there are few instances of liberal inspired policy innovation in the current climate. Democrats have been silent on how they intend to close the potential valley of low wage uninsured in red states that decline new federal Medicaid money, or how they plan to reverse wage stagnation, or what the contours of education or environmental policy might look like during the next four years.
By the way, it is telling and a reflection of liberal contempt that even Obama’s own projections of what a second term might look like are not bullish about an outbreak of bipartisan deal-making. The best case, as Obama suggested on 60 Minutes, is that Republicans would be so chastened by a defeat that they would shrink into a more accommodating posture: in other words, essentially the same theory of surrender Democrats fancifully clung to in the winter of 2008-09.
To be sure, liberal disdain has its unattractive mirror images on the political right. But there is an interesting difference. Right-wing consternation is invariably guilty of over-estimating the left’s influence and reach. But the left’s animosity minimizes conservatism and seems mystified that it commands followers at all: hardly a perspective that paves the way toward bargaining or concessions even from a position of strength.
Obama will be better armed with one liners in the now critical second debate on October 16, and will don a more forceful pose in general. But the status of this race three weeks out—a narrow Romney lead and a perceptible shifting of the Electoral College map away from Democrats—is a function not just of one bad night but a failure of the left’s campaign of ridicule. This fall, sneer seems out of fashion.
To most observers, Barack Obama’s poor night in Denver seems as inexplicable on reflection as it did in the moment. There is arguably nothing in presidential debate memory that matches it for improbability. Richard Nixon’s darting eyes and sweaty brow in 1960, Ronald Reagan’s distracted presence in 1984, Michael Dukakis’ mechanical dullness in 1988, Al Gore’s snide sighs in 2000 all resurrected conspicuous enough traits in their personas for even casual observers. The surprises, if any existed, were only that the mask slipped so revealingly, and with such ill timing.
But Obama’s plodding, sluggish, inert set of reflexes were a wholly unanticipated calamity. By any objective lens, Obama has been a famously intuitive performer who revels on the high wire—from the keynote in Boston in 2004 to the high risk Jeremiah Wright talk to the masterpiece victory speeches in Iowa and South Carolina in 2008 that played such an underrated role in crafting Obama’s charismatic image when large swaths of the country were just beginning to pay attention. There was none of that verve in the rambling opening answer on a thoroughly predictable question on jobs, none of that stage presence in the times Obama stood mute when Mitt Romney contradicted him on tax breaks, Medicare cuts, or the machinations around the Simpson Bowles Commission. Instead, it was the hard to disguise tentativeness of a job applicant who knows too well the gaps in his resume.
I’ll venture one theory that reconciles Obama’s past with his struggles the other night. For all of the president’s oratorical prowess, it is worth noting that Obama’s past high notes all revolved around one signature theme: a refrain against the costs of a divided culture, polarized elections, and all manner of American gridlock. It is a mantra that Obama the challenger and rising star wore very well, but it was also the cry of an outsider trying to crash the gates. The fact that Obama has not cultivated a presidential vision that is remotely as compelling as the rationale for his insurgency four years ago was on display in Denver, and a more conspicuous liability than the absence of a script or a teleprompter.
To be sure, the ranks of high level American politicians not named Bill Clinton (or at their best Paul Ryan and Chris Christie) that can make a resonant, eloquent case for the nuts and bolts of policy are depressingly thin. Notably, the skill is one at which Obama is relatively undistinguished. His one high-profile address on healthcare reform in September 2009 is memorable solely for a Republican congressman’s outburst during the talk. The congressional address almost exactly two years later on the administration’s jobs package was equally forgettable, and not one of Obama’s State of the Unions ranks among his greatest hits.
In other words, in hundreds of speeches as a candidate and president, an exceptionally eloquent man has no real history of being terribly persuasive on the specifics of governance, or the intricate layers of policymaking. As a substitute, Obama has deployed a conventionally partisan rhetorical account of Republican priorities as Trojan horses for Republican money interests—a technique that is guaranteed to fare better in a stump speech than the more anodyne setting of a debate.
Obama’s weakness the other night was not simply a dearth of high flown language. Much more decisive was the silence in the face of Romney’s aggressiveness and the consistent inability to seize openings, from Romney’s imprecision on tax deductions and spending cuts to Paul Ryan’s affinity for George W. Bush’s Social Security reforms. But the times Obama seemed stuck in cement tactically are surely connected to the president’s continuing lack of imagination in the description of his own agenda.
The fundamental shortcomings of the Obama record—a lackluster job market with historically high levels of long term unemployment, an explosion in deficits well after the expiration of the emergency recovery efforts in 2008 and 2009, an abject inability to escape gridlock—would constrain Obama at the peak of his rhetorical efforts. And it is this rudimentary fact about the last month of this campaign that makes October 2 in Denver such a potential pivot: for 90 minutes, Americans were treated to an uninspired defense of muddling through, and to a case that was offered in terms not much more galvanizing than those presented by a hundred Democratic congressmen on the ballot next month. It felt like a train wreck.
On October 4th, Rep. Artur Davis spoke to the Colorado Conservative Political Action Conference on the coming election. Please click below to view the video in full.