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Fault Lines

The president’s apologists look for scapegoats

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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A few years ago, you met a dark, handsome stranger, with a cool, remote manner and a smooth line of talk. You didn’t know him well, but he had a certain je ne sais quoi that you found irresistible. He was yourself, only better; yourself, only cooler; yourself, as you were in your dreams. You were a long-suffering liberal Democrat, and he was your airbrushed fantasy president come to life: FDR without polio, JFK without women, John Kerry with brains, Al Gore with charisma, Bill Clinton without those cringe-making vibes from Hot Springs. You swooned and you sighed, you got him elected, and you settled in to see how great life could be with someone like you in the Oval Office. And then things began to go wrong.

Fault Lines

Gary Locke

At first, the symptoms of trouble were small ones—a stimulus here, a GM bailout there—but the unemployment numbers kept inching up, and people got cross. You called them racists, clinging to guns and to God out of bitterness, but when they began to make up a majority of the country (including a large chunk of the president’s former supporters), reality had to set in. Or rather, reality had to be acknowledged, within limits: Things were bad, and one had to admit it, but at the same time one couldn’t blame him. He was in charge, but not really responsible; he was around, but somehow apart from his government. So the effects of his actions—recession, malaise, distress, unemployment—could never be traced to their source. It was the fault of George Bush, the fault of bad luck, the fault of the universe. Fault had to be outsourced, to external and sinister forces. And the forces you thought up were these: 

 

It was the fault of the Republican party, that political juggernaut, which set out to subvert Barack Obama’s agenda and did. Alas, the Republicans could only dream of such glories: with 40 votes in the Senate (until 2010) and 178 votes in the House, they were in no shape to do anything, and for most of 2009 were the tail to the kite and caboose to the train of an enormous revolt of onetime Obama supporters and independents that turned the political world on its ear. Shell-shocked and stunned, resigned to years in the wilderness, unsure whether to fight or make peace with this new force of nature, the GOP was curled in the fetal position in early 2009 when Rick Santelli’s call for CNBC viewers to dump “some derivatives” into Lake Michigan set off a wave of spontaneous protests—from which the GOP at first stayed away. It was independents, not Republicans, who staged the mass rallies, grassroots voters—independents and Democrats included—who stormed the town halls in the summer of 2009. It was defections all year from Obama and Democrats that sent his (and their) numbers plunging from the sixties into the fifties, and then to the forties, and put the fear of God into both. It was former Obama voters who smacked Obama and Democrats hard in the off-year elections, with blowouts and upsets in Virginia and in New Jersey, both of which he had won in 2008, and, in the biggest blow of all two months later in Massachusetts, when they gave Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to Scott Brown. Republicans couldn’t stop health care in Congress: They needed help from Democrats and independent voters who were unnerved by the size and expense of the measure, and raised hell with their members back home. Democrats, had they hung tough, could have passed anything, as they would later prove and now sometimes seem to regret.

Obama was elected in 2008 because independents, who had gone back and forth between him and John McCain for most of the summer (and swung to McCain after his convention), came back to Obama in mid-September in the course of the massive financial implosion, and gave him their votes by eight points. Two years later, he had lost the support of most of these voters. This was not the Republicans’ fault. It was not the fault of the Republicans that Obama’s approval ratings were under water in all the swing states—Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina among them—that he wrested from George W. Bush in 2008, as well as in states such as Pennsylvania that had been Democratic for many years. This August, Time magazine sent reporters into states that Obama had carried, and found “a sense of disappointment, bordering on betrayal,” with the fear most often mentioned being “that Obama is taking the country somewhere they don’t want to go.” Time found that “roughly 1 in 3 of the president’s 2008 supporters had serious questions about government spending solutions,” that in Nevada, a state he carried with 55 percent of the vote, only 29 percent of likely voters thought that his actions had “helped the economy.” “He’s trying to Europeanize us, and the Europeans are going the other way. The entire American spirit is being broken,” said an Obama voter and donor in South Bend, Indiana. In Elkhart, Indiana, Time found a Republican candidate who said she was “often approached by Obama voters who want[ed] to vent.” “Betrayed by the health care vote,” “What are they thinking when it comes to spending?” and “He’s not what I voted for,” were among the many complaints. These are not Republicans, and Republicans did not make them say this. Oddly enough, these details and these stories do not appear often in your tales of events.

 

If not the GOP, then it’s the Senate that did it, that “sclerotic, wasteful, unhappy body” in the words of George Packer of the New Yorker; that “profoundly undemocratic” institution, according to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post; or, according to New York magazine’s John Heilemann, “a tiny band of verbose old folks” standing in the way of 300 million, who presumably clamor for left-wing ideas. The Senate, you claim, was trying to thwart the passage of health care legislation thanks to its “absurd” rules, which tip power in favor of the big, square, empty red states, and away from the smaller, more oddly shaped ones that are teeming with Democrats. “Senators representing 63 percent of the public vote for [Obama-care], those representing 37 percent vote against it. The bill fails,” said James Fallows in the Atlantic, and he does have a point, but the problem with health care reform had nothing to do with Senate rules. The Senate did end up thwarting the will of the people, but not in the way that you imagined. The problem with the Senate in this instance was that most of the Democrats who voted for health care were thwarting the will of their own voters. 

