(Updated a second time: Gibbs has apparently gotten his ears pinned back realized how wrongheaded his comments were)
Woof. Robert Gibbs, speaking on his own behalf, but also that of the White House, stirs things up quite dramatically in this interview with The Hill newspaper. Read the whole thing to get the full bitter flavor, but here are a few of the more interesting and provocative quotes:
“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested.”
The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right
“They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”
Gibbs said the professional left is not representative of the progressives who organized, campaigned, raised money and ultimately voted for Obama. Progressives, Gibbs said, are the liberals outside of Washington “in America,” and they are grateful for what Obama has accomplished in a shattered economy with uniform Republican opposition and a short amount of time.
…from the White House perspective, they ought to be able to catch a break from people who, in their view, should be grateful and appreciative.”
There’s a fair amount more, but that should give you the flavor of it. I think several things about this outburst of petulance from Gibbs, but perhaps first and foremost, I agree with Ezra Klein, who was immediately (as usual) right on top of it today in The Washington Post, when he said:
I understand why the White House is frustrated by the criticism from the “professional left” and feels progressives should focus on all the progressive things the administration has done rather than all the things it hasn’t been able to do or interested in doing. What I don’t understand is why Robert Gibbs would voice that frustration to the press. His comments just turn this into a “story,” giving the very professional lefties whose criticism is rankling the White House another high-profile opportunity to criticize the White House. Baffling.
Baffling is right. I’m sure George W. Bush had a few times when he and his administration weren’t happy with the way they were getting hammered by their own party. Oh, wait….that’s right: there weren’t any such times (except until the very, very end, when they were trying to win an election in ’08, and could see that continuing to publicly embrace Bush would be nothing but ballot-box poison). Why didn’t George Bush experience such public criticism from his own base? Three reasons: one, because Republicans tend to fall in line; that’s what they do. Everyone who follows politics in America, right up to the most liberal lefties, admires the near-robotic message discipline that Republicans are able to exert and exercise, both in congress and at the ballot box. Sure, liberal observers – and in fact anyone who pays attention and keeps an open mind – might think it’s counterproductive and in the end, self-limiting for the GOP to force its membership to all uphold filibusters on literally everything the President does. For example: they went big with that strategy on health care, and they lost big. But even the most fair-minded observer can’t help but be a little impressed at the willpower and control it takes to consistently vote as a bloc, whether in the Senate or at the local precincts. They just keep doubling down and plowing ahead. Heck, the GOP (most of it), even after losing so dramatically on health care, is now campaigning on repealing the law. That’s discipline.
The other two big reasons are both more important for this comparison to Obama/Gibbs and “the professional left.” The second reason is that, to the extent that Bush didn’t manage to accomplish some of the right wing’s wish list (abolishing abortion comes to mind), he and his administration did consistently speak out in favor of it, and work towards it. More than that, though, the third reason George W. Bush didn’t experience this sort of blowback and disgruntlement by his base is that, by and large, he did do what his base wanted him to do. That can’t be stressed enough, despite how simple it is: people aren’t generally disappointed in you if you do what they want you to do. This is the major area of difference between the right’s relationship with Bush and the left’s with Obama. Everyone from political observers to the DNC themselves have noticed that although Bush is gone, and most of the GOP have realized it’s still toxic to invoke his name in a positive way, they’re still putting forward nearly the exact same ideas that Bush did when he was President. Not much has changed, because the bottom line is that the GOP base liked what Bush was doing when he was doing it, and they still like it now. They just know they can’t reverently invoke Bush in the same way they do Reagan, when advancing their warmed-over stew of policy proposals.
