Friday, November 5, 2010

If Compromise Is So Bad, Why Do We All Want It?

Barack Obama didn't receive a mandate for radical change in 2008, and Republicans didn't get one Tuesday. Andrew Sullivan:
The pre-election NYT poll found that 78 percent want the Republicans to compromise with Obama rather than stick to their positions in the next two years; 76 percent want the Dems to do the same; and a slightly lower percentage, but still overwhelming, wants Obama to compromise too: 69 percent.
For archival purposes (well, maybe my reader will enjoy it, too), I'm reproducing a post I wrote on the Nixon foundation's blog a week before the 2008 election. I'll admit that, as an intestinal moderate, I'm mandate-averse. When any leader begins to envision himself or herself as a singular visionary, watch out. But Tuesday's result looked like nothing more than a rebuke of President Obama's overreaching (not because we didn't need health care reform, which we did, but because it kept him from focusing on jobs one in order to demonstrate a relentless desire to get his people back to work). Anyway, back to October 2008:
It’s not over yet. But while almost everyone will blame either Sen. McCain or Gov. Palin for the expected GOP debacle on Nov. 4, it’s important to fix the blame for the party’s dire prospects where it belongs — the plummeting economy, whose authors are Republicans and Democrats, Congresses and Presidents, Fed chairmen and Americans who borrowed more than they could afford in the hope that real estate prices would balloon indefinitely.

Amid the dread that millions of Americans are feeling, no different VP nominee would have helped McCain more, and no different GOP nominee — Romney, Huckabee, Reagan — could probably beat Sen. Obama. By the same token, Obama’s considerable gifts notwithstanding, Sen. Clinton would have done just as well. It’s just like 1980, when any Republican — Connally, Bush, Reagan — could’ve beaten Jimmy Carter thanks to the abysmal mess his administration had made of the economy and foreign policy.

President Reagan’s hagiographers have turned the 1980 election into a mandate for Reagan-Goldwater Republicanism rather than for the doctrine of anybody-but-Carter. They’re wrong. Not his election but his first-term tax cuts and tough Cold War line earned him his legacy, along with his unfailingly sunny demeanor.

If Obama wins, he won’t have an ideological mandate. Reagan could blame his predecessor for most of the nation’s problems in 1981 far more legitimately than Obama will be able to in 2009, especially now that Iraq war has taken such a positive turn. Even more than Reagan, who talked right but often governed as a moderate, Obama is more likely to succeed by walking right down the middle of the road. Just like Reagan, his greatest resource will be his temperament.
Which Obaman temperament I had completely misread, incidentally. A general outlook that appeared sunny and nonanxious during the campaign now appears to be prone to being gloomy, inflexible, and restive.


MK said...

Have you read David Remnick’s The Bridge? It shows an optimistic and resilient Obama whose one low point of being restless and dispirited occurred when he was elected to the state legislature and realize how little he could do in the minority. The Obama we saw during the campaign really did believe that off of that small Illinois stage, dealing with America and its people, we could work together. But the Fox got to some of the American flock.

As soon as John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, I stopped reading and commenting at the old The New Nixon site. There just wasn’t any way for me to safely comment or express what I sensed. . . . I later returned to the site before giving up on it in May 2010. But at that site, there are clues as to why Obama is gloomy now. Frank Gannon, who knew Washington and is a skilled writer, threw away his talents by posting snarky essays and snorting over juvenile partisan humor. He could have done something noble and non-partisan -- worked to educate people about the challenges presidency, but didn't.

George W. Bush, for all his more recent wounds, is proving nobler than the old Nixonites. (Did you see W. tell Oprah why he declines to criticize Obama – that it would hurt the presidency and that he has it tough enough.) GWB is planning on having a decision theater at his presidential library, where the public will be presented with the facts on issues and asked what they would do. A mere two years out of office, he is able to put his presidential library to better use than the Nixon foundation crowd has been able to do.

Obama’s problem is, a lot of the American people are like the Nixonites when he expected them to me like you and me. In the pre-Fox, pre-Limbaugh and Palin era, Obama worked with conservatives, going back to his days on the Harvard Law Review. He now has learned that death panel rhetoric and demagoguery can be more effective than intellect and charisma and on many issues, moderation. In high school terms, the bully boys and mean girls proved more appealing to many in the crowd than his approach did.

Obama is doing what I, who often am described by those who know me as resilient and cheerful, did during 1992-1994: recalibrating. My world was turned upside down by the way the Nixon tapes issues were handled during the Kutler litigation. I knew Washington well enough going in, from listening to the tapes if nothing else, to anticipate that road would be tough. What I didn’t expect was that no one would step forward to show nobility and strength in dealing with my archival cohort in 1992. That is sobering.

What has sobered Obama is not policy but a realization that what seemed like acceptance by many Americans of his (in my view) heartfelt rhetoric about Americans being a strong, resilient, noble people was to some extent illusory. I, too, was fooled. When I first heart the squeals about “death panels,” I was sure such nonsense and the lack of obvious courage behind it would back fire. But for many it didn’t. And the country is weakened as a result.

Policy aside, Obama thought he had a mandate to govern as a grown up. Many still support him of course (moderates still lean D more than R) and his personal approval number still are better than Reagan’s or Clinton’s at this point in a term. But Reagan never faced from the Left anything like the cable and radio demagoguery and meanspiritedness and cut your nose off to spite your face desire that he fail that Obama does. (George W. Bush, by contrast, says he wants Obama to succeed because he is our president and when the president does well, the country does well.) So his gloominess results from understanding that he overestimated the number of ordinary citizens willing to “put country first” and reward good behavior, not bad. I know just what that feels like – and maybe in your own way, you and Kathy do, too.

