This Times article is simply horrible. The article implies that it’s some deep failing that Obama was unable to twist enough Democratic arms on background checks, ignoring the fact that even with every Dem on board the filibuster would have ensured it wouldn’t have mattered. So the idea of whether Mark Begich feels intimidated or not is moot. With only four GOP votes, the venture was doomed to failure. People looking for a place to vent ought to focus either on the filibuster or the power of the NRA, not on Obama. This one really isn’t his fault.
Admittedly, a lack of fight has been a problem for the Obama Administration in places. But it’s been a very small problem in the grand scheme of things. The major problems do not include a lack of fight so much as poor assumptions and lousy priorities. The former comes in the form of baseless assumptions that Republicans are always close to pulling the trigger on a grand bargain and thus must always be placated and not have their feelings tweaked, and the latter comes in the simple reality that, with some exceptions*, if it won’t reduce the debt, the White House simply doesn’t care all that much. Put these together and they account for most of the teeth-gritting, frown-generating moments of the Obama Era. Endless health-care delays? Negotiating strategies that even little kids could outwit? The Smoot-Hawley-esque Budget Control Act of 2011, which included sequestration? Letting Tim Geithner guard the henhouse of FinReg? Shrugging at a climate bill? That’s most of them, and they’re all easily explained by one or both of the two flaws. Toss in an inexplicable fear of conservative talkers and a misguided attempt to placate coal country and you get a few more, like the Plan B decision, delay of climate regs, the indefensible SMOG decision, and so on. But really, between fear, assumptions and priorities, there’s really not much failure unaccounted for. Additionally, in those situations, Obama was in a position to act, and his actions were flawed. With gun control, Obama was in no position to act, making blaming him silly.
Since a lot of critiques of this argument involve Aaron Sorkin, I think it’s time to identify the flaw with Sorkin’s politics. There are different kinds of liberals out there. One kind believes that all you have to do is put the best argument out there and you will win (this assumes that dreaded cliche, the “free marketplace of ideas” along with the supremacy of reason, a curious Victorian idea whose time has long since passed). That’s it! If you don’t win, it’s because you didn’t put the idea out there enough, or didn’t phrase it right, or whatever. Sorkin obviously believes this, and so do quite a few (most?) liberals. But it’s completely wrong and glib and stupid and probably damaging too. Making the big speech is merely the beginning. After that comes organizing, action, and all the other hard work of molding public opinion. I do think the background check episode will wind up having helped. No, we didn’t win, but things will be different from now on. The NRA is never going to command the same prestige it used to. They don’t own the issues, they own the politicians, and politicians change. The NRA were revealed to be extreme, unctuous nutcases whose vision of a world in flames doesn’t have any appeal outside the Right. It’s never going to be the same again. I think so, anyway, and I’m not usually the “find the silver lining” type.
* I actually think Obama played gun control about right. Immigration is the other major outlier here–you could make a bankshot case that making undocumented workers legal, taxpaying citizens would have some impact on the deficit, but that’s a long way off. I think Obama’s support for it is partly political and partly out of social justice concerns, with a small fraction about possible long-term revenue gains.
Yesterday I made a brief point about Jonah Goldberg’s claim about liberals and patriotism (read it here). The gist is that he thinks liberals are unpatriotic because they want to change America, which is not mutually exclusive, to be sure. But I have a bit more to say on this topic.
To say that one is more patriotic as another is an absurd statement. This is an emotion, and you can’t really compare what you feel versus what someone else feels with any accuracy. You can say that one side makes more displays of patriotism, but this is meaningless since external actions are not necessarily predictive of the internal state of a person. Such displays can be insincere or fake, of course, and complex expressions are expressed in different ways by different people. I don’t think someone putting an American flag up outside their house is insincere, I do think politicians’ rhetoric about patriotism often is, or is at the very least self-serving.
Wanting to make America a better place is hardly the act of someone who dislikes the country. Since circumstances both within and without the country never stop changing, simply preserving the status quo is a surefire path to decline and obsolescence. Strictly speaking, conservatism is supposed to be the mode of thought that recognizes this reality and tries to preserve what’s worth preserving in society while recognizing the need for change. The guiding value here is stability, one which political conservatives like Goldberg value not at all, preferring a mix of unsustainable stand-patism on things like finance and the environment, and radical experiments in neoliberalism, aggressive warfare, and so on. This is an obvious contradiction, but it’s always smoothed over by arguing that it’s returning to some idea of traditional America, before government moved in and ruined everything. But government bureaucrats didn’t just wake up one day and decide to ruin their America, of course. Changes in the function of the government came hand-in-hand with changes in technology, in science, in the composition of the population and social structure. It is, simply, impossible to go back to a pre-New Deal approach to government at this time without giving up post-1920s technology, deporting millions of people, etc., which is to say it’s not possible. Not without ending virtually all scientific research, aside from maybe a few vanity drugs that Pharma will pay for to turn a profit. Not without driving on dirt and gravel roads, or eating tainted food, or paying even more exorbitantly for medical care. It was the then-new problem of longer lifespans that made Social Security happen–people were living longer and there wasn’t a system set up for them. Then one was, and it made things better. Which is not to say that every government program works well, or is well run. Hardly. There are some programs that have certainly lived out their usefulness because the problems they tried to solve no longer exist (we’re not suffering from a lack of wheat or corn at this moment in time). But the problem I have with a lot of conservative/libertarian critics of government is that they don’t think of government programs in terms of the problems that they’re intended to solve (since government is the problem they’re trying to solve). But the problems are what precipitated the solutions. This is not to say that patriotism requires a certain point of view, politically. But there’s a certain sort of narcissism on display here that you also see in the religious right, a notion that it’s their idea of the thing that’s most important to them, not an actual appreciation of the thing itself and why it is as it is, which would require a humility that they can’t bring themselves to exercise. The idea is quite debatable, after all. I don’t know how deep Goldberg’s patriotism goes, but this is the national equivalent of puppy love, so far as I’m concerned.