In sharp contrast, Obama was never the progressive firebrand that many assumed he’d be by the fiery nature of his rhetoric on the campaign trail. The disconnect of Obama the campaigner from Obama the President could be seen during the campaign, if one looked closely at what he was actually proposing in many areas (significantly ramping up the war in Afghanistan, as a way to deflect criticism of being anti-war), instead of just listening to him talk about the “fierce urgency of now.” Unfortunately (for Obama’s eventual administration and for the country itself), many supporters heard what they wanted to hear (and, truthfully, what Obama was hoping they’d hear) from his speeches. That’s not particularly new: candidates have, for a long time, run to the base of their parties during primary season, then tacked back to the center for the general election, because primary voters tend to be significantly more liberal (or conservative, depending) than general election voters. But Gibbs and others are discovering both that words matter and that liberals are not the same as conservatives in this regard: they don’t simply fall in line; instead they’re much more likely to judge a politician – even one from their “own side” – on what (s)he has actually done, compared both to what (s)he said (s)he would do, and compared to what was possible and what was needed.
A lot of liberals, even if they weren’t fooled by the sharp disconnect between Obama’s fiery rhetoric and his policy proposals, bought into the “fierce urgency of now” images, because they agreed that after a near-catastrophic financial collapse and two ruinous wars (plus many other issues we’re all way too familiar with), now really was an urgent time. It was a time when major, bold corrective action needed to be taken. And, in many ways since January 2009, it hasn’t been. The biggest – and earliest – problem came from the gradual but fairly early realization that Obama and his team really thought their shit didn’t stink; they thought they were such a transformational group that they would really be able to “transcend petty partisanship” and be the nation’s first “post-partisan” administration, beloved by all, Democrats and Republicans, and be the leading force which guided a previously-fractious country under Bush to not only new understanding and harmony, but to commonsense solutions that no one could bring themselves to truly oppose on mere ideological partisan grounds.
Of course, anyone who’d been paying on-the-ground attention to the genuinely disturbing (and steadily increasing) batshit-insanity and truculence of the GOP, not only during the campaign, but since at least 9/11 and probably earlier, could have told them right up-front, without even testing that theory, that it was utter fantasy. What was the actual real-world outcome? It was utter fantasy, of course. Yet it took the Obama administration a distressingly long time to come to that realization. Just as with the Iraq war, the “dirty fucking hippies” turned out to be correct again, and – just as in regard to Iraq – they were resented and exiled for it, rather than credited and looked to as perhaps people worth listening to. During the Iraq question in 2002 and 03, so-called “serious” people – liberal or otherwise – were the ones who started with the assumption that Iraq must be disarmed by force. In 2009, the so-called “serious” liberals were the ones who started with the assumption that the GOP was still a reasonable, functioning party which hadn’t been taken over by complete obstructionist lunatics. Meanwhile, real policy possibilities vanished and atrophied as a result of insisting that the GOP should be reasoned with and compromised with. As the corporate-funded tea parties exploded with scripted rage in the summer of 2009, Obama’s team faded into the background and turned the “serious” negotiations about health care reform over to Max Baucus and Chuck “Pull The Plug On Grandma” Grassley. Instead of pushing the recalcitrant Blue Dogs to act like actual Democrats, the administration (and many supporters in the conventional media) beat up on liberals who had the temerity to insist upon a strong public option.
And Gibbs wonders why people on “the left” are disappointed.
Make no mistake, “disappointed” doesn’t mean – as too many have already tried to falsely suggest – that progressives will vote for a Republican out of spite in the fall….or in 2012. Frankly, out of any group of voters anywhere in America, progressives are probably the least likely to vote GOP, no matter how frustrated or disappointed they get. But what is a very real possibility is that frustrated progressives may simply stay home because they have begun to believe that even their obvious choice (the Democrat) demonstrably isn’t either interested in or capable of accomplishing enough of their agenda to warrant support. We can have arguments until the cows come home about whether such a thing makes sense. In fact, I’ve discussed it recently at length here and here. It seems to me, though, that the arguments are mostly academic. As I said in those earlier posts, whether I personally feel disappointed enough to stay home on election day isn’t really the issue. I don’t, yet. But the larger point is that every time the Obama administration disappoints the base, a number of base voters WILL decide to do that. Maybe not proactively, maybe it’ll just be through the cumulative weight of frustration that they wind up making a last-minute decision on election day to say “screw it.” But that such a phenomenon happens, is undeniable. That’s why it’s so mystifying to me and to Ezra Klein, that the White House, or their supporters in the media, would choose the path of excoriating and beating up on the liberal base who express disappointment. For one, it cannot possibly come off as anything short of simultaneously imperious (you liberals OWE us not only your allegiance, but your gratitude!) and petulantly childish (leave Britney us alone, meanies!). How, exactly, will that motivate base voters to support this administration more than, say, delivering on their agenda would? I can’t find anyone who can answer that question for me without delving into a laundry-list of what the administration has already gotten accomplished, which either implies or often leads directly into an outright assertion that…wait for it…we ought to be grateful for all we’ve gotten.
