Sunday, December 20, 2015
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
"A Goddamned Murder Incorporated!"*The New York Times, 4/6/2013, A Secret Deal on Drones, Sealed in Blood:
The Predator had been considered a blunt and unsophisticated killing tool, and many at the C.I.A. were glad that the agency had gotten out of the assassination business long ago. Three years before Mr. Muhammad’s death, and one year before the C.I.A. carried out its first targeted killing outside a war zone — in Yemen in 2002 — a debate raged over the legality and morality of using drones to kill suspected terrorists. A new generation of C.I.A. officers had ascended to leadership positions, having joined the agency after the 1975 Congressional committee led by Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, which revealed extensive C.I.A. plots to kill foreign leaders, and President Gerald Ford’s subsequent ban on assassinations. The rise to power of this post-Church generation had a direct impact on the type of clandestine operations the C.I.A. chose to conduct. The debate pitted a group of senior officers at the Counterterrorism Center against James L. Pavitt, the head of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service, and others who worried about the repercussions of the agency’s getting back into assassinations. Mr. Tenet told the 9/11 commission that he was not sure that a spy agency should be flying armed drones. John E. McLaughlin, then the C.I.A.’s deputy director, who the 9/11 commission reported had raised concerns about the C.I.A.’s being in charge of the Predator, said: “You can’t underestimate the cultural change that comes with gaining lethal authority. “When people say to me, ‘It’s not a big deal,’ ” he said, “I say to them, ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ “It is a big deal. You start thinking about things differently,” he added. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, these concerns about the use of the C.I.A. to kill were quickly swept side.The American Prospect, 11/5/2001, "Back to Church"
In the wake of September 11.....The hawks have flung blame all around for the massive intelligence failure that permitted the September attacks, targeting Bill Clinton, CIA Director George Tenet, and the defenseless Frank Church. September 11 was Church's fault, these critics explain, because his bipartisan committee--which probed not just CIA assassination plots but covert operations, domestic-mail-intercept programs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's hounding of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other abuses--broke the spirit of the nation's intelligence community by exposing its embarrassing missteps. The Church bashing began the day of the World Trade Center massacre on ABC, when former Secretary of State James Baker said that Church's hearings had caused us to "unilaterally disarm in terms of our intelligence capabilities." The allegation was soon repeated by Republican Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri and numerous conservative commentators. The Wall Street Journal editorial page called the opening of Church's public hearings "the moment that our nation moved from an intelligence to anti-intelligence footing." And the spy-mongering novelist Tom Clancy attacked Church on Fox News's O'Reilly Factor: "The CIA was gutted by people on the political left who don't like intelligence operations," he said. "And as a result of that, as an indirect result of that, we've lost 5,000 citizens last week."It was James Baker's performance, which I caught live that day, that snapped me out of stupor and back into an even deeper cynicism of the Bush administration than I'd held after the stolen 2000 election. I knew then that whatever they did post 9/11 in military retaliation (and political retaliation at home) would be in massive bad faith. I'm not saying I'm awesome or especially prescient; I didn't predict an invasion of Iraq, didn't predict Skynet flying over Pakistan, nor, indeed, did I predict a Democratic successor running with the same bullshit into the next decade.
9/11 allowed a relatively easy repeal of every post-Watergate protection against unhinged executive power, plus some. Torture, assassination, flying robotic death squads are a result of Power winning the pot; Baker's little comment was the first 'tell' of what sort of cards Power would be playing.
*Supposedly uttered by a dumbfounded LBJ when informed of the Kennedy boys' many cloak-and-dagger operations in Latin America.
