…and what it means (politically), going forward.
*** Personal preface*** – I originally began writing this post as soon as the ink was dry on the debt ceiling bill. It was intended to be what I still think is – or should be – a “teachable moment” of sorts for us here on the left. Now, a full week later, it seems like yesterday’s fishwrap to some degree. I’m posting it anyway because I think that the ideas themselves aren’t the worse for being a week old, even if the impact they might have had perhaps IS. The reason this is a week “late” is partly that it turned into a larger post than I’d originally intended, which required that I do some collection of quotes, etc, and partly that, while I was in the middle of doing those things, with the post still unfinished, my father died in San Diego. So, apologies for the delay, and I hope some of this is still valuable. I now return you to your regularly-scheduled bloviation. ;o)
As I write this, my AP news push alert tells me that the President has just signed the compromise bill raising the debt limit, and cutting some $2T-plus from spending over the next ten years. So I think now’s a good time to have a conversation – one-sided though it may be – with some of my friends on the “Obama fan” side of the recent shenanigans over the debt ceiling. I write this, not as a simple exercise in schadenfreude or “gotcha” blogging, but because I think if you’re going to have a conversation about what we ought to do going forward, you ought to make sure you’re starting from the right assumptions, reasoning and conclusions (or at least predictions). One of my favorite songwriters of the last couple of decades, Ani DiFranco, once wrote a line in one of her songs that went: “if you don’t ask the right questions, every answer feels wrong.” She was talking in a much more personal way about life in general, but the reason that line resonates is because it’s easy to see the essential truth of it immediately; it requires no explanation. And it’s applicable over quite a wide range of…life, as well. Certainly, it is applicable to politics.
George Bush never asked the question of whether Iraq had WMD of the right people (or, if he did, he paid not enough attention to their answer), and so his answer “invade Iraq” was wrong. His administration never properly addressed the question of what might happen after we simply invaded Iraq – especially with the “lean, 21st century fighting force” envisioned by Donald Rumsfeld – and so the aftermath of the fairly brief fight against Saddam’s actual armies was an unmitigated disaster that we are still cleaning up, to this day. And so it often is with other political miscalculations, as well.
A few weeks ago, on July 12 to be exact, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell had a semi-seminal rant on his 9pm MSNBC program, The Last Word. I won’t embed it here, due to its epic length (at least, epic for a nightly news-talk program; fourteen minutes-plus), but here it is if you want to see the entire thing. However, I do want to make a few points about that astonishing show-opener of O’Donnell’s that evening, because in many ways, it became the pivot point for a lot of the people and the template for a lot of the thinking and the sentiment to which I’m going be referring to in this post. And perhaps above all, I want to make these points because that rave of O’Donnell’s – and the subsequent doubling-down he did right up until the beginning of August – were simply as wrong as the notion that Iraq had significant WMD, and, I will argue, it was just as knowable (or at least predictable) that they were that wrong in advance, just like the WMD claims.
For brevity’s sake (something I struggle with even on good days), I’m going to simply refer to O’Donnell for the rest of this post as LOD (which I’ve taken to pronouncing “LOAD,” but your mileage may vary). Anyway, the genesis of LOD’s epic-length, dense and impenetrable rave about the President’s “masterful rope-a-dope strategy” was the presser given by President Obama earlier in the day. This marked one of the first of what feels like approximately seventeen thousand nearly-identical press conferences given by the President himself – not an aide or press secretary, notably – over the intervening time between then and today, as the nation teetered unsteadily ever-closer to financial catastrophe like a still-strung-out hooker in 6″ stiletto heels stumbling home in the chill early morning light of a new day, past aghast office workers waiting for the bus to take them to their job.
The position (or rather, rationalization) LOD advanced in this genre-defining segment is roughly as follows. See if you can follow LOD’s logical chain in the following list. Don’t worry if you can’t; the reason it’s hard to follow is that A) it was never true, and B) it was dreamed up to explain away a much simpler and more correct explanation for the developments thus far):
- John Boehner was pandering to the extremist, tea party wing of his caucus…and possibly even starting to believe that the GOP could and should do what they were pushing for, but
- After masterful “rope-a-dope” by Obama, in which Obama seemed to be pushing for even more cuts than the GOP was (at least initially), Boehner was forced by this brilliant maneuvering on the President’s part to admit publicly that the debt celing had to be raised. All of this was craftily designed by the President to force Boehner’s hand, thus making the President appear more reasonable and willing to compromise – which the majority of voters want – than was Boehner and the GOP.