Worse, to even make such an argument, Gibbs or any other White House operative who wishes to make it has to adopt the language of the disingenuous right (which the Hill reporter noted pointedly when he said that Gibbs had”dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right”). Witness Gibbs’ comment that “they will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.” You are correct, Bob: your statement isn’t reality. But you already knew that – and you also already knew the people you’re trying to tar know it, too. That’s what we call a strawman argument, and it’s almost invariably made by people who’d find it a lot easier to argue against what they wish their opposition was simplistically advocating, instead of their actual position(s). No liberal I’m aware of truly wishes to “eliminate the pentagon.” Many, however, believe that the fact we spend many times more than the top several of our next-closest competition combined on our military each year is a problem which is draining our nation’s coffers and drastically reducing our choices for and ability to enrich the lives of our citizenry, without making us much (if any) safer, in real terms (you might remember, a dude named Ike – a Republican – once warned us of exactly the same thing). That’s a position that’s much harder for you to argue against, as you triple the number of soldiers engaged in our ninth year of continual war in Afghanistan. So when you, in an understandable attempt to talk up your successes and achievements, point to the fact that you’ve met the schedule that Bush (not you) set for withdrawal from Iraq before you were even President, are you really surprised that it doesn’t impress much, in light of what you’ve done in Afghanistan? Canadian health care? Why, exactly, is that “not reality?” Literally every other industrialized nation in the world has some form of government-sponsored health care. Heck, we even have it here for some sectors of our populace – and it works pretty decently, too.
On the current front, the administration is looking for a way to NOT appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Agency. She’s the one who came up with the idea, and she’s been a tireless champion of the rights of consumers in the financial arena – an arena where the average person has taken quite a beating indeed over the last several years at the hands of the big banks and Wall Street. Why are they looking to appoint someone else? Your guess is as good as mine, though I’d suspect a guess which centered around the idea that Wall Street has made it known they vehemently oppose Warren’s nomination and will work to defeat anyone who supports it probably would be fairly close to the mark. But the administration’s reasons actually don’t matter. They’re correct in observing that progressives do indeed want to see Warren appointed. And, if they want those progressives to stop complaining (or at least turn down the volume of it), there’s a very easy way to do that: by fulfilling our wishes and appointing Elizabeth Warren. It isn’t hard – or, rather, it isn’t hard to understand (though it may be difficult or painful to have to choose between alienating one or the other important group). But that’s what you’re in that office to do: to determine what policies make the most sense. The Republicans know in their sleep the answers to such questions. You should too, Mr. President. It should not, for example, be much of a question in your mind, whether to mollify and support the national banksters and their army of lobbyists, or the base of your own party which worked so hard to get you elected. Hell, in simpler times, better Presidents than you would have recognized such a choice as an opportunity, rather than dreaded it as a dilemma which would result in alienating one or the other “valuable group of supporters.” Take a gander at what FDR had to say about those whom he called “economic royalists”:
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.
That is how you do it, Robert – and Barack…assuming, of course, that you actually agree with such sentiments, in the wake of a financial catastrophe nearly the scope of the one during which Roosevelt uttered those words. If not, then the indecision and underperformance becomes much more easily understandable. As should genuine progressives’ disappointment and outrage.
**UPDATE** Glenn Greenwald has more.