Saturday, March 02, 2013
Ammo For GlennzillaGlenn Greenwald sez:
I'm currently writing a book on how media outlets constrict the range of political debate, using (in part) the marginalization of Chomsky as a window into how that works.MOAR like an Overton Window into how that works, amirite? A semi-revealing quote from Howie the Putz's self-serving, wingnut-petting tome Hot Air: All Talk, All The Time:
"Mike looks absurd saying 'from the left' every night," says Christopher Hitchens. "It's hypocritical on the part of both him and the network." Kinsley concedes that he does not uphold the liberal banner the way [Pat] Buchanan champions conservatism. In fact, he calls himself "a wishy-washy moderate." But he insists it's not necessarily bad for liberalism that he is less ideological than his right-wing counterpart. "Certainly real hard-core, left-wing opinions don't get on Crossfire, just as they don't get on other shows," he says. "This is partly because a reflection of the range of American political debate, from extreme right to moderate left. And it's partly a knee-jerk reaction by television producers."Further context and citation at the link; I'm not gonna paste and re-paste my own stuff lest I become a boring self-quotation machine like the inexplicably admired ex-Randroid Arthur Silber. Also, Glenn might want to check on concentration camp-enthusiast Josh Trevino's hilarious notion of what is and is not a proper representative of the left in the media or, indeed, anywhere in decent society.
Friday, March 01, 2013
2002 Was A Neocon-SensibleLiberal HellBack in the old days, TAPped posts were unsigned; the following is typical of the site and the era:
December 02, 2002 WHO IS THE LEFT? REDUX. We here at Tapped often complain about the way in which certain figures and groups -- World Bank protestors, Noam Chomsky, etc. -- are cast, in the debates over war, terrorism, trade and justice, as an entire side in the debate. This discussion between Katha Pollitt and Christopher Hitchens, stemming from this Pollitt column calling Hitchens on doing just that, is well worth the read but also unintentionally revealing. We praised Pollitt's column at the time, but in this debate, she and Hitchens are still arguing over who gets to play the irrelevant left-liberal. Hitchens makes the same mistake as ever, citing Ramsey Clark, Alexander Cockburn, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Michael Moore and others as "the left." (This particular "left" is as small as the right suspects.) But even Pollitt, in her otherwise eloquent response, cites Tony Kushner, Patricia Williams, Marc Cooper and Ellen Willis as the real, credible liberals with whom Hitchens should be crossing swords. We don't have much of a problem with any of these folks. But if Pollitt is right, then liberal politics is indeed relegated, as conservatives insist, to a ghetto of radical academics, novelists, filmmakers and polemicists. Not to be snotty, but the men and women who shape policy and politics -- and, thus, people's lives -- in America don't care much about what Hitchens' and Politt's "left" have to say. (The fact that those who run the country don't take the left seriously is, sadly, a point of pride among too many progressives.) Yet there is a credible left -- those on "the left wing of the possible" who have engaged the political process and seek to influence real policy. Eric Alterman has a good list of them here. Posted at 03:25 PM
Friday, September 10, 2010
Everything's WrongBuried within an important story about the Fourth Amendment's further spiral down the toilet is this perhaps more important story -- or rather, the start of one:
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, who dissented from this month's decision refusing to reconsider the case, pointed out whose homes are not open to strangers: rich people's. The court's ruling, he said, means that people who protect their homes with electric gates, fences and security booths have a large protected zone of privacy around their homes. People who cannot afford such barriers have to put up with the government sneaking around at night.
Judge Kozinski is a leading conservative, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, but in his dissent he came across as a raging liberal. "There's been much talk about diversity on the bench, but there's one kind of diversity that doesn't exist," he wrote. "No truly poor people are appointed as federal judges, or as state judges for that matter." The judges in the majority, he charged, were guilty of "cultural elitism."
Neither are any truly poor people put forth for political office, nor are any poor people likely to be journalists, professional activists, political delegates, academics, or... indeed, BLOGGERS (hence the sadly few but righteous sneers at the "creative class" in 2008, and the many hysterical reactions thereto). The power and information structure of this country -- or, more to my point, the portion of society which has historical claim to looking after the interests of the poor -- is now totally incapable of advancing the agenda of the poor and working classes. This is why the Democratic Party is hostile to populism, and the Republican Party (especially its Tea Party adjunct) is careful to use it only cynically, in thorough bad faith. Or put another way:
The real message....is not that the rich have become liberal. It's that American liberalism itself no longer feels the need to espouse an economic agenda that is decidedly different from that espoused by conservatives. Economics has been surgically removed from the realm of politics and transplanted into a technocratic robot that is run by the Federal Reserve and its acolytes. At least for the time being, most liberal politicians don't seem to miss it.
