Posted tagged ‘Obama’

Sermons in Stones

January 22, 2013

Plenty of folks have responded to what seems to me to have been an extraordinary Second Inaugural address by President Obama.  See two Jim Fallows posts for starters.  It was, as Fallows says, a striking speech on at least two levels:  that of content, with the president’s clear and unequivocal declaration of liberal intent; and that of rhetoric with its phrases infused with historical intent, American civic scripture, and compact, elegant, present-day exegesis.

But the symbolism within the speech did one aspect of the speech that hasn’t got much (any?) notice — perhaps because Chuck Schumer told the story, not Obama.

That is:  the setting of the president’s speech, the porch of the US Capitol, provided a visual and material rhetorical grace note to the claims on history and present urgency that President Obama expressed in words.

Here’s the background: design work had begun on a new dome  for the building in 1854, following an expansion of its two wings of the Capitol, completed in 1855.  That work was nowhere near complete on 4 March, 1861, the day of Lincoln’s first inauguration:

LincolnInauguration1861a

Work on the dome — or rather payment for the work — ceased for most of 1861.  The lead contractor on the project had $1.3 million worth of building materials on site — I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that you can see some  of the construction materials for the dome in the foreground of the image above — and decided it was better to keep going and hope that the federal government would pay up in time, which they did.  As the Historian of the Capitol, William Allen, notes the story that the new president himself  [PDF] ordered the continuation of the work is a myth — but the symbolic significance of the project didn’t escape Lincoln either.

The exact form of the Lincoln quote in reply to a question as to why spend money on architecture in the midst of war seems a bit apocryphal to me, but there seems to be a pretty broad recollection that he said something like  “if people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”  Certainly, when I interviewed him for this film, Allen emphasized how potent the ongoing construction was for the troops from all over the Union who mustered on the Mall before marching off to the forward positions of the Army of the Potomac.

The dome wasn’t quite complete in March, 1864, but it looked mostly as it does now — that towering white, grandly neo-classical confection, its domed shape a recognized symbol of the cosmos as a whole — of the order of heaven — in a bit of architectural iconography established at least as far back as the Emperor Hadrian, who so pointedly staked his claim of divine sanction in one of the foundational statements of western architecture.

And of course, to play a little of the political numerology so beloved of pundits, that means that the first Second Inaugural to play out against the backdrop of the dome was Abraham Lincoln’s.  The most recent, complete with language deliberately echoing Lincoln’s, came yesterday.

Schumer’s anecdote played on that connection — that Lincoln asserted the claims of union against the forces of disunion and authoritarian oppression, while Obama yesterday advanced the notion that we are a society, not an atomized cloud of individual secessionists.

We’ve lived a to-me unprecedented four years in which the opposing party has challenged not just the policies or politics of the administration, but its legitimacy, the right to exercise power conferred by democratic choice.  The echoes of race, of secessionism, of the authoritarian claim that the consent of the governed is tolerated only so long as hoi polloi make the right choices are all distant (and not always so muted) echoes of 1860 and 1861.  And yet the black man with the funny name just took the president’s oath for a second time, directly beneath what we might, not quite accurately, nonetheless call Mr. Lincoln’s dome.

This is how rhetoric engages historical change. The meaning of the dome is not the same as it was in March, 1865.  Still, it connects.  And even if President Obama’s opponents cannot bring themselves to accept the blunt reality of a Democrat, an African American, and  a mainstream-progressive (if that characterization makes sense, and I think it does) not just winning, but holding power, the dome is there to remind them of a lesson very similar to what the traitors of 1865 learned to such cost: that the union is not merely the property of entrenched power.

That’s the chief significance of the visual language of Obama’s greying head beneath that wedding cake of dome.  It’s sufficient.

But there is actually one more thing.  Somewhere — it may have been a Balloon Juice comment thread, actually — I read someone quip that with all of Obama’s talk of internal improvements, infrastructure and investments in the future, the man sounded like a Whig…just like that railroad lawyer, the young Abe Lincoln.  In that context, the Capitol dome is a perfect symbol of the innovation and swelling ambition of the nation, then and now.