- With Obama’s “reasonable” bona-fides established in the minds of the press and the public, he could afford to get a lot tougher in negotiations with Boehner, Cantor, and whomever else on the GOP side, in his “inside the room” game – in other words, the real negotiations which go on with such deals behind the scenes. Obama was now free to play a harder variety of ball with the GOP’s dealmakers because he’d secured the fact that, if things went truly south and the country defaulted, the GOP would take most of the blame for it from the public. This supposedly upped Obama’s leverage in dealing with the GOP in negotiations.
- Then the President appeared to change his negotiating strategy again, to now insisting that revenue (taxes) be at least 25% of the final packge (about $1trillion). This, the President knew, would force Boehner to walk away from the negotiating table, because he knew he couldn’t force the tea party to vote for any deal which included that much revenue.
This, LOD clearly believed – or at least was trying to convince himself – had been the President’s strategy all along: knowing that Boehner couldn’t deliver enough votes for any bill containing that much revenue, Obama intentionally created an impossible situation in which (since he would not sign a bill that doesn’t include new revenue, and Boehner didn’t have the votes for any bill that did have significant revenue) no bill could become law, thus leaving the only thing the two sides DO agree on being…that the debt ceiling needs to be raised. This (epxlained LOD) would give the President the upper hand in the negotiations because A) the public views Obama as the more “reasonable” of the two, and B) he’s convinced Boehner that, if default occurs, the GOP will be blamed for it. Ergo, concluded LOD, if the only thing the parties can agree to is that the debt ceiling must be raised, and Obama has masterfully backed Boehner into a corner he can’t get out of because the GOP would be primarily blamed if they chose the path of default, then the President can and will push to do exactly what he wanted to do all along (in LOD’s reasoning): pass a traditional “clean” debt ceiling raise bill, which Boehner will have no choice but to sell to his colleagues as the only thing they could pass.
As an articulated strategy, this was always nonsense, of course. To believe it, one had to either shut one’s ears to the repeated references of the President himself to wanting to “get serious” about our nation’s medium-term deficit, and his repeated public statements about wanting a “big deal” (meaning one that was around $4Trillion in deficit reduction, composed in a 3:1 ratio of tax cuts to new revenue), or one had to convince oneself that all those on-record statements were merely part of a grandmaster plan, a brilliant chess strategy which would lead to the endgame of a clean debt ceiling bill. Especially if one wasn’t paying to the minutiae of the daily ins-and-outs of the debt ceiling crisis as it was happening, or wasn’t watching LOD’s show, it will likely seem in retrospect rather blindingly clear that this was a labyrinthine intellectual construction which was never in the realm of the likely. And it might seem incredible that so many intelligent people swallowed it hook, line and sinker or came up with their own, slightly modified version of it.
Yet this is exactly what happens when even so intelligent and well-versed in the ways of congress a man as LOD is, gets deceived by a combination of his estimation of his own wonderfulness, a certainty that he’s the most-knowledgeable guy in the room, and abiding faith in and affection for a political figure – in this case, Barack Obama. I don’t mean to cap on LOD too hard, because the sting of having been so embarrassingly wrong, especially after having been so smug about it since this on-air rant on the 12th, must be more than painful enough. LOD mistook his own knowledge of what had happened in the past in similar negotiations (to which he’d been a first-hand witness – even a participant) for a guarantee that he had a nearly-unique insider’s knowledge of how this debate must, perforce, play out. I don’t think this would have happened, though, had LOD not also become – as have so many others since 2008 – enamored of Barack Obama the idea.