Populism is boxed and the poor, working, and (now, increasingly,) middle classes will continue to be shafted by the supposed "Working Man's Party", the Obama Administration, the liberal intelligentsia [sic], the activist organizations, and the blogosphere because the Democratic base refuses to hold people accountable -- by which I mean, it refuses to fire, shun, abandon, or "purge" the very same elements that have abused it for so long.
What to do? Well, unless you're comfy class cultural elitist, emigration's probably not a possibility. But there are alternatives, no doubt futile but perhaps worth something and I don't mean for spite value: Primary Obama. Vote Green -- or whatever left third party you're able to. Divert whatever resources possible from orgs that advance social liberal agendas to those that emphasize leftwing economic solutions and the class issue, and if you catch any shit for that from the cultural elitists remind them that the first best way to solve the "isms" everyone cares about (but they monomaniacally) is to stop pissing on the poor whose "culturally retrograde" element (a minority they take care to mistake for the whole) they fear and loathe so much that they elevate it above every other concern; for instance, support unions. Complain to editors and producers about wingnut and Sensible Liberal pundits and writers. Stop advancing the careers and prestige of bloggers who have demonstrated a pattern of hostility to the left -- a rule of thumb would be anyone who supported the Iraq War and anyone who critiques populism from the right (incidentally, these are often the same people, isn't that right, Matty Yglesias?); also, anyone who reaches immediately for the fallacy of undistributed middle -- iow, who characterizes your aim of accountability as an urge for purity control, or anyone who characterizes a left-of-neoliberal economic agenda as "communist".
And then there is this, which a desperate populist might strategically support, at least as a bluff. For years now, the politically liberal branch of Academe has made common cause with the Wealthy Criminal Class, both consciously and literally (in the sense of economics departments) and unknowingly and figuratively (in the sense of sneering at the working class's cultural tastes -- or alleged lack thereof, and in the sense of fearing and loathing the working class's social conservatism). Tenure is middle class welfare. Since so many tenured "liberals" have, for reasons of culture or reasons of economic wingnuttery, helped the right wing destroy the the social safety net, it's only fitting that the poor, who have been paying the price, should return the favor: "You supported taking away my welfare, now I'll support taking away yours."
Eat It, Brad DeLong*IOZ is articulate on a subject near and dear to me:
Every farmer I've known, and there are a lot of them in Western PA, has loved farming and sacrificed greatly in order to keep farming despite the best efforts of state-subsidized industrial agriculture to deprive them of their vocation. The idea that families gave up their farms because "manual agricultural labor sucks" is laughable. The fact that your evidence of this is dubious publicity stunt designed to highlight the no-duh truth that people habituated to a certain level of income will refuse to work rather than accept work paying them too far below their accustomed wage is indicative that you don't know what the fuck you're talking about. The whole sordid history of neoliberal intervention in the "developing world" is the decimation of subsistence economies, in which peoples produce locally most of what they need (subsistence doesn't necessitate "poverty," except to Nice Liberals and World Bank officials), via economic, environmental, and actual warfare, and the subsequent forced replacement of self-provision with economies of consumtion, in which people leave "manual agricultural work" for the sweat shop and the rural farm for the urban slum. The idea that you chalk these things up to individual choice rather than appreciating how they are necessitated by political and economic context only displays that it is you who holds the romantic notions, and the fact that any fifth-grader with a half-read copy of his Steinbeck can see the glaring flaws at the heart of the notion that agriculture stinks and it's great to get people off the farm and on the road ought to embarrass you.
*By Brad DeLong I do mean the personally decent but ideologically execrable blogger/economist/free trade-enthusiast. But I also use "Brad DeLong" as an ankle-biting (at least to him, I hope) synecdoche to personify the type of cultural elitist Democrat whose "libertarianism with a human face" political economy, ethnocentrism (hypocritical at that: they love to accuse non-fans of their preferred policies of bigotry to the third worlders those policies make miserable but allegedly more wealthy), relative wealth (by which I mean personal insulation to the economic stresses their preferred policies have put on their less-fortunate countrymen) and total intolerance of anyone to their political left has, due to this type's total hegemony among the Democratic Party, utterly destroyed its ability to pursue the populist agenda needed to restore this country.