For the dome is a glorious lie.  It may look like shining marble, a masonry structure just like the grand baroque domes of Europe, St. Peter’s and the like.  It’s not.  The entire thing, inside and out is a jigsaw puzzle of cast iron, painted to fool the eye.  I’ve had the exceptional good fortune to climb inside the dome, between the inner shape you see from the rotunda and the familiar gleaming confection that stands over the mall.  When you do you climb up the stairs there you duck through the ribs that hold up the outer skin and from which rods connect to the (self-supporting) inner one, each made of plates bolted together.

kknine

(Don’t be fooled — all those coffers on the inner dome that appear to be pale carved stone in the drawing above are cast iron too, painted a dull grey on the side the punters don’t see.)

The iron segments that accrete into the dome were cast — in NY, I believe, though I’m on the road, away from my notes, and my memory may be playing tricks.  The material was shipped to Capitol Hill and assembled there, like a giant erector set.

The meaning — or at least a meaning?

You see in the fabric of the building at least two connected thoughts:  an object lesson in the sources of the defeat of the Confederacy:  already, by the 1860s, the American metal working industries — largely concentrated in the loyal North —  were advancing to and past the capabilities of the world leader, Britain.  And in our Civil War, Yankee industrial power and skill beat an economy based on the theft of human labor.  Paying attention to science, to technology, to the skills needed to play in the big leagues actually made a difference in that war, logistically, the difference.

Such attention is still all-in-all. . Hence the significance of that portion of President Obama’s campaign and inaugural address that spoke and speak to the need to invest in the brains and the technologies that matter right now.  And all the while he spoke, the dome stood behind him, granting historical assent.

Material objects have always been able to serve as both things and symbols. That China has just opened the longest high-speed rail line in the world is of obvious practical consequence for that nation.  No one doubts it has rhetorical significance as well.  The Mars rover Curiousity is so much more than a go-cart.  And so on.

Symbols as they age change:  they gain resonance; that accumulate layers of meaning, perhaps even some that complicate each other.  The Capitol Dome was completed as an element in the argument over what kind of country the United States could hope to be.

The second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, performed under that great structure, advances the cause of union and of this Union at this precise moment in time.  It is altogether fitting and proper that it should do this.

*Actually, the first dome was a visual disaster all on its own, one of Charles Bulfinch’s least impressive efforts — though it must be admitted that he didn’t have an entirely free hand in his design.

Post Debate Punditing Without A License

October 4, 2012

I’m going to do something I very rarely wish to inflict on y’all.  Usually, I like to invoke at least a schmear of empirical evidence to drive an argument, but just this once I’m going to go all pundity…

….which means, I guess, that I gotta with a Penetrating Glimpse of the Obvious:

Last night’s debate was a poor showing for President Obama and those of us who see the prospect of a President Romney as a clear and present danger to the Republic and our kids’ future.

Which leads to the equally obvious (but true) pivot:

No campaign is a single event. Counting today there are 32 full days to go before the polls open on Tuesday, November 6.  Last night’s farrago will become part of the river of stories that flow towards that day — but it is the sum of those tales, not any single shiny moment, that will determine the outcome.

Already, some folks — partisans for now, to be sure — are trying to draw attention to what Romney actually said, and in doing so, identifying the significant vulnerabilities this debate exposed for the Republican cause.  For example, I agree with Mistermix that Romney’s signal mistake was to open himself up for a renewed assault on his Medicare position — and that link to Krugman shows it ain’t just us DFH’s paying attention.   I also think Romney’s tripling down on his tax plan will allow a lot of people, and not just wonks, to remind folks of the gap between arithmetic and all the BS Romney and Ryan have thrown out on this one.

As Josh Marshall says in that second link, this is the kind of thing that takes several news cycles to build.  But recall:  we were all enraged at the brazen embrace of easily refutable lies in the Ryan RNC Convention speech.  We didn’t have faith in either the MSM or the Obama campaign (Democrats after all!) to take on the deceit with anything like the attention needed to defuse such weaponized ruminant excrement.  But they did, and (with some help from the marathon man himself) Ryan has become at least a bit of punchline ever since.*

So:  President Obama missed many opportunities last night, perhaps most significantly in not drawing a sharp enough line between the “you’re on your own” Romney vision and the “we’re all in this together” music Obama has played to such great effect in the past (and I’m sure will again, soon).