The split Fallows evoked to show the system’s unfairness was 63-37. This is close, in reverse, to the 60-40 split by which the public at large opposed Obamacare by the time it passed, and by which they oppose it to this day. Democrats spent millions of dollars buying the votes of Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Ben Nelson (D-Nebr.), whose states hated Obamacare all the more when they found out about it. The Democratic leadership applied immense pressure to Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who is losing her race for reelection by 20-plus points. Virginia (which voted for Obama) gave Bob McDonnell an 18-point win in the 2009 governor’s race, which was understood to be in part a referendum on the president’s health care plan; Virginia’s two Democrats in the Senate nonetheless voted to pass it. That same day, New Jersey swung 12 points away from Obama to elect Chris Christie as governor. Six weeks later, its two Democrats in the Senate voted to pass Obamacare. Massachusetts (which voted for Obama) elected Scott Brown on his explicit pledge to stop health care; the state’s two Democratic senators voted to pass it. The only problem with the Senate here was not structural, but a slipped timing gear: Sentiments changed in 2009 so quickly that those Democrats elected in the “wave” years of 2006 and 2008 no longer spoke for what their voters wished done. In 2009-2010, the Republican caucus, outnumbered by three-to-two in the Senate, nonetheless spoke for the majority of the country. The Senate did, in this instance, throttle democracy. But not in the way that you claimed.

 

It was the fault of the media: While George Packer, E.J. Dionne, and friends were blaming the evil old Senate for the woes of Obama, Todd Purdum, their Condé Nast comrade at Vanity Fair, was placing the blame for the president’s problems right at the feet of .  .  . the press. “He faces the most hyperkinetic, souped-up, tricked out, trivialized and combative media environment .  .  . ever experienced,” Purdum explained, complaining of “the ability of .  .  . any rumor to get a foothold in the public discussion and go viral in the broader media,” the presence of Fox News on the national airwaves, the fact that “journalists who should know better ask the damnedest questions” just to get air time, and “the long-building trend toward coverage of the presidency and politics as pure sport.” 

He ought to know. The magazine that Purdum writes for has since 2003 poured rivers of sludge on George W. Bush, John McCain, and all kinds of conservatives; spent an inordinate amount of time on the political insights of one Levi Johnston; and recently ran the latest of what seems like a million hit-pieces on Sarah Palin, an article so inaccurate, badly sourced, and misleading that even people who didn’t like Palin complained. Purdum says in all seriousness that Obama aide Valerie Jarrett “looks back wistfully to a time when credible people could put a stamp of reliability on information and opinion: ‘Walter Cronkite would get on and say the truth, and people believed the media.’ .  .  . Today, no single media figure or outlet has that power to end debate.” He does not say that one reason the media are no longer looked up to is that Dan Rather, Cronkite’s successor at the Tiffany network, was canned in 2004 when he tried to kneecap President Bush in the campaign’s final months by charging him with dereliction of duty in the Texas Air National Guard 30 years earlier, based on documents said to date from the 1970s, which turned out to have been written on Microsoft Word. 

This is the same media that voted about 90 to 10 for John Kerry and almost 95 to 5 for Barack Obama, and compared the latter in the course of the campaign and in its aftermath not only to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, but to the Messiah and God. Of course, it is possible that the press did hurt Obama, but only by (a) pitching expectations so high that no one could meet them, and (b) inflating his swelled head even further, so that he believed that he really had magical powers, could talk people into practically anything, could sell people on ideas they detested, and then save his followers from electoral harm. 

 

It’s the fault of the mad: In the eyes of some of your number, the country’s gone bonkers, for no apparent reason at all. It’s a “weird mass nervous breakdown,” says Maureen Dowd, who ought to know weird when she sees it. Packer agrees. “The main fact of our lives is the overwhelming force of unreason,” he intones in the New Yorker. “Evidence, knowledge, argument, proportionality, nuance, complexity, and the other indispensable tools of the liberal mind don’t stand a chance.” This of course goes to explain why The One has lost traction: He’s “a rational man running a most irrational nation” in Dowd’s estimation, or, as Packer has put it, “he’s the voice of reason incarnate, and maybe he’s too sane to be heard.” Well, if you say so. But this is a form of dementia that comes and goes oddly: In the ’08 campaign the nation was wonderfully rational. It was even more so at Obama’s inaugural, when his approval ratings were soaring, but then, as winter became spring and spring became summer, the grip on reality started to fade. It slipped with the stimulus package; slipped even more with Government Motors; and by August, with both the national debt and the town halls on fire, the last trace of reason had disappeared. 