In short, LOD was (and likely still is) an Obama fan. What’s an “Obama fan,” (and how is that different from just an Obama voter or even volunteer/donor)? I mean, aren’t all of us who voted for the President and/or were inspired by his speeches more or less Obama “fans?” Not really. Some people may have voted for Obama as the lesser of two evils. Some may have enjoyed his speeches but been skeptical of what he could or would do once elected. Some may have wanted Obama to be the second coming of FDR, but voted for him with their eyes open. But the Obama fan is someone who really bought into the Obama personality, even if they understood Obama to be more of a centrist than many thought during the ’08 campaign.
Ultimately, what led LOD to make such a repeated, public ass of himself by not just coming up with his tortured rationalization about how a clean debt ceiling bill would come about, but repeating it arrogantly and defensively virtually right up until the (non-clean) budget deal was inked by President Obama wasn’t so much the mistake LOD made of thinking his own experience in the Senate gave him a crystal ball (though he made that mistake, too). Instead, it was LOD’s Obama-fandom, that inner hunch of his that the President just wouldn’t DO something like choke so hard on the debt ceiling debate, because he (LOD) knew the President was both too good and too intelligent to do that, and also too certain of the advice of every rational economist: that such austerity measures during a fragile and faltering recovery would be a terrible blow to struggling Americans. Therefore, thought LOD (and here his self-deception was indeed aided by his own arrogance in assuming his insider knowledge gave him a crystal ball), there MUST be some other explanation for Obama’s seeming willingness to try for a $4 Trillion-plus deficit reduction deal…or to signal a willingness to discuss unspecified cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
I’m bringing this up and examining it because LOD’s self-deception on this issue, borne of his Obama fandom, wasn’t merely an embarrassment to LOD himself. Within hours of LOD’s full-throated defense of Obama’s “masterful rope-a-dope,” it had spawned a small but deeply committed group of similar folk, both in the blogosphere and on Twitter, who began echoing LOD’s explanations or amplifying and expanding upon them. The one thing they all shared in common?
Like LOD, they, too, were already fans of Obama’s to begin with. Digby referred to the concept of Obama fandom in this recent piece which references a 2008 post of hers that quotes extensively from a Sacramento Bee article (now unavailable) about how Obama supporters were encouraged to think of the campaign and try to drum up support:
On the verge of a hectic few weeks leading to Super Tuesday, the crucial Feb. 5 multistate primary including California’s, Mack wanted to drill home one of the campaign’s key strategies: telling potential voters personal stories of political conversion.
She urged volunteers to hone their own stories of how they came to Obama – something they could compress into 30 seconds on the phone.
“Work on that, refine that, say it in the mirror,” she said. “Get it down.”
She told the volunteers that potential voters would no doubt confront them with policy questions. Mack’s direction: Don’t go there. Refer them to Obama’s Web site, which includes enough material to sate any wonk.
The idea behind the personal narratives is to reclaim “values” politics from the Republican Party, said Marshall Ganz, a one-time labor organizer for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers who developed “Camp Obama” training sessions for volunteers.
When people tell their stories of how they made choices and what motivates them, they communicate their values, Ganz said in an interview.
“Values are not just concepts, they’re feelings,” Ganz said. “That’s what dropped out of Democratic politics sometime in the ’70s or ’80s.”
“Just follow Barack’s lead and be honest with them,” the Web site advises. “You don’t need to debate policy or discuss the day’s headlines. You have a very personal reason for investing your time and energy in this campaign – that is the most compelling story you can tell.”
Digby drily notes that the last time we heard from the Marshall Ganz referenced in the SacBee piece, he was telling a very different sort of conversion story, but that’s neither here nor there (though it, too, is an instructive read in this context). The influential blogger John Cole explained the same concept (of fandom) a bit more succinctly and pithily at his excellent blog Balloon Juice in the heat of the 2008 campaign…by saying it felt good to him to wallow in abject fandom:
A visual representation of last night’s debate:
It feels good to act like a 12 year old fanboi sometimes.
Look, at the risk of saying things that hopefully don’t need to be said, it’s OK to “like” a politician. It’s even fine to vote for him or her because you just sort of feel something, some affinity for that person. There’s worse reasons to vote for someone, no doubt about it. But somebody wise – can’t remember who – once said that “politicians will always break your heart.” Even if you don’t believe the cynical viewpoint that all politicians are inherently sleazy or dishonest, you can’t fail to be disappointed by them eventually, because they are never going to agree 100% with the way you think every issue ought to be handled. Even if they don’t turn out to be corrupt or have sex scandals, when you vote for a politician, you’re getting a pig in a poke, even if your guy wins on election night.