But the real test of the Obama campaign will be what it does over the next week with the actual missteps Romney made last night.  How will they use his internal contradictions in the ads?  What will Obama and his surrogates say to local news folks?  How quickly can their operation drive the mainstream media to go to town on stories like this one? (Shorter: it took almost no time at all for a Romney aide to contradict Romney’s core claim about pre-existing conditions and Medicare.)  No guarantees exist, but I have to say I’ve been damn impressed with the side of the Obama campaign that pursues such ends.  (Note also that Fallows reminds us that (in his view) debating is the best campaign technique for Romney.  Obama’s operation has been superior to his rival’s in every other phase so far.)

To repeat the cliché — holy hell, if I’m pretending to be a pundit I’ve got to hammer those too — but campaigns are marathons, not sprints.  Romney’s performance last night was like ripping off an 15 second 100 yard dash in mile 18th on the way to the Back Bay.**  Yup, he won that stretch of road.  Now comes the time to reel him in.

Which leads me to my last thought, the one I hope y’all take home: 32 days, peeps. It’s not just Obama and the grandees of the profession, the Axelrod’s and the Plouffe’s who can’t let themselves get too much sleep between now and then.  There’s the rest of us.  There’s me.

I have to confess — I’ve been less involved in a boots-on-the-ground kind of way in this election than the last, and by a good margin too.  My wife and I have been giving money on a regular basis, but I used to be a phone bank hero, and then got into door-to-door as my preferred mode of participation.  Haven’t done that this year; pretty much all I’ve done that requires me to upgrade from a bathrobe in front of a screen in my basement*** is to show up at a couple of Warren events.  That’s not enough — if there is one true lesson to be gained from the debate it is that nothing is in the bag, not the Presidency, not the Senate, surely not the House.

I’m not Tim F.  I can’t match his gift for catalyzing action.  But action is needed, so here’s my pledge.  I’m going to do something every week from now through Monday, 5 November.  I’ve got the day job and I’ve got the kid and there’s some real life stuff happening in my extended family, so I can’t do what I did when I was a mere pup, and just take off for New Hampshire for the last two weeks of the 1992 election.  But I’ll be heading that way to canvas this weekend and everyday I can liberate from my daily round between now and the 6th; I’ll be tossing more bucks in the pot today, and no doubt on days to come; I’ll keep looking for useful tasks that I can tackle.  I really don’t want to do this — I’m becoming more misanthropic and generally grumpy with each passing year, but that’s what’s required, so I’m just going to kick my ass out the door as much as I possibly can.

You?

Update: Just to show it ain’t just my rose-colored monitor screens coloring my view, here’s a dispatch from the inner sanctum of the Village, NBC’s First Read:

*** Who wins the post-debate? If Romney won the instant reactions from last night’s debate, it is more than possible that the Obama camp can win the next 24 hours. Why? Because Romney said several things that could make life difficult for him today or in the next debate. First, Romney declared, “I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.” But in addition to supporting the extension of the Bush tax cuts, which are skewed heavily to the wealthy, the non-partisan Tax Policy Center says that Romney’s tax plan would give the Top 0.1% an average tax cut of more than $246,000. Next, he stated that “there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit.” While he has said his plan will be paid for, he’s yet to lay out any SPECIFICS on how he’ll pay for it. Romney also said, “I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding.” But the Ryan budget plan, which Romney has said he’d sign into law, leads to long-term spending reductions in education. And Romney also didn’t disagree with the description that his Medicare plan would consist of “vouchers” for future retirees. Winning a “debate” is always a two-part deal — the night itself, and then the aftermath. This is now an opportunity for Team Obama and a challenge for Team Romney.

Update 2: And on cue, here’s an opening shot from Team Obama (via):

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None of this is to say all is well.

It isn’t.

This election is a month away and it really, truly ain’t in the bag yet.  So what I said above:  If the idea of waking up on November 7 to the words President-Elect Romney gives you the cold sweats, listen to the man — and don’t just vote, put mind, money and muscle behind the campaign to get your fri

*Via DeLong, a new game:  Where’s Waldo Paulie?

**Boston stuff — never mind.

***Not intended to be a factual statement.

Image:  Franz Marc, The Yellow Cow, 1911.

(Democratic) Party Like It’s 1936!

September 8, 2012

Two days now after President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, and the conventional wisdom among pundits has now pretty much set the narrative: OK, not great, overshadowed by Clinton and Michelle Obama.* [Warning, or perhaps merely, alert: both of those are Sully links.]