Why does the Democratic Party in general and the Obama Administration in particular suck? "Brad DeLong"!
Why has "social democracy" been so dumbed-down that it now means little more policy-wise than a progressive income tax and increased education spending? "Brad DeLong"!
Why does America not make anything any more? "Brad DeLong"!
How did the terms "leftist" and "liberal" get so diluted that they now mean, basically, "anyone who isn't a bigot -- at least, based on gender, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation; beating up the lower classes is okey-dokey -- and who also agrees with the no-duh fact that Donald Luskin and Jonah Goldberg are stupid fucking idiots"? "Brad DeLong"!
Why does the Democratic elite constantly kick the Democratic base in the teeth? "Brad DeLong"! Why does it politically kiss the collective ass of the Wealthy Criminal Class at every opportunity? "Brad DeLong"! Why does it constantly search for a "good faith" opponent on the right with whom it can compromise -- or to whom it can cave -- but at the same time demonize, stonewall, or betray everyone to its left? "Brad DeLong"!
Why are desperate immigrants from Latin America pouring into our country? What happened to their countries' economies? "Brad DeLong"!
Why are western companies moving their manufacturing base to China where goods are made in working conditions somewhere between those of 19th century Dickensian squalor, the Gulag, and some Nineteen Eighty-Four nightmare? "Brad DeLong"! Have you seen the pollution in China? What kind of ecocidal nutbag would want to help export our basest model of production and consumption, the most wasteful on Earth, to a country of two billion people? "Brad DeLong"!
Why is 2010 gonna be a disaster for the Democrats? "Brad DeLong"! Why is the Tea Party able to gain the sympathy of so many economically-shafted Americans whose welfare it obviously will not improve? "Brad DeLong"!
Monday, August 30, 2010
A Loser's Game
Baseball players deal with strife in odd – and terrifying – ways. One potential Hall of Famer told me recently that when he’s in a slump, he dreams of himself swinging a bat underwater and flailing about until he drowns. Though [Paul] Konerko’s mental anguish never reached that extreme, his nadir two years ago forced him to confront the reality so many never can: He’s going to fail 70 percent of the time, and he’d better figure out a constructive way to do it.
“There’s so much failure in this game,” Konerko said. “Getting too high isn’t a problem for most guys. Getting too low can be. It was for me. It’s been an ongoing battle. For a good couple years, I’ve been more rational how I view the negatives, the failures, and that’s only helped me get better. You kind of get tired of beating yourself up.
But it's natural to do so.
The "Fail Even When You Succeed" aspect of baseball is what gives it poetry. It's also what draws wretches -- players and spectators. It's why, as Deion Sanders shrewdly noted, there are so many alcoholics who are lifers in the sport.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
George Soros As A Bedwetting Retard's Version Of Ernst Stavro BlofeldScott, the supposedly more sane one of the three Powertools, fap-blurbs a spy novel written by something called Michael Walsh, who, it turns out, is one of the many wingnuts stuffed into Andrew Breitbart's internet clown car. Check out this description of the novel's villain:
As in Hostile Intent, Devlin's principal opponent is the shadowy, reclusive international financier, Emanuel Skorzeny, a German-born billionaire who harbors an enormous animus against western civilization, in part occasioned by his own morally complex past. Skorzeny despises the west for what he views as its terminal cultural weakness, and believes that society is no longer worthy of the great cultural treasures earlier generations of have bequeathed it. Although he has dedicated his life to making money, riches are not an end in themselves, but a means to a larger end: the euthanization of the west.
Naturally, the book is dedicated to the "brave...men and women...whom we put on the front lines of a shadow war that dare not even speak its name, and the enormous personal sacrifices - including the ultimate sacrifice - that they must make in order to defend us". Double lulz!
