Previous to the elevation of Pope Obama I to the throne of St. George, ideological battles were marked by some pretty tough accusations being flung by the right against the hard left. Among the charges were that the hard left was actually praying for failure in Iraq as well as hoping for an economic downturn, believing that this would bring them electoral success.
I know this was a widespread meme on the right because I wrote similar stuff myself. Was it true? On some level, I’m sure it was. The almost gleeful portrayal of our struggles in Iraq - dwelling obsessively on whatever negative news was coming out of that bloody country at the expense of the small steps being taken in the right direction marked most hard left blogs as being uninterested in presenting a balanced and realistic view of the war to their readers but rather a partisan, hateful, picture that included George Bush as a horned devil, our servicemen as barbarians, and Republicans as bloodthirsty war mongers.
There was also a celebratory mood on hard left blogs whenever some piece of dire economic news hit the wires. The belief that the Republicans would be brought down only through failure and tragedy was widespread on the left and even some of the less radical liberal sites were not immune from advancing this theme.
Not that much has changed today: Except, the accusations are now coming from the other side:
It occurred to me while reading Politico’s interview with Dick Cheney, that the GOP’s plan to regain political viability in the short term rests on two disaster scenarios: the failure of the financial rescue efforts (stimulus, TARP, and other bailouts) to stave off complete economic collapse and a new mass casualty terrorist attack — both of which they are positioning themselves to blame Obama for.
Without one of those two, they have to figure it’s going to be a long time wandering in the political wilderness. Now think about the curdling effect, the blight on the soul that comes with rooting for such disasters to befall your country. The rot is now eating at the party’s very core.
The more things change…
As proof that there is so little original thinking on both sides that arguments over policy can be interchangeable with minimal substituting, here is Elana Schor writing at Josh Marshall’s TPMDC on charges made by the right that Obama will “cut” defense spending:
The short answer is no. But conservative columnist Tony Blankley still does his part today to flog an already tired line of faux-skepticism about the Obama administration’s alleged plans to “cut” defense spending in the upcoming budget.
Blankley claims that while total Pentagon spending for next year is in line for an 8% increase, the wild card of continuing Iraq and Afghanistan expenses raises the specter of a defense cut under Obama. It’s almost as if he hasn’t been keeping up with TPM alum Spencer Ackerman, who demolished this talking point as hogwash two days ago.
(Robert Kagan was the first right-leaning pundit out of the gate on this one.)
The tale is a simple one: Pentagon officials, aiming to start budget negotiations from a wildly advantageous point, submitted a spending estimate that wasn’t completely vetted by the departing Bush administration. The Obama folks knocked the number down to a more realistic number — that still reflects a higher military budget.
Sound familiar? Substitute the words “food stamps” for “military spending” and you have the exact same argument being made by Republicans when Democrats accuse them of trying to force the poor to live in the street and eat dog food. “Spending is going up in actual dollars. It’s only the projected increase that is being cut,” was the conservative defense of the meaningless reductions in projected outlays for social programs from Reagan through Bush 43.
It’s eerie, isn’t it? Now that the world has been turned upsisde down and “bottom rail is on the top,” there has been an almost seamless transition to both sides using the same arguments their opponents used in previous years over the same or similar issues. It’s even weirder that the towering irony of the whole thing has gone over the heads of both sides without even musing their hair.
Now, I can be as partisan as the next blogger when the situation calls for it so it’s not like I am washing my hands of responsibility in the matter. I can play the game as well or better than any lefty out there. But besides the bodaciously delicious irony of the whole thing, there is a troubling revelation that needs to be discussed; the paucity of ideas and lack of original thought by both sides in debate over the weighty issues of the day.
Political debate - or what passes for debate in this world of media talking points and one line zingers - accomplishes nothing today. It isn’t just the rancorous partisanship that prevents a serious discussion of the weighty problems that confront us. It is the failure of the political class to project their ideas outside of the extremely superficial and predictable framework of simple minded ideology that has us talking past one another instead of communicating back and forth. There is no effort to stand for a while in our opponent’s shoes or even examine an issue for points of commonality upon which any compromise is to be based.
At bottom, this is a failure of imagination. No one is asking either side to abandon principles or betray one’s party. But what real political debate accomplishes is that both sides must constantly re-examine and justify their positions, bringing fresh insight to bear that might lead to a closing of the gap between the two sides and form the beginnings of a political understanding.
As superficial and half hearted as it has appeared to me, President Obama should still be commended for reaching out to Republicans on his stimulus bill. I think it is not enough but is that his fault? He seems constrained by his own base who view any outreach effort as both a waste of time and dangerously naive. But what Obama appeared to be doing was trying to alter the framework of ideology that grips both parties and makes our politics so poisonously partisan. He opened the door - with the chain still on to be sure - not to give in, not to dictate, but to listen. It seems such a small thing but in the end, it forced him to rethink his own position on the bill and find additional justifications for it. It was a political act that served a higher purpose.
Did it do any good at all? Republicans have their own base to worry about and clearly, there will be little or no middle ground to be found on the stimulus bill. Nor should there be. It would take a great leader to abandon what has been crafted by the president’s allies in Congress and start over. What the Democrats are doing with the stimulus is actually proposing 4 or 5 bills that have been combined for reasons not having to do with legislative logic or stimulating job growth but because the president feels he can leverage his enormous popularity to pass items unrelated to jumpstarting the economy and because those unrelated items would have a hard time being made into law at a later date. The president is using this primal legislative thrust of the stimulus to make an end run around not only the GOP but the American people as well.
But the bill is out there and Obama is committed. And when a president invests as much in something as Obama has invested in the stimulus, he will do everything in his considerable power to pass it. It may end up being an exercise in partisanship but he can’t worry about that now. His credibility as a leader is on the line and any stumble so soon out of the box - as Carter’s stumbles on energy during his first months - could doom his presidency to irrelevancy.
So despite a manful effort to force the GOP to rethink their position on the stimulus, in the end Obama is trapped by history and his own needs as a leader. It will be interesting to see how the president reaches out to Republicans in the future. Will this experience have soured him on the whole idea of “post partisanship?” Or will he gamely make the effort on future issues like health care and card check?
That will depend on how much he really believes that he can change the tone and tenor of debate and get the two sides to listen to one another.