The Magazine

The Bully Party

When bipartisan debate fails, Dems fall back on a knuckle-sandwich approach to politics.

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The omens are everywhere. Iran is close to obtaining nuclear weapons. The eurozone is in crisis. The U.S. unemployment rate is near 10 percent. America’s social insurance programs threaten to bankrupt the country. And—most unusual—the Washington Nationals are above .500.

The Bully Party

But rest easy. None of this is distracting the Obama administration and congressional Democrats from their fulltime occupation: demonizing the political opposition.

Consider the debate over financial reform. This is a complex issue where both parties share the same (perhaps unachievable) goal: preventing another systemic financial crisis that requires massive taxpayer bailouts. And free-market conservatives have real concerns about Senator Chris Dodd’s legislation. Take, for example, the proposed resolution authority’s credit guarantees for large, complex financial institutions on the brink of failure. The worry is that the market will interpret these loopholes as signs the government will never allow such firms to go under. If that’s the case, Too Big to Fail lives on.

Rather than engage with these objections, however, the president has decided to slime the Republicans as defenders of the status quo. He’s deployed the same army of straw men, the same Manichean oratory, that he used during the health care fight. In his April 22 speech at Cooper Union, for instance, President Obama divided the world into those who “join me,” and those who support the “battalions of financial industry lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill.” For the president, the only middle ground is where he’s standing. Reasonable alternatives to his policies simply do not exist. It is Obama alone who determines which arguments are “legitimate” and which are “misleading.” It’s rhetorical blackmail: Agree with me, the president is saying, or I’ll call you a liar and a hack.

Not long ago, of course, sophisticated opinion was offended by a president who divided the world into good and evil. But no one seems to care anymore. Nor does anyone seem particularly bothered by the president’s redefinition of political compromise. Under the old definition, an accommodation took place when both parties negotiated over the fine points of the matter at hand. They brokered deals such as the Gang of 14 agreement on President Bush’s appellate court nominees in 2005. But the problem with the old way is that it hinders Obama’s ability to score political points and rack up dubious legislative “accomplishments” before the midterm elections. So it’s been replaced by a version of compromise that is indistinguishable from ideological surrender.

On financial reform, good-faith discussions between Dodd and ranking Republican Richard Shelby were slowing the president’s post-health care momentum. Hence last week’s bizarre spectacle in which Senator Harry Reid held three cloture votes to end debate and bring the Dodd bill to the floor. Obama and Reid know the Dodd bill will pass with bipartisan support. But they held the votes so they can run 30-second spots in October that say the Republicans serve Wall Street. Never mind that the big banks support the Dodd bill. Never mind that the employees and PAC of our Public Enemy Number One, Goldman Sachs, have made the bank the largest corporate contributor to the Democratic party since 1989. As was the case with the stimulus and health care, facts are less important than hectoring the GOP.

The Democratic response to dissent is a lot like their governing style: partisan, arrogant, and self-righteous. In recent weeks, various Democratic factotums have lectured the public about “extreme” rhetoric, insinuating that the Tea Party takes its cues from The Turner Diaries. Some liberals suffer from a pathological inability to refer to the Tea Party by its name, preferring a crude and infantile sexual epithet. The folks waving signs and holding peaceful rallies have been insulted as fakes, wackos, ignoramuses, racists, nihilists, and hicks suffering from status anxiety. But when a poll revealed the Tea Party movement is better educated and wealthier than the electorate at large, a prominent Washington Post columnist summarily dismissed the movement as the “populism of the privileged.” The lines of attack change, but the message is always the same: Go home. Shut up. Let us do what we want.

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