In Search of a Champion
This past summer, when I started to think about what I wanted to see on Syncopated Politics, I anticipated some sort of erudite unified field theory of everything political, with multiple voices assaying one big issue after another in depth, with balance, with moderation.
I couldn’t have been more naïve in my hubris. It is extraordinarily difficult to fill a blank screen with something coherent. And, it is even harder to analyze the problems presented by such a complex organism as the country and the world we live in.
You wouldn’t know that from listening to the Republican Debates, or the White House Press briefings. You certainly wouldn’t know it from the slick ads that run in the media (Herman Cain’s notwithstanding). Politicians rehash the same nostrums over and over again, the same orthodoxy that substitutes for independent thinking. Tax cuts for rich people, tax cuts for the middle class, deregulation, drill baby drill, ever more stimulus; all to keep applying the astronomically expensive cattle prod to an already insensate economy. Reminds one of the wonderful old advertisements from the Patent Medicine Era called “One for a Man, Two for a Horse”. Colorful, but with very little chance of actually curing anything more than an overfilled wallet.
Yet, in the real world, the world we live in, simple hasn’t and doesn’t work, and there absolutely nothing that can give us any assuredness that doubling down on simple will work better. At the Columbia University conference I attended in September, some of the world’s smartest economists didn’t just disagree on nuance, they often took diametrically opposed positions. If they don’t know, why should we think our political aspirants do?
Obviously, our politicians don’t know. But what they can do, far more effectively than even Nobel Prize winning economists, is to lead, to frame the debate, to set direction, to create consensus. At this, they have proven to be even bigger failures than in coming up with viable solutions. And the people know it. Walk away for a moment from echo chamber of spin and outrage, and the people know that their leadership has failed them. Approval of Congress now stands at 9%, a number so extraordinary you wonder more about who is in the 9% then why the rest disapprove.
This vacuity is not the sole province of the GOP. The New York Time’s Thomas Freidman wrote a superb column in the aftermath of Steve Job’s death, “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio”. Yes, it’s true that the Republicans are devoid of any real ideas, and can be mean and loony and myopic, hell bent on destroying Obama at any cost. But the President isn’t rising to the occasion. Where are your ideas, Mr. Obama? Why won’t you push for them?
Mr. Obama came into the office thinking he might be a post-partisan President. He’s not, of course: he’s the most polarizing President since, well, George W. Bush, who was the most polarizing President since Bill Clinton. Clinton, Bush, Obama. All represent a new turn in American politics. De-legitimization. I remember reading a respected, fairly apolitical journalist talking about Bill Clinton a few months after he took office “he won’t do” said this talking head. The Washington elites, the power brokers, the connected who always make out well, regardless of which party controls the White House, they had decided “he won’t do." Too coarse, too outsider, too low born, too something. Not their kind. Clinton outfoxed them, but the first impression still sticks in my mind. Dubya’s “win” came with an asterisk that never quite washed away, he literally became a President of 50% plus one vote and then decided to govern that way. Rather than a bipartisan or just open-minded approach, he installed his fixer, Karl Rove, in the White House to run both his campaign and policy, outsourced decision-making to Dick Cheney, spent over five hundred days on vacation, and just dared us to dislike him. He ruled with an iron hand, holding the narrowest of majorities, knowing his own party would back him regardless of results. Bush II left compromise a discarded tool-he simply didn’t care what the rest of America thought, and fancied that willful deafness was leadership.
And then, Obama. The arc of his ascent was stunning: a state legislator to Senator, to President, in the blink of an eye. Watching Hillary Clinton, and then John McCain, react to him, you couldn’t help but get the impression that both of them thought exactly the same thing “What the Hell is he doing here? How can this guy be beating me?”
Well, he did beat them, with skill and nerve and eloquence. He preached moderation, inclusion, compromise, one nation, and people wanted it. But none of it worked when he became President, and the electorate soon realized it. The campaign never ended. From the moment he took the oath, his enemies aimed a sustained barrage of personal accusations, innuendo, birthers, madrassas’, Kenya, etc. etc. To this day, there are many in this country that think he has no right to the job, and far more who would do anything get rid of him. Just yesterday, the Loudoun County (Virginia) GOP sent out an email depicting him as a zombie with a bullet hole in his head. Ha ha-all in good fun!!!
So, Mr. Obama, in this environment, what’s next? Well, here’s some cheap advice. Be a champion. Champion your ideas. Make them big ideas-not the “bite sized initiatives.” Go big. Lead. Fight for what you believe in. Show the rest of us you have a direction. Show us you care about something more than kumbaya. Because whether your term in office has 14 months left or 62 months, remember that you will be fought every last inch for any initiative, regardless of whether it has merit. There will be no kumbaya. It was Bill Clinton’s genius, even through his lowest moments, to give the impression of rolling up his sleeves every day and going to work for the American people. Do the same. Make your case-tell us why your ideas are better. Make the Republicans fight you on concepts, not slogans, and use every tool in your toolbox. Stop relying on the rest of us to see the smallness of some of your opponents and the games they play. Show us the largeness of your ideas. Be a champion for what you believe in; and win or lose next year on what you believe in.
Roll up you sleeves, President Obama, go back to work, articulate where you want to go, and start punching. Trust the American people to make the right choice, because we will choose regardless.