So the danger for an organizer or motivated volunteer of such an affinity or affection for a politician is that if and when the stories become more important than keeping track of the actual statements and results (both one’s own and the politician’s in question), then that organizer becomes both less coherent and less effective. (S)he may even wind up inadvertently doing damages to the actual causes and goals which initially motivated him or her to get involved in political organizing to begin with, and for which the politician in question was initially only a vehicle. In other words, such an affinity for any politician, eventually, can be quite a liability, both to one’s own ability to perceive as clearly as one otherwise might, and to the way that impairment affects one’s participation in the public dialogue. Like LOD did beginning in July, one begins down the road of creating ever more opaque and byzantine rationalizations to explain away the cognitive dissonance of bearing witness to the tableau of that politician one thinks of as “my guy” violating either the principles one holds dear, or violating the politicians own stated beliefs and goals. Once one starts reflexively and angrily “defending” the politician from perceived “attackers” who are in reality only people who are expressing their concerns about the way a particular policy fight is shaping up, the conversion from dedicated organizer/citizen who has an affinity for a politician one believes is “a good guy” who shares many of the same goals and values, to a fan of that politician; someone subject to the cult of personality, is complete. One might even find oneself reflexively or preemptively attacking others whom one assumes will be critical of one’s “favorite” politician’s actions, because doing so makes them “the enemy,” both of the politician and also of “progress” or “party unity,” or whatever it is one tells oneself to justify the attack.
For those who started out working to make the country or the state or wherever they’ve become involved with a politician who they now find themselves thinking of as “their guy” who needs to be defended against all attackers, it’s worth remembering the old cliché: “if you can’t change your mind, are you sure you still have one?”
Unfortunately, a lot of people who I know from interacting with them on Twitter and elsewhere have perfectly splendid minds – just like LOD does – have nevertheless seemed, since as far back as the health care battle of ’09 and ’10, to have that sort of “hunkered in the bunker” or “no criticizing MY guy” approach to anyone who they might even think was a “foe” of Barack Obama. And both the increased nastiness and the retrenchment of poor reasoning has flowed ever since. In the aftermath of LOD’s seminal Obama-fan rant on July 12, I’ve personally witnessed the following…
From “MiltShook” (on Twitter), this (click any of these to embiggen):
And even – to demonstrate the fandom concept a little further – this:
(note: anyone who thinks I’m suggesting that only amateur, nearly-anonymous people on Twitter fall victim to this sort of doubling/tripling/quadrupling down on bad thinking, I’m not. If you want to see LOD himself doing so, you can see it here on July 12th, here on the 15th, here on the 27th, and here, in a bonus clip on Andrea Mitchell’s daytime show (where Mitchell correctly but fawningly says Lawrence was brilliant for imagining that the debt ceiling would be a crisis all the way back on election night, 2010). So, it’s by no means true that the well-connected, experienced or high-profile among the Obama fans are immune to the susceptibility to double/triple down on bad reasoning or bad logic born of fandom.
And that’s just from one person. There are quite a few more. Unfortunately, I can’t show you one of the longest-standing Obama fans, Karoli Kuns. She’s had her own blog, “Drums-‘n-‘Whistles” (at Blogspot) for some time. For the past year or so, she’s also been a contributor at CrooksAndLiars. She’s whip-smart, quite progressive…and has a blind spot the size of a Winnebago when it comes to the President. The reason I can’t show you some of her recent stuff is that – just in the last week or so – she’s protected not only her Twitter feed, but also her blog itself. For those of you who aren’t inveterate intertubes users, that means Karoli has taken the unusual step of disallowing anyone whom she does not previously explicitly approve from seeing either what she tweets, or her blog itself. That’s a shame, because Karoli often has good insights into things that don’t, perforce, include having to turn in a critical review of the current administration’s actions. But, because she apparently fears having people being able to read what she’s written – or perhaps merely just doesn’t want to deal with the hassle – now no one can read anything she’s written, except at the C&L site. However, I think you can get the basic point from this (from all the way back during the bitter health care reform struggle):
Here’s one more, from a different twitter user, vdaze:
Before I get carried away here, the point of this is not to belittle or call out specific Twitter users or bloggers. This post is already plenty long, so I won’t burden it further with too many additional examples. The point is that this kind of fandom can be quite harmful in reality. It causes divisions within a community that is – in general – fundamentally in agreement on most issues. During the health care battle, most of the “lefties” would have told you that in a perfect world, single-payer would be the goal that should be worked towards. Most of them would also have told you that in the current political climate (and state of education regarding the drivers of health care cost and quality), single-payer was likely not achievable right away, in 2009. Not all lefties would agree with that; some might have told you they thought single-payer was achievable in 2009, and some might have told you it was likely never going to be available. But those are honest policy differences.