MK said...

Did you see Joe Scarborough’s thoughtful essay about Washington after the wonderful Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity? It’s reading things like that that reinforces for me what I think Frank Gannon (and the others, you excluded), threw away at The New Nixon. I have no more interest in reading anything (blog, essay, article, book) by Frank Gannon. I do read Scarborough. Yet both are GOP. And while I never read the Nixon foundation’s blog any longer, I always read your postings.

MK said...

Just to make it clear, I'm talking about the unexpected for me and perhaps for Obama effect of Fox's approach to "news," Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, etc. I'm not opining on policy or what are the governing philosophies and options of Obama and the opposition. I think Obama always knew the policy side of governing would be a challenge. What he didn't know was how tribal and stirred up by negative emotions ("we're suffering so we want others to suffer") some of the American people would be. It's hard for a professorial type to anticipate the effectiveness of emotivism. And the reach of bully boys and mean girls. I leave it to historians to unravel Obama's policy decisions and tactical moves, can't comment on those right now, of course.

Fr. John said...

Thanks for your thoughtful posts, MK. It means so much to me to have you as a reader.

I did read the "The Bridge" and came away with a deeper admiration of the president but some concerns about whether he had the experience and temperament for an effective long-haul presidency. Referencing the Renmick book, I described my concerns in August:

I agree with everything you say about the quality of Obama's opposition. I just don't think a more experienced, flexible politician would have let it get to him to the extent we both apparently believe it has. Fox News has been under his skin from the get go. It bugs him, and you can tell it bugs him by the fact that he always complains somewhat grimly rather than making fun (which would be the better approach, assuming he could pull it off with just the right dismissive elan). But Fox was there when he decided to run for president. He knew what he'd be in for. All he had to do was research the abominable way they treated Hillary Clinton when she was frontrunner.

"Obama had great potential but was unable to master the exceptionally polarized political dynamics of his time" is, so far, the first draft of his sentence. I'm with GWB: I want him to succeed, for all our sakes. The idea that Sarah Palin is theoretically positioned for a presidential run fills my heart with dread. But he just isn't connecting with folks, as Wednesday's press conference demonstrated. I want him to love his people and love the office and resolve to bend the latter for the sake of the former, whether his record ends up matching the bold visions dancing in his head or not.

MK said...

Yeah, I see what you mean. I think Obama knew what Fox was like, of course, but did not anticipate the willingness of so many Americans to believe lies such as the tweets about death panels. A belief in Americans’ foundational, Christian values (no false witness) kept me from anticipating that, too. Some of the cries among the public for cutting the federal workforce not in a targeted way to weed out governmental from private sector functions, but because "people are suffering, bureaucrats need to suffer, too" also tells me something about the quality of their religious views.

Obama is more like RN than Clinton in that he is inclined to be reserved and introverted rather than an instinctive glad hander and "I feel your pain" Empathizer in Chief. I do agree that a different approach to dealing with Fox might have served him better. The problem is that even laughing at Fox or joking about it might feed what Andrew Sullivan calls the Esther syndrome of the Palinites and the post-Reagan collapse of conservatism into a morass of grievance and victimology. ("See, their mocking of us proves we are the Righteous and they are Evil.") Fundamental conservative principles such as personal responsibility have been badly eroded. Ta Nehisi Coates may be right that the public has become addicted to “the comfort food” of mantras that tell them you are good, nothing is your fault. Such a sell is fundamentally unconservative, of course, but it characterizes Fox’s and Limbaugh’s and Palin’s very influential approach to conservatism.

Obama does face some unique challenges. RN was able to draw on a Silent Majority. The extremists and the most angry during the Vietnam War were on the fringes of the left. It was easy to paint them as extreme because many of them were young and not yet in the workforce. Hence outliers. And to tap into the backbone of America, to appeal to the hard hats, the middle class, the moderates and conservatives alike to support the president.

Fox and Limbaugh have made that very difficult, if not impossible, through their superficially patriotic and tough minded but fundamentally unpatriotic and viewers' character weakening approach to covering Obama. Where Nixon and his surrogates could appeal to a moderate middle and Silent Majority in the face of extreme rhetoric by the fringe Left, Charles M. Blow worries in a column at the NYT that moderation is disappering. "That ripping sound you hear is the fabric of a nation."

Even some conservative scholars have lost their way. I recently unsubscribed from Richard Jensen's Conservativent mailing list because I was appalled by seeing right leaning academicd snark about teleprompters, equate post-World War II economic factors with the present and speculate that while Obama had a Ramadan dinner at the White House, he never hosted a Seder. A simple Google search would have revealed he had hosted Seders since his campaign days.

And scholars should know that there's a huge difference between pent up demand after a war and the self-induced but largely not acknowledged pullback into household austerity after 25 years of piling up personal debt by pulling out the credit card. Our consumption based economy did all right from 1980 to 2007 as long as people used credit to buy, buy, buy and saved little. That pent up demand after World War II boosted the economy offers no model for the present, however. It was based on artificially induced wartime saving and deferral of purchases, not on credit related issues. Credit cards did not start to be used very widely among the broader populace until the late 1970s or 1980s. When the right's scholars abandon fact based analysis, you know conservatism is in trouble. And so too the nation.