Holding Zhdanovian hackery -- of any variety, wingnut or "leftist"* -- in absolute contempt, I totally applaud this attempt at wingnut "literature". I'm thinking: Tom Clancy, with even worse prose but less masturbatory arms-technophilia mixed with a sort of late period Dos Passos sensibility. In other words: part Get Off My Lawn, part jock-sniffing, part Liberals Are Traitors.
A possible passage from the text:
Devlin, who used to battle the enemy at freedompundit.blogspot.com, now had the very enemy at his mercy; and in a race with a for real ticking timebomb, heroically used a XK-7 technique to extract valuable information which he was certain was legal no matter what the filthy traitors back home said, the stupid pussies.
"WHooo are you??" Skorzeny wailed in terror.
"Harvey --uh, Manfred...jen..sen...den," Devlin heroically replied with the quick wit he'd sharpened to a razor-edge from years of snarking at communist negroes on his blog. Then he methodically attached the electrodes to various pain-points on Skorzeny's withered body, the genitals, the hooked nose..."
"Jesus' will be done," Devlin silently reassured himself. As an afterthought, all the while fighting the distraction, he added: "Someday, if I and fellow thankless freedom fighters do jobs like this right, I'll be able to say that outloud, in America, without a liberal persecuting me for it!" He pulled the switch...
Hey, that's entertainment!
*Srsly. Read that link. I have never seen a more enthusiastic avowal of Aesthetic Stalinism in my fucking life. Also, too: an obvious irony in all this. The scarequotes are around "leftist" because these people wouldn't know socialism -- which, among other things, implores one to not think with one's blood (i.e. selfish or groupuscular "identity") but with one's class -- if it were somehow served to them as a chocolate gravy cheeseburger doughnut. Yet, of course, they are identical to the historically worst sort of socialists in their means, which is not due to design so much as to their stupidity and a weird sort of convergent evolution but still: isn't it weird to find self-identified liberals or leftists gleefully adopting a trait of the darkest form of socialism and it not be its at least theoretical advancement of the working class?
Adding: Am I being unfair? Am I just out to hurt someone's precious feely-feels? No. Search "The Simpsons" -- as in, the TV show -- in that site, then gasp in awe at their consistency-in-the-Emersonian-sense. Then compare that attitude to the similarly butthurt, similarly philistine nutjobs at Bozell's NewsBusters and, discounting for ideology, get a micrometer to measure the difference. Aesthetic Stalinists, I tell you.
Added: fixed some stuff. Also, also, too: yes, hellholes.
For Later Citation[FAIR USE and that that]
Pasting some passages from John Judis's "The Unnecessary Fall", an excellent piece even though published by the most useless rag in all of "liberal" journalism:
In the United States, politics pivots around the allegiance of the middle class, even as its identity has changed from yeoman farmers and mechanics to store clerks, office workers, x-ray technicians, and small business owners. They are, in Bill Clinton’s words, “those who work hard and play by the rules.” They are the central characters in a populist rhetoric that goes back to the early republic. It depicts the middle class as embattled and threatened either from forces below (impoverished immigrants, welfare cheaters, ghetto rioters) or above (Wall Street speculators, state bureaucrats, K Street lobbyists). Populism can be embraced by Glenn Beck or Tom Harkin. It is intrinsically neither left-wing nor right-wing.
Politicians, such as Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, who found a way of using populism’s appeal during downturns have enjoyed success, while those who have spurned it have suffered accordingly. If, in circumstances like the present one, you don’t develop a populist politics, your adversaries will use populism to define you as an enemy of the people. That’s what Carter discovered during the stagflation of the late ’70s. And that’s what has happened in the last 20 months of the Great Recession to Barack Obama and to the Democratic Party he leads.
Obama took office with widespread popular support, even among Republicans, and some of his first efforts, including the $800 billion stimulus, initially enjoyed strong public favor. But that wide appeal began to dissipate by the late spring of 2009. Disillusion with Obama fueled the November defeat of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. By January 2010, it was a crucial factor in Republican Scott Brown’s astonishing victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts.