Where the phenomenon of Obama fandom becomes harmful in this scenario – and many other debatable organizing issues since that time which have broken down along similar lines – is in the friction and oppositional relationship it sets up between these same people who share 90+% of the same worldview and political/social goals. Obama fans often like to criticize certain public figures – commentators, hosts of political TV shows, certain influential lefty bloggers (and those who agree with them) – as being at the root of this problem. They claim that what’s needed is less “bashing” of the President. Disagreeing with the President too vigorously or too often on either tactics or policy constitutes “bashing” to many Obama fans. And to them, such “bashing” is what’s causing all the friction among those who would otherwise be natural allies because they share a large amount of their worldview and goals with each other. Unfortunately – and this is a point many critics of various policies or tactical strategies of President Obama have referenced frequently – what such a view disregards is that informed and spirited dissent is literally one of the cornerstones of how our political culture is supposed to function, and that there is a difference between a pundit or even just a citizen disagreeing vigorously with an elected official, and another citizen criticizing the first one literally FOR HIS OR HER CRITICISM. The first is speaking to (elected) power, the second is merely squabbling. Neither is wrong in the “evil” sense of the word, and neither is restricted — nor should it be. But, of the two, the former is a time-honored method of exercising dissent in our free society while the latter amounts to less of a principled disagreement over tactics or policy with other citizens, and more of an entrenched, nearly knee-jerk “hey, lay off OUR GUY” response, complete with the lowering of discourse and dissipation of energy that comes from focusing on internal squabbling over getting goals accomplished.
I say this as someone who knows: on the times I’ve seen someone post something regarding a policy that I think is simply wrong, or I send out a Tweet or post that is critical of something the administration did (or perhaps failed to do), I will get thirty or forty heated replies within ten minutes. If I just post up a political goal (say, we ought to be working on jobs), and even a link or two or a fleshed-out idea of what we ought to be doing about it, I usually get far fewer responses, if any. Many of the Obama fans’ timelines are full up with little beyond inter-clique high-fiving and snark about those they derogatorily refer to as “emoprogs” or “firebaggers” or (in a charming redux of Robert Gibbs’ rant in The Hill a while back) “professional lefties.” Obviously, Twitter is only one small aspect of each of our lives, and probably doesn’t convey that accurate a picture of the overall person…but it’s instructive in a disheartening way to see how much energy is wasted by so many people on issuing “gotcha” challenges or threats or insults to other lefties with whom they share so much in common in terms of ultimate policy goals and outlook.
I often observe Obama fans calling in one way or another for unity and then action, warning that if we here on the left don’t “unite”, then we will continue to be beaten by a better-organized right wing. It sounds good, at first: I actually agree the left ought to try to be more united and cohesive in our approach. Unfortunately, in practice, what Obama fans‘ call to “unite” actually operates as in real terms is a call to quit criticizing the President and/or conservative/Blue Dog Democrats and rally around them instead (dammit!).