One frequent strand of criticism is that in the midst of the predicament that continues to bedevil the United States now in its fourth year or so of too damn many people out of work, Obama went small, talking incremental solutions in times that demand transformative policy.

David Brooks, for one, had a terrible sad immediately after Obama finished despite the obvious howling enthusiasm of those in the hall.** His first reaction, delivered with the kind of grey pallor you get when you’re still trying to grab your senses after being whacked in the gut, was swiftly echoed in the column he posted shortly thereafter:

But what I was mostly looking for were big proposals, big as health care was four years ago…At its base, this is a party with a protective agenda, not a change agenda — dedicated to defending government in all its forms…Worse, the speech was dominated by unexplained goals that were often worthy, but also familiar, modest and incommensurate with the problems at hand….The country that exists is not on the right track. It has a completely dysfunctional political system. What was there in this speech that will make us think the next few years will be any different? America will only be governable again if there is a leader who breaks the mold and reframes the debate. Romney is unlikely to do that, and Obama’s speech didn’t offer much either.

Leave aside the nonsense and the sleight of hand on display here and throughout this particular column.  Brooks has a genuine sense of disappointment because, as in the passage quoted above, he knows that Romney and the current Republican party is hopeless — and he loathes his fantasy of what Democrats actually aim to do (that “protective agenda” and “defending government in all its forms” BS).  In particular, he feels that in these terribly parlous times, we need audacity above all else — and that President Obama’s speech lacked the necessary vision to accompany what he concedes is this President’s impressive character. (Again, leave aside the question of what “audacity” got is into during the previous administraton

Well, all that — the general sense of disappointment at the lack of orgasmic moments in the speech plus Brooks (and others) seizing on the “too small for the times” meme made me think.   Is there any historical reference for what someone in such circumstance might say that would shed light on what Obama was trying — and in my view, successfully — to convey.

Why, yes there is.  Remember how so many speakers termed the Bush collapse and its consequences the most disastrous since the Great Depression?  Well, y’all may recall that we had a President elected to deal with the mess the Republicans had left him back then, and four years later, he had to make the case for re-election in times of economic hardship.  To be clear — Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal (or New Deals) had a major impact on the economy in his first term, during which unemployment fell from 25% to just over 14%.  You may note, however, that as the campaign in 1936 took place, that still represented a load of misery.  So what did he say to the 1936 Democratic National Convention?

This, from the amazing finish to FDR’s speech:

The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.

Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.

The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.

But the resolute enemy within our gates is ever ready to beat down our words unless in greater courage we will fight for them.

For more than three years we have fought for them. This Convention, in every word and deed, has pledged that that fight will go on.

The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our Government and of ourselves. Never since the early days of the New England town meeting have the affairs of Government been so widely discussed and so clearly appreciated. It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle.

We do not see faith, hope and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a Nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization.

Faith— in the soundness of democracy in the midst of dictatorships.

Hope—renewed because we know so well the progress we have made.

Charity— in the true spirit of that grand old word. For charity literally translated from the original means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.

We seek not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.

We are poor indeed if this Nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.

In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.

It is a sobering thing, my friends, to be a servant of this great cause. We try in our daily work to remember that the cause belongs not to us, but to the people. The standard is not in the hands of you and me alone. It is carried by America. We seek daily to profit from experience, to learn to do better as our task proceeds.

Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.

Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy.

I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.

I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war. [full text here]

Altered for changes in idiom, the oratorical style of the speakers, and the fact that the economic royalists that vex us so no longer concede even political freedom to those who have won it so recently and at such cost, and this maps onto to President Barack Obama’ s understanding of the task before us almost eerily perfectly.  Here’s his last few sentences:

If you reject the notion that this nation’s promise is reserved for the few, your voice must be heard in this election.

If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election.

If you believe that new plants and factories can dot our landscape, that new energy can power our future, that new schools can provide ladders of opportunity to this nation of dreamers, if you believe in a country where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same rules, then I need you to vote this November.

America, I never said this journey would be easy, and I won’t promise that now. Yes, our path is harder, but it leads to a better place.Yes, our road is longer, but we travel it together.

We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind.  We pull each other up.  We draw strength from our victories. And we learn from our mistakes. But we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.

Thank you, God bless you and God bless these United States.

