Thursday, September 30, 2010

They Think They're Doing Well

There appears to be a major disconnect between the arguments of the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats about why the unmotivated liberal base should get out and vote and the arguments made by ordinary citizens -- people I've seen online, friends and family and acquaintances -- on the same topic.

I'm not talking about the very bottom line of the argument, which is that the Republicans would be worse, and are really scary. Both sides agree to that. And the reason they do so is because it is in fact the case that the Republicans would be worse, and are really scary. (And, yes, I too agree: the Republicans would be worse. This November, make sure to vote, and to vote for the Democrats. The Party of Palin really has no business governing the country.)

No, I'm talking about the analysis behind the apathy. There, the understandings divide, and divide sharply.

Ordinary citizens talking about this topic tend to focus on the claim that Obama and the Congressional democrats are doing as well as they can, given the circumstances. The circumstances are explained in two major ways: Bush left the country in lousy shape (true), and the current structure of the Senate makes it nearly impossible for the majority to govern (basically true, although I think they could have done more to change and/or work around it). Thus in my conversations with the (numerous!) friends, family and acquaintances on this topic, they always stress that Obama and the Congressional Democrats have been blocked at every turn, and that the country is still in terrible shape because they haven't had a free hand to actually fix the multiple disasters arising from the misrule of the conservatives. Sometimes this even expresses with an exacerbation about the Democrats' poor messaging, such as Mark Kleinman's recent lament here.

Here's the problem. That's not what the Obama administration is saying. (I think this may be less true of the Congressional Democrats, although I haven't paid enough attention to be sure.) They're saying something quite, quite different. A message that is directly counter to the idea that they haven't been able to fix the problems left by Bush due to Republican obstructionism.

They think they're doing well.

They've been saying this, over and over again. For example, Obama recently said [emphasis added]:
The single biggest threat to our success is not the other party. It's us. It's complacency. It's apathy. It's indifference. It's people feeling like, well, we only got 80 percent of what we want, we didn't get the other 20, so we're just going to sit on our hands.
In other words, Obama said he thinks he did pretty well -- I think we can all agree that if Obama had, in fact, delivered 80% of what liberals wanted, that would be doing very well (from a liberal point of view) -- and that his liberal base are just being apathetic, indifferent quitters unable to realize how well he's done for them.

Nor is this an isolated sentiment. For instance, in his recent Rolling Stone interview, Obama said:
I keep in my pocket a checklist of the promises I made during the campaign, and here I am, halfway through my first term, and we've probably accomplished 70 percent of the things that we said we were going to do -- and by the way, I've got two years left to finish the rest of the list, at minimum.
And Biden has said similar things. As has Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs. In other words, this is not an accident, or a fit of pique, or a sense of anger slipping out in an inopportune comment. This is something they've said repeatedly. I think the Occam's Razor explanation here is that they've said it because they actually believe it.

For that matter, they've made it the centerpiece of their reelection pitch -- at least that part of it that doesn't boil down to "the other side is worse" (which is a big part of it -- and which, as mentioned above, happens to be true). I'm referring to their stop whining, get excited and vote you apathetic ingrates! message (visible in the first of the above quotes, among many other places). This message, as lots of people have noted, is rather unusual as campaign slogans go. Why would they choose such a perplexing strategy? Again, the Occam's Razor explanation seems to be: they believe it. (There are other, more sinister explanations, but I think that's the most obvious one.)

Now, lots of people are saying lots of things, and so there are certainly some counter-examples to the above. In the above-cited interview, Obama also said that
There may be complaints about us not having gotten certain things done, not fast enough, making certain legislative compromises... It has been hard, and we've got some lumps to show for it.*
For that matter, there are some counter-examples in the other direction, too: Matt Yglesias, with no connection to the Obama administration that I'm aware of, argues the merits of Obama's health care victory, and calls for "[a] little less whining and a little more cheerleading from the left". Nevertheless, I think that the division I outlined is in general true: non-official Democrats are explaining the Democrats' record as due to obstructionism and the bad place they started in; Democratic officials, on the other hand, boast of 70% - 80% success rates, pat themselves on the back, and wonder why everyone isn't as upbeat as they.

Plenty has been written about the idiocy of "stop whining" as a political message. But there's a number of other problems too. Part of this is that the political message gets muddled: there's no voice for an actual liberal position when Obama and the Congressional Democrats are celebrating a record of part failure and part success at implementing liberal republican ideas.** Or, as Atrios said a few days ago in his characteristically pithy way:
A frustrating thing is that the administration doesn't say, "we'd like to do this but we got the best we can do," instead they say "what we did was awesome." The result is that they don't even come across as advocates for the more liberal (and quite often the more popular) position.
Which is, indeed, a problem. Since we need someone who believes in actual, well, liberal positions to speak up for them. And part of that is acknowledging the massive failures of the current administration.

