Does Obama Know the War He's in? Republicans Aren't Interested in Compromise
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In addressing the University of Michigan graduating class, President Barack Obama pleaded for increased “civility” in American politics and in the media, faulting extremes of the Left and the Right for the ugly acrimony that is sapping the nation’s ability to address serious problems.
The address did defend the role that government must play in creating conditions for a successful nation, but Obama noted that “to keep our democracy healthy,” there must be “a basic level of civility in our public debate.” He went on to criticize both those on the Right who throw around accusations of “socialist” and those on the Left who use words like “right-wing nut.”
In Obama’s framing of the incivility problem, both sides were treated as roughly equal offenders, despite the reality that the Right (and the Republicans) have been far guiltier of using the politics of dirty tricks and personal destruction – dating back decades – than have the Left (and the Democrats).
Indeed, one could argue that the aggressive style of GOP politics has come to define the Republican Party, from the days of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon through the era of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. The Republicans truly treat politics as a “war of ideas,” with the emphasis on “war.”
When out of power in recent years, the Republicans haven’t even pretended to cooperate with Democrats; instead, the GOP and its media allies have set out to make Washington ungovernable. The incivility is not just some naturally occurring phenomenon; it is a conscious strategy for regaining power.
The Republicans know that the American people will quickly grow weary of all the political bickering that surrounds Democratic control and thus will return power to the Republicans, who further recognize that the defeated Democrats will then bend over backwards to work with Republicans on achieving some normal level of governance.
So, there is a rational calculation for cranking up the volume of the Right’s noise machine to popularize ugly smears against leading Democrats, such as the baseless accusations about Obama being born in Kenya and his supposedly secret Muslim allegiances. This is disinformation in the style of what CIA covert operators spread against targeted leaders of enemy regimes.
Given the Right’s massive investment in media – stretching from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and the Internet – the disinformation soon takes on the ring of truth. Millions of Americans come to believe the lies and then help spread them further.
The Left has no comparable media apparatus of its own. So, while it’s true that some on the Left tried to give the Right a taste of its own medicine by circulating unsupported charges that George W. Bush masterminded the 9/11 attacks, there was no comparison in how broad-based the competing smears from the Right and Left have been.
On the Right, key media figures and elected Republicans have warmly embraced anti-Obama conspiracy theories – much as they did the smears against Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Recently, in the Arizona House of Representatives, 31 of 35 GOP members voted for a bill that would require Obama to present his birth certificate before he would be allowed on the state ballot in 2012.
Then, when Obama criticized another Arizona law, which empowers police to demand proof of citizenship from suspected illegal immigrants if there’s “reasonable suspicion,” Republican media hero Rush Limbaugh cracked that Obama was worried because he might not be an American himself.
“I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers,” Limbaugh said. “Maybe he’s afraid somebody’s going to ask him for his.”
This pandering to the “birthers” also has become regular fare at Tea Party events. At a recent Tea Party rally in South Carolina, former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, asked, “why don't we just send him back” to Kenya?
Yet, in his commencement speech on Saturday, Obama laid the blame for the political incivility on both extremes about equally, much as news outlets like CNN pretend that Democrats are as much at fault for the lack of bipartisanship as the Republicans.
Creating these false equivalencies, however, holds little promise of causing the Right and the Republicans give up on their winning strategy of making the political process scream, until the American people grow tired of the ugliness and put the Republicans back in charge.
The only way the Right and the Republicans will back off their approach is if it fails over an extended period of time, if it's rejected by the American voters. And the only way to make it fail would be for Democrats to come up with a political/media counter-strategy to defeat it.
Pleading for civility won’t get Limbaugh and Beck to tamp down their rhetoric, nor will it cause Republican leaders to abandon their congressional obstructionism. After all, their strongest argument for a Republican Congress in November will be that Obama and the Democrats haven’t delivered.
Perhaps Obama does understand this political dynamic and his commencement address was only an attempt to position himself with independents who say they despise partisanship.
But there is a price to be paid for chastising your own Democratic “base” for its supposed intolerance – calling on them to read editorials in the Wall Street Journal and to “learn what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes.”
For sure, the Tea Party crowd isn’t going to take advice from Obama to absorb a liberal perspective. Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation immediately accused Obama of hypocrisy and called the Tea Partiers the real victims.
“We’re seeing a lot of incivility from the other side, people referring to us as tea-baggers and racists, people who lie about us,” Phillips said.
The only ones likely to heed what Obama says are his own supporters. Thus, they might be inclined to retreat into greater passivity.
So, instead of girding for the political conflict that is ahead – and recognizing that he is facing an implacable enemy – Obama is talking like Neville Chamberlain at Munich, hoping against hope that peace might be at hand.
This wishful thinking puts Obama in the ranks of most Democrats from the past four decades during which they more often than not shied away from confronting Republican wrongdoing, even to the point of helping Republicans miswrite recent history.
My book, Secrecy & Privilege, opens with a scene in spring 1994 when a guest at a White House social event asks President Clinton why his administration didn’t pursue unresolved scandals of the Reagan-Bush-41 era, such as the Iraqgate secret support for Saddam Hussein’s regime and clandestine arms shipments to the Islamic government of Iran.
Clinton responded to the question from documentary filmmaker Stuart Sender by saying, in effect, that those historical questions had to take a back seat to Clinton’s domestic agenda and his desire for greater bipartisanship.
Clinton “didn’t feel that it was a good idea to pursue these investigations because he was going to have to work with these people,” Sender told me in an interview. “He was going to try to work with these guys, compromise, build working relationships.”
Clinton’s relatively low regard for the value of truth and accountability was echoed by other centrist Democrats in 2006, in anticipation of the party’s congressional victory. The Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council, published a pamphlet that “warned against calls to launch investigations into past [Bush-43] administration decisions,” the Washington Post reported.
Essentially, the victorious Democrats followed that advice for the final two years of George W. Bush’s presidency and Obama then embraced the don’t-look-back approach when he took office in 2009. However, beyond the dangers of tolerating a false or incomplete history of these times, the Democrats haven’t even gotten the hoped-for bipartisanship.
The Republicans and their right-wing allies simply pocketed the concessions and pressed ahead with their aggressive strategies: they rally their base with extreme rhetoric and they create as much disruption as possible. After all, they have no reason to fear that the Democrats will ever demand accountability.
Ironically, the only real hope for political civility, at least eventually, may be for Obama and the Democrats to first give up their obsession with bipartisanship and take up the challenge of fighting for truth and the public’s interest.
That might require some tough – but honest – words about the Republicans (maybe even a little "incivility"), but sometimes peace is possible only after a battle has been won.
[For more on this topic, see “A Method to Republican Madness.”]