Joe Klein is way too nice in his review of Jonah Goldberg’s latest opus, The Tyranny of Cliches, though the parts that are intended to bite do:
But most of Goldberg’s assaults against alleged clichés collapse into irrelevance. He devotes a chapter to undermining “slippery slope” arguments — which, in truth, are used by conservative organizations like the National Rifle Association as often as they are by liberals — but he ultimately decides that “slippery slope” arguments are “not so bad,” and indeed, he trots out an absurd one of his own in the very next chapter: “Liberals are uncomfortable with the topic of patriotism because their core philosophical impulses are to make America a different country than it is.” In other words, the reforming instinct — the progressive insistence that meat be inspected by the government, for example — is inherently un-American because it’s a first step down the slippery slope toward government control?
After a while, it just becomes exhausting. “Feminism was in no small part launched as a Trojan horse for an older and more familiar Marxist assault.” And “No Jews were tortured in the Spanish Inquisition” (only “former” Jews who claimed conversion to Catholicism were, but Jews were treated far better by the Muslims than by the Catholics, a fact Goldberg neglects). Gandhi evinced “stunning naïveté” and was, occasionally, “incandescently dumb,” without a mention of the impact of his philosophy on the American civil rights movement or the collapse of the Soviet empire. Does Goldberg really believe this stuff? Or is he just being tendentious for rhetorical effect? In the end, his vindictive thrashings have very little to do with the actual practice of politics; the idea that political clichés are banal isn’t exactly a blinding insight, either. Sadly, Goldberg has intellectual resources that might be put to grown-up use. But then, as the liberal cliché has it, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
There’s not too much to say about Goldberg himself that’s not been said before–he’s a milquetoast wingnut whose obsession with being taken seriously will always conflict with his aversion to hard work and research. The wind tunnel of conservative media and politics covers up the latter deficiencies, since superficial knowledge is positively helpful in this arena–it can be taken out of context and used as a weapon against liberals that much easier. Goldberg sees knowledge as power, but not as empowering–reading a book by Tacitus, say, is a source of attacks on liberals and nothing more. Of course, Goldberg makes a living based on the existence of tribalism in American politics, which he and his publication have long cultivated. Tribalism that wraps itself up in patriotic rhetoric and imagery, and that directly asserts that the other side lacks love of country. The truth is that what Goldberg does, and FOX News, and Rush, et al., is to stir up phony conflicts on a routine basis in order to profit themselves. The notion that tribalism is what many liberals object to would not compute with Goldberg, who no doubt would consider it a joke at best, and incredibly naive at worst, since working that paradigm pays his bills. But I suspect that the right’s exploitation of patriotism, and the use of it in such a self-serving way, is what makes liberals wary of making displays of flag-waving types of gestures.
I have a lot of respect for Jonathan Bernstein, and his take on Obama’s speech is plausible (haven’t seen it yet!) but he’s just wrong here:
I’m not sure it was the right way to go; my advice beforehand was to pitch it not to liberals, but to deficit idealists — to try to separate deficit idealists from Paul Ryan’s plan by emphasizing the importance of real numbers. I believe that’s something that Obama really had — perhaps still has — a chance to accomplish. He could have tried to appeal to the center by talking about good ideas in various different plans, lauding specific provisions in various liberal, centrist, and conservative proposed budgets. But he didn’t do either of those things. This was a speech, at least as I heard it, to rally liberals to his side as he prepares for the fight to come.
A few things:
- The existence of deficit idealists must be taken on faith, as the polls offer no proof of their existence in meaningful numbers. And no, people who want to destroy the welfare state don’t count as deficit idealists. They’d just spend the money on more foreign wars and tax cuts for billionaires, and we’d be in the same place. Why? Because that’s what they’ve been doing for decades. I didn’t think this was too difficult.
- The people most skeptical of a budget deal are liberals. Obama has not insignificant sway over liberals (if not over all liberal elites). Ergo, pitching primarily to liberals makes sense. Obama cannot afford to lose them, in this fight or for re-election.
- Re Obama highlighting good ideas on the left, right and center: It’s the usual Obama tic, but I guess it didn’t figure in this time. I can see why. Highlighting the good ideas in Paul Ryan’s budget plan would take about twelve seconds. In any event, the tax loophole cutting thing is duplicated in everyone else’s plans anyway. So why even bother?
In any event, let’s get real about this. A lot of elites think that budget negotiations are going to be some sort of compromise between Ryan’s plan and Obama’s modded-out, less-awful Simpson-Bowles thing. They won’t be. The votes for Ryan’s Medicare and Medicaid reforms are not there even in the GOP-controlled House, I guarantee it. The extent to which they foolishly push this is the extent to which the voters punish them next year, mark my words.
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