Throughout his address, Roosevelt offered no grander vision than Obama’s, at least in part for the same reason:  he knew what needed to be done because he’d been doing it, even if the job wasn’t finished yet.  He understood, as does President Obama, and President Clinton, and Joe Biden and many, many others, that what’s in play this election is not change, but freedom — the question of whether that much abused word must be construed only in it’s narrowest sense, or in a way that actually enables members of a free society to act freely.  The alternative, as both Roosevelt and Obama warned, is that the opposing forces — those that in both 1936 and 2012 had presided over the disaster it was left to Democratic presidents to repair — get to reverse the unfinished business of creating a society both more just and materially successful?

The question answers itself — or should, and will, if we get the job done between now and November 6.

One last thought:  I usually ascribe to Brooks malign motives.  Here, while the usual writing to a preordained conclusion (Obama is too small for the office), I think this is less a rational act of dishonesty and much more a fundamental inability to hear what was being said.  If I’m right in the parallel I see between FDR and BHO, then there really is a radical claim being made, a demand that the economic oligarchs recognize and act on responsibility to society, and not just shareholders or individual self interest.  That’s the vision.  It’s not about policy; it’s about the template of human relations and obligations from which policy will flow.  And little Brooks — small in mind and emotional range — doesn’t seem able to process that thought.  Which is, in this one instance, more sad than evil.

*Not me, BTW.  Like a lot of folks, I thought the speech started at relatively low volume, and it may be that Obama took a moment to find the music in the words on the page.  But I thought the speech was intricately constructed and that on the night, it built beautifully to an unexpected climax:  that the choice isn’t simply between vampires and competent, if fallible, human beings, but between Hobbesian wolves and citizens, members of common enterprise, what the founders might have called our commonwealth. That is, Obama’s use of the word “citizens” over and over again seemed to me a moral exhortation, a call to do not simply what is necessary or rational or in some limited interest, but what is right for the polis of which he reminded us we are all members, citizens.  Damn fine speech writing and delivery if you ask me, which  you didn’t.  See Fallows for an interesting assessment of the speech, complete w. two reader emails that describe pretty much the speech I saw.

**That last section of the speech really was a grand example of using a sense of dynamics (in the musical  sense) to lead your audience to the emotional conclusion you want them to reach.  A textbook demonstration of applause surfing, as I think someone said on the night.

Images:  Titian, The Marquis of Vasto addressing his troops, 1540-1541.

Hendrik Gerritsz. Pot, The Miser, 1640s

David Brooks Is Always Wrong, Again–Both Sides Do It Edition/Tricky Dick Bonus Feature.

May 2, 2012

If I wrote for The New York Times it would piss me off beyond measure that I had to share type with David Brooks. I know from direct, personal conversation that actual Timesmen (or at least one of them) don’t feel that way — there’s a pervasive issue there with the self-conceit of a newsroom papacy with concommitant infallibility.  But still, it must gall on some deep level to know that all the hard work of doing actual journalism could get lumped in with the sloth and intellectual dishonesty of the newspaper business’s best two minute man.

Case in point: today’s Brooks keening that is almost a type specimen of the hackery.  It’s a perfect more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger column about the terrible nastiness of politics today (it wasn’t like that when honorable men walked the land!) that somehow manages to land on precisely the talking point the Romney campaign hopes will offer some cover for their candidate’s foreign policy and security weakness.

Let’s go to the videotape! (h/t Warner Wolf).  Brooks starts out by trotting out what appear to be casual, but are in fact carefully crafted assertions:

Maybe a campaign is like a courtship…Maybe a campaign is like a big version of “American Idol.”….Maybe, on the other hand, hiring a president is like hiring a plumber….You could make a case that most campaigns are a little of all three, though the proportions vary from year to year.

Study those phrases well, grasshoppers, for here you see one of Brooks’ standard tropes, and a measure of the skill he wields to much greater effect than lesser hacks like McArdle or his mini-me, Douthat.  What he’s written is mostly piffle, of course — but he has, as he usually does, inserted the crucial weasel words: “maybe…maybe…you could…are a little of…” Push him on any part of his claim here, and he can just pillsbury doughboy back into the “maybe nots” or the “perhaps you could make a different case…” and wobble on.

More important for his rhetorical aims, Brooks cleverly poses what appears to be an open ended list, which he then slams shut by declaring that “most [weasel again] campaigns are a little of all three.” What was a chain of musing suddenly becomes the ground of all that follows. He’s transformed assumptions into facts — his single most common stupid pundit trick — and we’re off to the races.