Except... if they think they've done 70% or more of what they were aiming for, if they think that the liberals got 80% of what they wanted, what makes anyone think that they actually do believe in liberal positions?

If they think they're doing well, then isn't this as good as we're going to get, even if we re-elect them?

Now, those who think the problem has been Republican obstructionism (and a bad starting point) might well agree that this is as good as we're going to get, since there's no way that Democrats are going to increase their holdings in the Senate. But, as Matt Yglesias points out in this insightful and important post, even if that is true, then the Democrats have made a major mistake (emphasis in the original): failing to get serious about procedural issues, Democrats have created a gigantic credibility problem for themselves. Under modern conditions, it’s not realistic for a political party to obtain 75 Senate seats or whatever and then deliver policy accomplishments. Holding 59 or 60 requires a minor miracle... [T]he events of 2009-2010 have made it painfully clear to everyone that under any realistic scenario for the 2010 elections the progressive vision is dead in the US Senate. There are all these policy ideas out there, from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal to cap-and-trade to immigration reform to labor law reform. They could be stitched together into a bold vision for economic and social renewal. Except everyone knows you’re not going to get 60 votes for that stuff.

And so by failing to become vocal about procedural reform and demonstrate some seriousness about getting things done, the party leaders have created a situation where they can’t make any promises to anyone besides “if we do well we’ll negotiate with the Senators from New England but if we do badly we’ll have to negotiate with Lindsey Graham.” The economy and the burdens of incumbency were naturally going to make this a tough midterm, but as long as key senators are stuck in the mental fog of proceduralism, they just can’t articulate a compelling vision.

And I think that, in my estimation, even if you believe that the Democrats have been hobbled primarily by the Republicans, then this ought to be a devastating critique: they've created for themselves a situation where they've proven that they'll never be able to do what the base wants. Which makes it hard to motivate voters... even if they alternative to "bad" is, in fact, "much, much worse".

But, again, this is (believe it or not) the optimistic reading of the situation. This is the reading that assumes the Democrats have been trying to do better and failing. The problem being, that's not what they're saying. They're saying -- above all, Obama himself is saying -- that they've done quite well.

Which of course vitiates the idea that they wish they'd done a lot better.

Oh, obviously Obama thinks that there were some areas for improvement -- that there were some "warts", and that they've taken some "lumps". 80% is not 100%, after all. But 80% is damn good. And, as I said above, if Obama'd actually gotten 80%, then that would be a record worthy of crowing about.

But I don't think he's gotten 80%, leaving only 20% unaccomplished. In fact, I think that that number is so absurd, that even if it were reversed -- even if Obama had claimed that his party had gotten 20% of what they wanted, leaving 80% undone -- even those numbers would be a wild exaggeration in his favor.

I mean, Obama's saying that we "got 80 percent of what we want"? Dear God in heaven, what about:
Closing Gitmo. Employee Free Choice Act. Ending Don't Ask Don't Tell. Action on global warming good enough to actually save the planet. A more open administration, as promised. An end to Bushian theories of executive power. An end to the use of the state secret doctrine. A stimulus big enough to get people back to work. Some real accountability for torture in the previous administration. A revived liberal culture, one which answers the conservative ideology that has ruled public discourse for the last generation. An actual end to the war in Iraq, and not just a pretend one. Standing up to the AIPAC lobby and pushing for real peace in the Middle East rather than caving before Netanyahu's every peace-destroying whim.
-- and that's just for starters, off the top off my head. There's a lot more.

(Although I think the big three are there. The big three, for me, are the economy (which is why the Democrats are going to lose -- at 10% unemployment, you toss the bastards out, even if the other bastards are worse; it's just a crisis, and no one in our ruling class seems to realize it), global warming (even if Obama supporters want us to grade on a curve -- "given the obstructionism and bad starting place, Obama's doing well" -- the planet ain't going to grade on a curve, and without some action here we're all gonna fry), and the restoration of American civil liberties and an end to Bushian civil liberty violations, on which more anon.)

I mean, yes, the health care act was a step forward, one that will actually help a lot of people, albeit not nearly as good a one as we'd have liked. And yes, it was a good thing to pass a stimulus big enough to stop a new depression (even if it wasn't big enough to actually put people back to work, and bring down the extraordinarily horrific 10% employment rate).

