Think of this as Volume 14, Number 36 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
As I noted last week, proof that this is a crisis Presidency is obvious in the polls. (Hey, Tea Party. Two can play this game.)
No crisis President is popular at this point in their term. Lincoln wasn't — we were losing the war. FDR wasn't — there was serious doubt as to whether democracy would survive. Nixon certainly wasn't — "We're all Nixon's niggers now," said George Carlin, and the crowd roared.
Why is this? It's because politics are driven by myths and values, by assumptions of right and wrong. A crisis President, by definition, is elected in rejection of these assumptions, and gradually creates what I call a new Thesis, a new set of myths and values that will define power in coming decades.
So it is today. Every poll I see shows the President and his party are unpopular. They all show Republicans winning. But they don't see the Republicans as popular, because they're not.
Cut the deficit but also cut taxes on the people who have all the money and keep fighting the war. The party's leaders promise two years of non-stop investigations of every little thing the President or his Congressional leaders have done, and anything else Fox News can dream up.
None of that is relevant to our present problems. None of it will make the country better off. Its aim is simply to replace Obama with someone (Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Glenn Beck) more favored by the GOP.
In other words, it's about power. Policy doesn't enter into it. Neither, really, does principle.
When Washington reporters look at these facts — and I think both sides of the aisle would stipulate to the thrust of them — they really fail to ask the key question, which is why. And the follow up, what does this mean?
At the heart of the Nixon Thesis is the idea that Democrats are illegitimate, that we are unAmerican, that we have no respect for the "Real" America and thus no claim on power within the government. What Republicans are doing to the President is no different than what happened under Clinton, and no different than what happened under Carter. It's also how Republican Presidents treated Democratic Congresses. It was created by Spiro Agnew, who is now dead. That's his grave.
But it worked. This politics of demonization has worked wonderfully for a generation, for the entire political lifetimes of nearly everyone now working in politics, whether in journalism or in the grass roots, in Congress or on the TeeVee. It drives the base to pull the Republican lever, it intimidates and infuriates Democrats, and it convinces what middle there is (and there isn't much) that both sides are crazy, but at least the GOP is united so let's go with them.
Look the comments on this blog. Read them carefully, especially those which engage in name-calling. There's nothing special about me or what I'm saying. It's the way they play, it's how they are. There is a profoundly anti-democratic streak to the Nixon Thesis, a core belief that only believers have any call on power, and that any challengers to that assumption must be politically and personally destroyed. It's less about the what of politics than the how.
But that's just half the story.
Democrats have lived their political lives like wives in an abusive marriage. Some have fought back and been pounded in return. Others have shrugged their shoulders and sought accommodation or crumbs from the Republican table. It's a political version of Stockholm Syndrome.
Again, nothing unusual in this.
- It's how Republicans were under Eisenhower, who spent his entire political career leaning against the New Deal and made no effort to overturn it.
- It was how Democrats acted during the Progressive era. Wilson merely added a stream of racism and foreign policy idealism to what Teddy Roosevelt had already created.
- It was how Democrats acted, too, during the Civil War era. Grover Cleveland never directly challenged Republican assumptions, he just tried to do what they wanted to do more honestly.
- And so on, back to Henry Clay's Whigs, who never elected their leader or any real Whig during the entire Jacksonian Period, just a couple of Generals.
As Prof. Gilbert Cuthbertson taught me at Rice, MVP. Myths x Values = Power. The stories we tell, and the lessons they hold, define power in a democracy. They are more powerful than men or institutions. They are our bedrock, even more than the Constitution.
Challenging those assumptions is the job of a Crisis Leader. Challenging, and overthrowing those assumptions. That's why the job is so hard. That is why the leader is invariably so hated.
But, again, what of the followers? Generally, by this time, they're pretty discouraged, and they are now, too. Movement Conservatives in 1970 distrusted Nixon as much as liberals did — I know this from personal experience. All they were getting from him was rhetoric. What was coming from Washington was still liberalism, often with the bark off.