Up next, the pearl clutching:

So far, though, the 2012 presidential campaign is fitting into none of these categories. It’s being organized according to a different metaphor.

As an aside: Dear David:  Out here where most of us live, campaigns are organized in the material world, and this one now confronts corporations, metamorphosized into  people, along with crazed billionaires, dumping unlimited boluses of cash into the race.  The framing of political dispute in that context is not built on a metaphor; it is a direct response to an actual present, in-the-world circumstance. Just saying, you pretentious sack of wind.

But I digress…

This year, both organizations seem to visualize the campaign as a boxing match or a gang fight. Whichever side can hit the other side harder will somehow get awarded the champion’s belt.

So far this year, both President Obama and Mitt Romney seem more passionate about denying the other side victory than about any plank in their own agendas.

Another sidetrack:  Dear David:  I know that this will cause you pain, but I have to break it to you that campaign politics at this (or really any) level is actually about winning.  Denying your opponent victory is not an aesthetic choice.  It’s the goal.  Sorry, old tool.

But I digress…

Both campaigns have developed contempt for their opponent, justifying their belief that everything, then, is permitted.

Oh my! Mabel get my nitroglycerin! I do declare that I feel palpitations!

Both sides do it.  Of course!  How could I have been so blind?

In both campaigns, you can see the war-room mentality developing early. Attention spans shrink to a point. Gone is much awareness of the world outside the campaign. All focus is on the news blip of the moment — answering volley for volley.  If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they throw a bomb, you throw two.

Really?  First, again, it’s not exactly news to anyone who actual does politics that you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.  But anyone watching the actual Obama campaign claiming that they aren’t playing a long game as well as a short one isn’t paying attention.  In Brooks’ case, that means he’s willfully not doing so; he’s actively not-knowing anything that would confound his ability to depict his fantasy world. That’s what, in real journalism, we call failure. As for awareness of the world outside the campaign…let’s try to finish this screed before 0-dark-hundred and simply say that I haven’t noticed Obama ceasing to do his presidenting whilst kneecapping his eminently target-rich opponent.  Last I heard, walking whilst chewing gum is a requirement of the job.

Both sides are extraordinarily willing to flout respectability to show that they are tough enough to bare the knuckles.

Oh, Thank You Lord.

He actually just says it.  “Both sides…” do it.  It’s the one sure sign that points to the howler to come. For we know that in just about any dyadic relationship, both sides don’t do it in the same way, whatever it may be.  Given that it’s Brooks, we know that what’s about to come is a beauty of false equivalence.  Let’s see…

In November, the Romney campaign ran a blatantly dishonest ad in which President Obama purportedly admits that if the election is fought on the economy, he will lose. The quote was a distortion, but the effectiveness of the ad was in showing Republican professionals and primary voters that Romney was going to play by gangland rules, that he was tough enough and dishonest enough to do so, too.

Note two things:  Romney is. by Brooks own statement, a blatant liar.

See also that Brooks is a rather more subtle corrupter of the truth:  he claims that the point of the ad was to persuade Republicans that Romney is enough of a thug to be president.  I’ll grant him that, but this was hardly the only point of the Romney spot; rather, this ad is one of a series, still ongoing, trying to paint Obama as a failure as a steward of the economy.  To suggest that this was mere inside GOP baseball and hence, by dogwhistle implication, not quite a real lie, is itself a material distortion.

But remember:  Both Sides Do It!  So what was the Obama sin, equivalent to Romney’s out-and-out lie?

Last week, the Obama campaign ran a cheap-shot ad on the death of Osama bin Laden. Part of the ad was Bill Clinton effectively talking about the decision to kill the terrorist. But, in the middle, the Obama people threw in a low-minded attack on Romney.

That would have been this ad:

This,  Mr. Brooks, is what Harry Truman meant when he said that he didn’t give the Republicans hell, he  just told the truth and they think it’s hell.

It is a fact that Obama made the final decision and gave the order to attack bin Laden.  It is true, as President Clinton says in the piece, that we hire our presidents to make exactly this kind of hard choice. It is true that Romney publicly suggested that this was not a high priority goal of his, and that it was not something he would necessarily do.  The record isn’t obscure or controversial here.