But 80%? Even 20%? You've got to be kidding.

Except, he's not kidding. He seems to actually believe it.

And what that does -- what that does -- is destroy hope.

I mean, ordinary liberal voters, the kind of people who make up Obama's base, have been begging him to give them some hope, some sign that he knows how badly he's fallen short of what we want. And his response? "Stop whining." -- Sometimes in so many words.

So maybe -- just maybe -- this isn't some odd and rather ill-conceived strategy to motivate the base. Maybe they actually believe they've done really well, rather than barely making a dent in a list that, however long, was filled with things that were absolutely essential.

Maybe he thinks he's doing well.

Further proof of this, incidentally, is in the one area that Obama's apologists can't blame on Republican obstructionism: namely, Obama's genuinely appalling record on the large group of issues around civil liberties, transparency of government, a repudiation of Bush's unconstitutional claims to executive power, and the punishment of violators of the law, particularly torture.

Here Obama has done, not weakly in a good direction, but strongly in a bad one. He's invoked the state secrets doctrine to protect the torturers and criminals in the Bush administration. He's said he will put accused terrorists on trial in civil not military courts only if they think they can get a conviction; the rest go to trial in due-process denying military courts or not at all (which makes the entire thing little more than a stunt, of course). He's claimed the ability to assassinate an American citizen, not on the battlefield, and then denied the possibility of any court review of this action on the grounds of state secrets. And so forth.

None of these travesties and crimes can be chalked up to Republican obstructionism, because they're all wholly within the executive branch. Obama could have done well on all of these issues if he'd chosen to. Instead he's not only done poorly, he's done evil -- in direct violation of his campaign promises, explicit and implicit.

Which, if needed, is yet another piece of evidence that the problem isn't that he's been stopped from doing good, but that he isn't even trying: in the area where he had a free hand, he broke his campaign promises, and furthered the vile Bush agenda.

Which is strong proof that he doesn't think, as his apologists do, that the problem is he hasn't been able to do what he wanted, but rather that his goals have been either small or foul. -- Or it would be, if he weren't himself trumpeting his success in the midst of so much misery: an open admission that makes further proof unnecessary. Why try to prove some someone admits openly?

Oh, sure, you can claim this is a strategy to motivate the base. (It's an odd one.) You can believe -- on faith, I suppose -- that Obama wants to do all the things that liberals hope he'll do, and has just been stymied.

But it's not what he's saying.

If it's true that we got dealt a bad hand and the Republicans have blocked us at every turn, then it can't be true that we got most of what we (and you) wanted. And, conversely, if it's true that we got most of what we (and you) wanted, then it's not true that Republican obstructionism has been a major problem.

I think, even if Obama's apologists are -- against Obama's own statements -- correct, then he at least has done a bad job on the merits: he hasn't gotten what he needed to do done. As I said, you can grade on a curve -- grade for effort, not results -- and excuse him that way. But even so, it's hard to motivate a political base on the grounds that we tried really, really hard, but the mean 'ol Republicans stopped us.

Fortunately, he's not trying to motivate the base that way. (The base is trying to motivate itself that way). That's the good news. The bad news, however, is that so far as I can tell, his pitch is: look around! We've done great! And if you don't think so, you're not serious, you're giving up. You're whining. You're ungrateful.

Obama is saying to us, in so many words, that this is (almost) as good as we're going to get. That we ought to be grateful for what he's done for us.

Change? Hope?

Not so much.

Oh, he's right, everyone's right: the alternative is worse. Everyone should resist the temptation to throw the bastards out, because the new bastards will be far, far, far worse. This is true. And it's a reason to drag your ass to the polls and vote Democrat in November.

But you'll have to forgive me if I'm not too excited about it. And it looks like I'm not the only one.

*Within those ellipses, however, is more self-praise for their performance to date: Obama describes his administration as one "that, with some admitted warts, has been the most successful administration in a generation in moving progressive agendas forward". That this is true, however (which it is) is due largely to the genuinely appalling track-record of progressives within this past generation. Saying that you're record is good compared to recent years doesn't say much when recent years have been ones of miserable, unmitigated failure at achieving one's goals.

** I.e. the Health Care Plan -- a liberal Republican idea: the structure came from right-wing think tanks and was promoted by Romney in Massachusetts (although he'll never admit it now) -- and the idea that keeping 50,000 troops in Iraq means that the war is over, rather than simply downsized.

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