Yet we know now that something was happening. Myths were being successfully overthrown. New values were replacing the old. Conservative myths, and conservative values, were slowly encroaching upon, and replacing, those of the New Deal Era.
The same thing is happening now. Liberals see the President as being too cozy with the national security establishment, too friendly with Wall Street, too weak to directly challenge even a blowhard like Beck. They see themselves and their causes as being under constant attack, just as under Bush, and they blame the President.
- Passed health care reform.
- Passed financial regulation.
- Passed the stimulus.
- Managed the Bush-era TARP program and turned a profit on most of it.
- Replaced cronies and crooks with honest regulators who know about what they're regulating.
- Gotten two strong liberals onto the Supreme Court.
- Shortened the Great Depression that was coming into a Great Recession that will only last half as long.
- Lowered crime. Despite economic hardship crime rates are actually down.
- Ended the killing of Americans in Iraq, the dreaded "peace with honor."
Has he done everything? No. He hasn't launched a War Against Oil. He hasn't brought the economy back.
But he has accomplished an enormous amount, often with a fairly light touch. He hasn't called anyone a traitor, nor has he allowed his followers to do so. Even President Bush won kind words from him last night.
What's up with that?
What's up with it is the Obama Thesis of Consensus. It's more than a new set of policies. It's a different way of doing politics, as different from Nixon as Nixon was from FDR. And it's quite different from FDR as well.
It's not Right, and its' not Left either. It's Center. And it's a new way of defining Center. The Center will now be defined by all those willing to engage in honest debate, who are willing to bring facts and not just opinions to the table.
It is, in short, a scientific approach. As in the scientific method.
Scientists don't respond well to bluster. They respond to evidence. They look at how the evidence was gathered, too. When they disagree — and they do it often — they do it respectfully. When someone is trying to cheat the system, the penalty is that no one listens to you, other scientists cease taking you seriously. This can be worse than death itself.
If you look at what unites the President's appointments, it's this evidence-based approach. From Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, to National Coordinator of Health IT David Blumenthal, to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid director Donald Berwick. They got where they are by being experts in their fields, and theiy approach their jobs with the discipline this taught them.
It doesn't look exciting. In fact, it's not. It's boring. Mainly because no one is challenging them on relevant grounds, on grounds of evidence. Instead their opponents have resorted to name-calling. As they have with the President himself.
Liberals have seen this game before. They saw 1994, they saw 1978, they assume this is a re-run.
But something has changed. Most Americans no longer share Republican assumptions. That simplistic, adversarial approach has been rejected by events. The Bush era is not down the memory hole, and in all the screaming going on in Right Blogistan it's still awfully relevant.
How would today's conservatives be different than yesterday's? Really. They claim they would be "truer" to "principles." How? And what "principles" are you talking about? Deficit reduction, when you still demand new wars and tax cuts? Americanism, when you're more judgemental than Joe McCarthy and more false than Parson Weems?
George W. Bush made that same promise, remember. He would be more true to "conservative principles." So did Newt Gingrich. So did Ronald Reagan. It was a lie then and it's a lie now. Because conservatism is no longer a set of principles. It's an ideology, on a par with Communism, Fascism, and Feudalism. It brooks no dissent, it rejects reality. It's all about projection, and in the charges leveled against this Administration you will see every fault and flaw in it.
What liberals have seen, throughout their lives, is a game they call "Charlie Brown." Each cycle they think they are going to win, because they're so excited and so energized. Then something happens, the knees jerk as the knees will, based on the assumptions of the last generation, and victory is snatched away.
Well, the assumptions have now well and truly changed. Once the President engages in the fight, once he wheels the full power of his office on behalf of his party — something every President has done at election time since the John Adams Administration — you'll be surprised.
Go ahead, Rightys. Try and kick the ball. Because now we're Lucy, and we're holding it.