Elizabeth Drew as an interesting piece today in the New York Review of Books about the problems facing President Obama, and his style so far of governing.
For those not wanting to read the whole article, which also gets into some of the details of health care reform, her basic argument is that Obama is trying to build consensus through pragmatic efforts to compromise while the Republican party is set to try to discredit him and destroy his Presidency in any way possible. This means Obama has to rely on support from his own party to get things done. She wonders if this style is effective in such a hyper-polarized country, especially when vile blogs, internet sources and mass media do all it can to try to make insults of Obama a new conventional wisdom. The birthers come forth as only slightly disguised racists, the neo-conservatives try to spread the idea he is weak and doesn’t lead, and the far right simply pull out old rhetoric about socialism and big government. The onslaught is fierce, far worse than what President Clinton faced in 1994, and worse than anything the Democrats did against President Bush. Bush was attacked by the extreme left, but escaped the kind of assault put forth by the Republicans today. Buoyed by talk radio and uncertainties over the recession, they hope they can, as Senator DeMint said, make this “his Waterloo” and undermine his entire Presidency.
Before turning to Obama’s ability to handle this, the Republican strategy has to be critiqued. On the one hand, from a purely partisan perspective, it makes sense. If you don’t like Obama and the Democrats, and you want to weaken their ability to govern despite having large majorities in both houses, you go all out on the offensive. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, if it’s logical, or if you have an alternative, you try to plant the seeds of doubt. A couple of days ago I blogged about this, arguing that there is limited efficacy to the politics of rage. I still believe that to be true, though Drew suggests that considerable damage could be done anyway.
More important is the question of whether the Republican strategy is good for the country. When I teach Comparative Politics, I argue that democracy is a very difficult system to implement and maintain — hence my early skepticism about trying to spread democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. It rests on some fundamental shared cultural norms and values, including toleration of dissent, recognition of the legitimacy of all disagreement, a belief that the country is not in fundamental danger if ones’ opponents come to power, and a willingness to compromise and work with the other side, rather than to see politics as political war. The war is in the campaign, once the campaign is over, governing involves compromises, deals, and pragmatic problem solving.
By choosing a “permanent campaign,” the Republicans seem to violating a number of those norms, painting Obama out as some kind of dangerous un-American socialist, a threat to the country, and someone with whom they refuse to work. Even though some, like Louisiana’s Governor Jindal, argue that Congressional Republicans should work with Obama and seek common ground, so far they’ve been in attack mode. It stinks of racism to many on the left — would they be so vicious against an inside the beltway white Democratic President?
In the past, both Republicans and Democrats played the game more subtly. The most vicious attacks came from pundits people associated with either the left or the right; the politicians tried to stay above the fray. Thus pundits would now and then turn on their own side attacking their temerity in fighting for the cause, but that could be useful too. The rhetorical battle would go on in the press, but in the Capital deals would be made, and compromises sought.
Now the country faces record debts, high deficits, a steep recession, and conundrums abroad in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, South America and elsewhere. All this is happening when most of the world believes the US is in decline, and no longer as powerful or relevant on the world stage. Important, but not dominant. This is perhaps the most important era in American history since the end of WWII. We are going through a national transformation in the midst of a global transformation. Shouldn’t the GOP be working with Democrats to influence how the US responds to the crisis? Isn’t this a time when national interest should trump political posturing?
Obama seems so far to want to be a pragmatic compromiser, surprised by the vehemence of the opposition and the refusal of Republicans to compromise. He’s been having to mediate disputes within his party, recognizing that the likely compromise he expected (moderate Democrats with moderate Republicans) is in danger because the Republicans are playing hard ball. Here in Maine, the hope is that Senator Snowe, who has always focused on compromise, cooperation and pragmatic problem solving, might break loose from the grip the right wing has on the GOP right now, perhaps bringing other Republicans with her.
But some question Obama’s pragmatic approach. If the GOP want to fight a campaign war, shouldn’t Obama take off the gloves and give them one? Instead of calm, reasonable appearances on lightly watched Sunday morning TV, shouldn’t he get his campaign organization retooled and ready to fight not just about the issue, but take the GOP on head first? Shouldn’t he push for the most “liberal” health care reform possible, using reconciliation to pass it in the Senate 51-49, and get whatever majority he can in the House? Shouldn’t he pressure fellow Democrats to follow him or risk punishment down the line? The Republicans have declared a Machiavellian any means necessary war — shouldn’t he join the fight?
The President is not a party leader, he is the leader for the country. If Obama gave in to that temptation, it would risk further polarizing the country and making us impotent at a time when very important decisions have to be made. A country like this doesn’t change directions on a dime, our whole political system is set up to make change difficult and slow. Obama needs to maintain his kind of pragmatic calm tone, even if the noise might need to get turned up by some of his supporters, especially against the most outlandish of his attackers.
Obama does need to do whatever he can to pass some kind of health care reform, even if it’s through reconciliation. He has to have results. The only way to break the Republican slash and burn tactics is to show that they can’t stop his legislation. The GOP is used to having power, and the shout radio jocks are offering a kind of therapy after the stinging defeat at the hands of Obama and the Democrats last year. It distracts them from confronting the reality of the poor decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan made in the Bush years, and about questions of economic liberalization caused by the recession. Anger at Obama is a way to avoid looking inside.
But the GOP must at some point reconsider their policies and positions, come up with ways to confront the current crises while staying true to their principles, and then work to compromise and problem solve. That ultimately will be necessary to rejuvenate the GOP, and it’s imperative if the US is going to find a way out of the morass of problems we currently face. No single party has the answers. We only survive and prosper if we find a way to work together.