This sanity index also tracks the racism quotient, and both are tied to Obama’s poll ratings: When they are up in the 60s, the country is sane and postracial; in the 50s, it becomes borderline; in the 40s, the country is both xenophobic and stark, raving mad. Could Obama himself have done anything to contribute to this outbreak of unreason? Perish the thought. All he did was push a left-wing agenda on a center-right country, wage wars on the Tea Party, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Chief Justice John Roberts, mock his opponents and malign them as racists, blow through the six thousand warning signs that health care was politically toxic, blast his way through legal roadblocks set up in the Senate by means people saw as abuses of power, and celebrate later with gloating and song. In their new book Mad as Hell, about the life and times of the Tea Party movement, pollsters Doug Schoen and Scott Rasmussen say that the feeling of being deliberately ignored and dismissed by the people in power is what fuels that movement.

In fact, the movement’s response to this assault on its character has been remarkably measured. Its members have expressed themselves calmly, in speech and writing. They assembled peaceably for redress of grievances. They backed candidates, campaigned for them, and accepted defeat with good grace when their members were beaten: It was the establishment “moderates” who behaved like bad sports. The charges of racism against them appear to be specious and planted by Democrats, and the rare instances of violence that have occurred in their ambit were visited on them by the president’s backers. Meanwhile, the president has behaved as if he lived in an alternative universe, blocking out all available evidence that the entire country is not like Hyde Park.

The Tea Party is about to deliver a blow that, if Obama is rational, ought to rock his foundations. We’ll see then who is in touch with the real world.

 

It’s the narrative, or lack of it, that is the real problem: People don’t know what Obama’s done. Or they do know, but they haven’t absorbed it. “They aren’t rationally aligning belief and action,” says Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. E.J. Dionne says Obama has engineered “an expansion of government without an explanation for how this modestly larger government will enhance both private well-being and private sector growth.” (Perhaps no explanation is made because no explanation is possible, but we’ll let this one pass.) “His achievements are historic,” Time’s Joe Klein informs us, “but he hasn’t wrapped them up in an ideological bumper sticker—or provided some neat way for the public to understand it, or pretended to be a yeoman simpleton, noshing on pork rinds [or] clearing brush.” Perhaps he should put the golf clubs aside, and get out the weed whacker. But perhaps this isn’t the problem at all.

Perhaps the problem isn’t the lack of a narrative, but that the public has formed one already, and it seems to go something like this: A young community-organizer-cum-seminar-leader, having led a sheltered political life in deep blue America, is swept into office on the strength of a financial collapse weeks before the election plus the emotional need for a biracial redeemer. He misreads the country, the times, and his mandate, pushes through plans to turn the country into a social democracy at the exact moment that model is proving unworkable, governs in every way against the will of the people, and proves himself to be a bad politician, a coalition-destroyer, a fish out of water, and over his head. This simple line explains things much better than the convoluted tales that you keep coming up with. But it’s the one thought you cannot abide. Now and then the strain gets to be too much and reality breaks through for a moment.  Time’s Mark Halperin had an emperor’s-new-clothes moment last week (“the White House is .  .  . isolated, insular, arrogant and clueless about how to get along with or persuade members of Congress, the media, the business community or working-class voters”). But for the rest of you, Obama’s still your dream of a man, and you cannot deny him. Dreams, as they say, die hard.

“Sitting there in the press conference today with President Obama, you can almost hear sort of the classical music in the background,” mused Howard Fineman on Hardball. “It was a stately thing and a mature discussion.” “He’s an Oxford don,” broke in Chris Matthews, “elegantly presenting himself, elegantly expressing himself on a very high level.” On an earlier show, Matthews had called the president “almost pluperfect.” On September 16, he elaborated: “People like him. They love his upbringing .  .  . the way he made it, the way he spoke, the way he presented himself. I like the cut of this guy.”

So do you all. So you all club together in making excuses, in blaming the Senate, the press, and the system, in believing that somehow, beyond all hope and reason, The One has things under control. He looks to the long view. He is above this. The woes of the day do not count. 

“Obama’s gamble is that if you look after the doing of the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself,” or so Todd Purdum tells us. “The short-term price may come in stalled poll numbers, electoral setbacks, and endless contradictory advice [but] the payoff .  .  . lies out on some future horizon” that only he sees.

It better be out there, for the alternative is much too depressing. He’s your ideal, and if he fails, it means that the things that you value—the smoothness, the snark, the verbal facility, the elevation of talk as against thought and action, the veneer of worldliness; the right schools, the right clothes, the right frame of reference; the nuance; the sophistication—that these things are, in the real world, not all that important.

And then, of course, neither are you.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. She writes a weekly column for the Washington Examiner.


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