And it is just as true that this is a campaign.  We’re in the midst of making a choice presented to American voters as to which of two men we wish to take on such difficult tasks.  Directly comparing one record to another is not just an ordinary feature of any campaign; it’s essential. There’ nothing “low-minded” about pointing out that Obama did one thing, while Romney had indicated he would not.

Plus, of course, there’s that deeper problem:

Brooks himself admits Romney is a liar. Brooks himself acknowledges, in effect, that the Obama piece is accurate.  He just doesn’t like it.  So he lies himself, and says the two acts — lying, and presenting a  factually supported argument that caused Brooks pain — are the same.

It’s just a coincidence, of course, that this false equivalence falls directly into line with what has become the chorus-line GOP response to the embarrassing truth that Obama pursued and caught  bin Laden where Bush did not and Romney — taking W. Mitt at his word* — would not have done.

I admit that there isn’t much else available to the political hacks trying to prop up the kind of mendacious and unqualified candidate presented to them in the person of the failed one-term governor of Massachusetts.  But Brooks’ problem, and that of everyone who gets a byline at his shop, is that if you lie down too often with the hogs, it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference in between one mammal and the next in the wallow.

PS:  I realize I never actually got to the Nixon howler up top of the column.  Basically, Brooks claims that Nixon ran as a plumber (and yes, he made that joke) … the guy who would come in and fix stuff.  I guess Brooks has forgotten about the Southern Strategy and the “secret plan to end the war.”  Ah well.

*A high risk proposition, I’ll concede.

Image:  Leonardo da Vinci, Lady With an Ermine, c. 1490

 

 

Because Soshalism, That’s Why!

August 31, 2011

Further evidence of the Kenyan Mooslim’s utter failure to grasp the essentials of free market economics.

Bonus flashback [Huffpo link]:

On the auto bailout, despite GM going public last week and sending billions of dollars back to taxpayers, Perry still insisted that it wasn’t successful and said the federal government shouldn’t be involved in private sector growth.

Double bonus flashback:

In 2009, Mr. Romney said Mr. Obama’s plans for rescuing the automobile industry were “tragic” and “a very sad circumstance for this country.”

Of course, this being Romney, he now says that this tragic idea was really his in the first place, which contortion is one of many reasons that Rick Perry is the most likely GOP nominee.

Image:  Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Pulcinella and the Tumblers,  1797.

Send in the Clowns

August 22, 2011

It’s the end game in Tripoli.

From the Guardian’s live feed on events there:

10.45pm: Libyan rebels are now within two miles of the centre of Tripoli, AP reports…

…and this:

11.04pm: Al Jazeera is reporting that two of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif al-Islam and Al-Saadi, have been arrested and another son, Muhammad, has surrendered.

And so on.  All, as commenter Jenny points out in the last thread, without a single US casualty.

Which means that there are some folks who have some ‘splainin’ to do.  Republican folks.  Would-be presidents.  E.g:

Romney (to Hugh Hewitt, March 21, 2011):

America has been feared sometimes, has been respected, but today, that America is seen as being weak.

We’re following the French into Libya.

I appreciate the fact that others are participating in this effort, but I think we look to America to be the leader of the world. You know, the cause of liberty can endure the mistakes that are inevitable consequences of human fallibility. But liberty’s standard can’t prevail if it’s not proudly, decisively and consistently held aloft.

Bachmann, March 30, 2011:

The Minnesota Republican, who’s weighing a run for president in 2012, said had she been in the Oval Office and faced with the choice of intervening militarily in Libya, “I would not have gone in.”

Bachmann, April 16, 2011 (warning:  Politico link):

Michele Bachmann laced into President Barack Obama at a South Carolina tea party rally Saturday, saying his decision to take military action in Libya was “foolish” and that he’s “not on our side anymore.”

Pawlenty, March 29, 2011:

President Obama’s “timid” response to the crisis in Libya made it more difficult to remove Moammar Kadafi from power, former Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty charged Tuesday.

Pawlenty, who became the first top-flight Republican to form a presidential exploratory committee last week, said that he supported the U.S. airstrikes against the Libyan dictator, but would have acted sooner when rebel forces had “substantial momentum.”

“Now we’re in this position of having the president of the United States saying Kadafi must go, but we’re not going to necessarily make him go. And that’s untenable,” he said.

(I know that he’s out now — but Pawlenty was still a semi-seriously-taken candidate at the time.)