In the postmortem debate over these defeats, some Democrats have blamed Obama’s dogged pursuit of health care reform while the economy was hemorrhaging jobs. That may have been a factor, but the real damage was done earlier. What doomed Obama politically was the way he dealt with the financial crisis in the first six months of his presidency. In an atmosphere primed for a populist backlash, he allowed the right wing to define the terms.
As Obama was delivering his inaugural address, the financial crisis was already in full swing; and it was already apparent that financial speculation, outright fraud, and irresponsible and sometimes illegal housing-loan practices had played a very large role in precipitating the crisis. The public was up in arms. But, instead of rallying the public against the “money changers,” as Roosevelt had done in his first inaugural, Obama, taking a leaf from Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech, put the blame on the public as a whole. “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age,” he declared.
Over the next month, Obama would periodically criticize bankers after embarrassing revelations–at various times calling the bonuses they gave themselves “shameful” and an “outrage”–but, after hearing complaints about his rhetoric from the bankers, he would back off. At a private meeting on March 28 with 13 Wall Street CEOs, the president, his spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “emphasized that Wall Street needs Main Street and Main Street needs Wall Street.” And, in his Georgetown speech, Obama returned to his theme of collective responsibility. The recession, Obama said, “was caused by a perfect storm of irresponsibility and poor decision-making that stretched from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street.”
Obama’s policy followed the same swerving course as his rhetoric. One week, he would favor harsh restrictions on bank and insurance-company bonuses, but, the next week, he would waver; one week, he would support legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce the amount that homeowners threatened with foreclosure owed the banks; the next week, he would fail to protest when bank lobbyists pressured the Senate to kill these provisions. But, more importantly, Obama–in sharp contrast to Roosevelt in his first months–failed to push Congress to immediately enact new financial regulations or even to set up a commission to investigate fraud. (When Congress finally appointed a commission in July 2009, Obama and his party put a milquetoast Democratic politician, former California State Treasurer Philip Angelides, in charge of it.)
Obama’s appointments also conveyed an impression that he wanted to let Wall Street off the hook. He appointed Timothy Geithner to be treasury secretary. Geithner claimed that he was not part of Wall Street, but, in his capacity as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, he had served under a board of directors headed by JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. As New York Fed president, Geithner had been partly responsible for the decision to let Lehman Brothers go under, for the unpopular tarp program, and for American International Group (AIG) paying back its Wall Street creditors with government money. Geithner chose as his chief of staff a former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs. Retiring Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan told me, “Most Americans were reading about the massive compensations and bailouts, and the administration largely hired people from the culture of Wall Street.”
By the spring, Obama’s apparent tilt to Wall Street had sparked a right-wing populist revolt in the country. The newly formed Tea Party movement, Beck and Fox News, and a host of right-wing bloggers were leading the charge; but, in a less extreme form, the general public shared their anger. In an early April New York Times/CBS News poll, the public disapproved of Obama’s aiding the banks by 58 percent to 33 percent. In this same poll, public approval of Obama’s handling of the economy began to fall. Pollsters who did focus groups also traced disillusionment with Obama’s economic policies to his handling of the financial crisis.
Congressman Barney Frank, who defends Obama’s policies, acknowledges that the president’s political difficulties began with the revelation that AIG, which had received $170 billion from the government, had paid out $165 million in bonuses to the division that had brought the company down. Geithner had known about the bonuses but insisted there were no legal grounds to block them. (It then came out that Geithner had pressured Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd to insert a provision in the stimulus bill that protected the bonuses.) “The pitchforks were out. It added injury to injury,” Frank says. That’s when public opinion of Geithner plummeted. According to a Rasmussen poll, 24 percent had a favorable view of Geithner and 44 percent an unfavorable one.
The public’s view of the bank bailout and the AIG bonuses colored its view of the auto bailout, the stimulus, and health care reform. One of the rallying cries for the populist opposition to Obama was “where’s my bailout?” (Obama himself acknowledged that it was “one of the most frequent questions” he was asked in letters.) The auto program became a bailout for the GM and Chrysler CEOs; the stimulus became a bailout of government itself; and health care reform was a bailout for the uninsured–or “reparations,” as Rush Limbaugh put it. Wrote right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin, “hardworking citizens were getting sick of being played for chumps” by “moochers, big and small, corporate and individual, trampling over themselves with their hands out demanding endless bailouts.” Obama and the Democrats were successfully portrayed as aiding “the moochers,” but not the “hardworking citizens.” In American politics, that’s a recipe for political disaster.