It’s a bit like how some conservatives say they feel about gays: Obama fans don’t mind if liberal dissenters from some of the President’s policies or actions exist…they just don’t want them acting on those feelings of dissent. Or even, in truth, giving voice to them too loudly either, else doing so damages the Democrats’ or the President’s re-election chances. In other words: it’s fine to disagree, just as long as you don’t act on it or make too much noise about it. In the Obama fans’ view, the reason we’re in such a mess right now is that too many easily-dissatisfied lefties thought Obama promised them instant utopia and, when their unrealistic fantasies failed to materialize, too many of them complained too loudly and too long, and they didn’t turn out to vote in the 2010 elections. This flies in the face of the actual polls, though. As more than one analysis has demonstrated, it wasn’t “disgruntled/vengeful/unrealistic liberals” staying home that caused the unprecedented 2010 losses. Part of it was structural, and to the extent that Democrats underperformed even this model, it was a result of primarily younger, first-time voters (in 2008) staying home and older voters not doing so:
WHY did younger voters who’d voted for the first time in 2008 stay home on election day, 2010? That’s where the speculation begins, and, as it usually is, the answer is probably neither simple nor all due to one factor. Like most things (especially political things), the answer probably is difficult to pin down exactly and multifarious. But it’s pretty clear that it won’t be solved or reversed merely by Obama critics putting a sock in it, even if they were willing to do that. Obama fans like to cite the influence of the various commentators/bloggers/pundits whom they blame for the “enthusiasm gap” on the Democratic side (which, in their calculus, led to the “shellacking” of 2010). But this analysis doesn’t stand up to even the most cursory inspection. Most voters aren’t political junkies. Certainly the younger voters are often not (though some of the most dedicated organizers are indeed often the young ones). They don’t spend their days reading political blogs – or often even the op-ed section of the newspaper. Nor do they obsessively watch the Sunday political shows nor the evening gasbag shows on MSNBC or CNN. They simply get a feel for what they can see with their own eyes, compared to what they were expecting…or maybe hoping for. You remember who told ’em to hope, don’t you? Most of these young voters who voted in 2008 but not in 2010 didn’t fail to show up because Ed Schultz or Dan Choi or Jane Hamsher told them not to, they didn’t turn up because they didn’t think they got what they voted for in 2008. They felt deflated…and that leads to ennui or apathy, which leads to not voting.
And all the fandom, all the rallies, GOTV drives and the calls for “unity” in the world won’t change that much, nor will they have as positive an effect on Democratic turnout as would/does a set of politicians (particularly a President) of whom it cannot be said that they did things a lot differently once in office than they said they’d do on the campaign trail. The reason this matters to me is because of what I’ve described above: what Obama fans do (and do not do) in the upcoming months to the 2012 election will have an impact. LOD’s phantasmagorical imaginings about the eleventy-dimensional chess mastery Obama was displaying in the debt ceiling debate was pretty clearly nonsense to those of us who weren’t already Obama fans…but it sure kept a lot of dedicated, energized lefties from doing other things that might have been helpful to driving the debate in more useful direction. Likewise, now that the deal is done, I urge Obama fans not to simply double (or triple, or quadruple)-down on the “Obama was RIGHT!!1!1!” belief.
Unfortunately, however, one can already see evidence of this beginning to happen. Reading such stuff, I can only think of LOD’s many-layered rationalizations for why Obama was the “puppet master” all along. Please, I urge Democrats and particularly Obama fans to resist this gyration-inducing point of view and instead look at what every major economist (who isn’t a complete right-wing nut) has been saying: this deal is not just a terrible end result of the bargaining (no revenue, which Obama insisted he MUST have or he wouldn’t sign, etc.), but also a terrible direction to be taking in general – that of pursuing austerity in a time of 9%+ unemployment instead of stimulus and/or job creation.This started out as an unwise policy direction, and the deal surrounding it was poorly executed. Let’s not compound the error by trying to convince ourselves that because we need to rally ’round “our guys” (whom we’re fans of), we need to either find ways to spin this in a positive light, or simply stop talking about it at all, if all we can think of are negative-ish things to say.
All true progress begins from an accurate assessment of the current situation and estimation of the problems confronting us, followed by a specific plan to address those things. It can be inspired to great heights by a leader who thinks great thoughts and encourages us to believe great things are possible and that we can make them happen, but it is never furthered by the reflexive urge to circle the wagons, say only happy things and deny our own problems. And no amount of doing so will keep people from, in the end, realizing that the rhetoric hasn’t matched the reality.