Rick Santorum (I know, I know…but just for giggles) winning the flip-flop award on March 20, 2011 (warning, another Politico link):

Flip: Santorum led the way among GOP presidential hopefuls in calling for airstrikes on Libya. He invoked Ronald Reagan’s 1986 bombing campaign against military targets in Libya, ordered as retaliation for an attack on a West Berlin nightclub that killed two American servicemen masterminded by the Libyan secret service.

“If you want to be Reaganesque, it seems the path is pretty clear,” he told an Iowa radio station earlier this month.

Flop:  But in a Sunday phone interview from his backyard in Pennsylvania, Santorum said that action made more sense 12 days ago because it looked like “a little nudge and a push” from the United States could tip the scale for the rebels. He’s upset that the U.S. has not been insistent on regime change and faulted the administration for making the comment that it was time for Qadhafi to give up power without continuing to insist on that over the weekend….

The former senator speculated that Obama might have only agreed to go along with the military option under pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“He’s not decisive,” Santorum said of Obama. “He’s being the military for the [United Nations]. The French were the first ones out there. He’s following the lead.”

Backflip:  He expressed fear that rebels inside Libya may not be friendly to the United States.

“Maybe folks have better intel, but I’m not confident I know what the makeup of the rebels are,” he said. “From everything I’ve seen reported, we don’t know that.”

Ooops: And he raised the specter that Qadhafi could survive because of Obama’s early indecisiveness, which would mean potential retaliation against the U.S.

“Under any score, I don’t know how you could play this worse than this president has,” he said…

Except, just to reprise the thought with which we began:

TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebels surged into the Libyan capital Sunday night, meeting little resistance from troops loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and setting off raucous street celebrations by residents hailing the end of his 42 years in power.

And so on.  All, as commenter Jenny points out in the last thread, without a single US casualty.

You can, and many have and will, argue hard about the merits of US action in Libya, or inaction in Syria.* But if you are a Republican — or an actually sane American, for that matter — who believes in both a robust and effective foreign policy, there is not a single clown seeking your vote on the GOP side who would seem to merit your trust.

That community organizer in the White House, though?  Unlike the all-hat-no-cattle types we are increasingly seeing over there, he may take his time, but he does seem to get his man.

Should make for interesting cognitive dissonance over on the dark side. Recall that Qaddafi outlasted Reagan and both Bushes.  Then consider that the chief alternative to crediting Obama’s administration for the crucial support that has enabled the Libyans to come to the point of ending that miserable reign is to praise — wait for it — the French…

…and you have what some might call a jalapeño suppository up your philosophical fundament.

Wouldn’t you say?

*That said, I’m betting Assad is getting a little nervous, just now.  Obama has finally called for his exit, and, as has been demonstrated again, this President may grind slowly, but he seems to do so with a certain…how to say it?…emphasis.

Image: Ernst Ludwig Kirshner, Two acrobats – sculpture, 1932-33.

Social Security: Undead

July 8, 2011

Per John and ABL yesterday, this:

Rep. Barney Frank says Minority Leader Pelosi reassured House Democrats that the COLA change (which amounts to escalating cuts to Social Security over time) floated in the press will not happen.

Democrats are far from perfect, still waaay to naive about GOPer feral behavior, and all that, but they aren’t bone stupid — certainly not of the balanced budget amendment/weeks-wages-in-wine-swilling variety.  They know (from recent, bitter experience — remember that 1/2 trillion buck Medicare “cut” that was actually simply an end to the transfer payments to private insurers) that there is a reason entitlement support, and especially Social Security, is called the “third rail” of politics.  One that the Republicans seem determined to lick.

I’m coming to something of an eleven dimensional chess explanation for Obama’s current behavior — which is to me very scary, because even if you win the game, when you play with clout-foreheaded louts, the inevitable smashing of the board is a real loss.  And maybe I’m wrong, and this isn’t clever strategy at all, and Obama really is trying to solve a problem I don’t think is the one we actually face in his global attempt to reframe the US budget.  But I’m with ABL and John:  there’s enough to be angry about in the world before blowing skull shrapnel all over the ceiling about some disaster that hasn’t happened yet.

Oh — and it looks like one of the most cynical and disastrous politicians of my lifetime is finally waking up and smelling the coffee.  Too late, I fear.

Image:  J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed-The Great Western Railway, 1844


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