Some in the White House political operation recognized in the late spring that the administration’s economic efforts were being defined by right-wing populism and tried to push Obama to take a more populist tack. A group within the White House began calling themselves the “pitchfork gang,” but they would find their attempts to convince Obama to get tough on Wall Street or on insurance companies undermined by Geithner and by National Economic Council head Larry Summers, who were worried about upsetting business confidence. “There was a continual tension in the White House,” says a person who was privy to the discussions. “One week, we would be very hot, and then, the next week, we would dial it back.”
Contrast Obama’s attempt to develop a politics to justify his economic program with what Reagan did in 1982. Faced with steadily rising unemployment, which went from 8.6 percent in January to 10.4 percent in November, Reagan and his political staff, which included James Baker, Mike Deaver, and Ed Rollins, forged a strategy early that year calling for voters to “stay the course” and blaming the current economic troubles on Democratic profligacy. “We are clearing away the economic wreckage that was dumped in our laps,” Reagan declared. Democrats accused them of playing “the blame game,” but the strategy, followed to the letter by the White House for ten months, worked. The Republicans were predicted to lose as many as 50 House seats, but they lost only 26 and broke even in the Senate.
Some commentators have noted Reagan’s popularity was even lower than Obama’s. But, on key economic questions, he did much better than Obama and the Democrats are currently performing–and voters expressed far greater patience with Reagan’s program. According to polls, even as the unemployment rate climbed, a narrow plurality still expressed confidence that Reagan’s program would help the economy. On the eve of the election, with the unemployment rate at a postwar high, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 60 percent of likely voters thought Reagan’s economic program would eventually help the country. That’s a sign of a successful political operation. If Obama could command those numbers, Democrats could seriously limit their losses in November. But Obama has not been able to develop a narrative that could convince people to trust him and the Democrats.
Why has the White House failed to convince the public that it is fighting effectively on its behalf? The principal culprit is clearly Barack Obama. He has a strange aversion to confrontational politics. His aversion is strange because he was schooled in it, working as a community organizer in the 1980s, under the tutelage of activists who subscribed to teachings of the radical Saul Alinsky. But, when Obama departed for Harvard Law School in 1988, he left Alinsky and adversarial tactics behind.
He was not a typical blue-collar, bread-and-butter Chicago Democrat, but the kind of good government liberal that represents the upscale districts of the city, seeing in politics a higher calling and ill at ease with (although not in open opposition to) the city’s Democratic machine. He was also a post-racial politician who eschewed the hard-edged, angry rhetoric of Jesse Jackson. (That, too, is oddly reminiscent of Carter, who partly campaigned in 1976 as the white Southern antidote to George Wallace’s angry racial populism.)
These efforts to elevate Obama above the hurly-burly of Washington politics have been disastrous. Obama’s image as an iconic outsider has become the screen on which Fox News, the Tea Party, radicalright bloggers, and assorted politicians have projected the image of him as a foreigner, an Islamic radical, and a socialist. He has remained “the other” that he aspired to be during the campaign, but he and his advisers no longer control how that otherness is defined.
The White House and cabinet officials he appointed have reinforced his aversion to populism. As Jonathan Alter recounts in The Promise: President Obama, Year One, Geithner and Summers repeatedly blocked attempts to get tough on Wall Street on the grounds that doing so would threaten the recovery itself by upsetting the bankers. For most of his first year, Alter writes, “Obama bought the Geithner-Summers argument that the banks were fragile and couldn’t be confronted while they remained in peril.” Its reluctance to come down on the bankers crippled the administration politically, making it far more difficult for it to get its way with Congress on a second stimulus program that would have boosted the recovery and Democrats’ political prospects. Bad politics can trump good policy.