Monday, November 3, 2014

Jonah and Queeg

November 3, 2014

Tomorrow, the Republicans are going to absolutely obliterate the Democrats.  They will materially increase their majority in the House, and they are going to take the Senate with room to spare.  Mitch McConnell has not only measured the drapes, he’s going to have the entire place reupholstered.

I could give you a lot of tactical reasons.  The Republicans have a better ground game this year.  The Kochs have poured money everywhere—the return on their investment will be many-fold, but they are long-range investors, and the really gigantic yield will come in 2017.  There are no Mourdochs, no Todd Akins, no kooky major candidates.   Several popular Democratic incumbents have retired, leaving a lot of turf to defend.  Some of the at-risk seats were grabbed by Democrats when Obama won his first election, in 2008, and they may be standing on less firm legs.  All true, all tilt things in the GOP direction.

But nothing compares to the enormous impact of the widespread unhappiness with Barack Obama.  Much of it entirely merited.  I like Barack Obama, I voted for him twice, I am much more in sync with him on many major issues than I am with the GOP, I had hopes he would really move the country forward, I acknowledge he was dealt a horrible hand, but at this point, it really doesn’t matter.  Obama has a 40% approval rating because he deserves it.  If you went to a doctor with a difficult and debilitating set of conditions, and he probed you and tested you and examined you and prescribed for you, and some of the problems you had were somewhat better, but you still felt lousy every morning, you might very well blame the physician instead of the disease.

Of course, this is unfair.  We have an absurd desire to hold our leaders to an impossible standard of being supermen, while at the same time insisting they do everything exactly the way we would.  Or, if we happen to be nothing but a partisan or ideologue, nothing they could possibly do would ever be anything less than awful, even if what they did we basically agree with, or everything they do would be absolutely wonderful, even if what they did was against our interest.  That is the nature of the political animal, and it is human nature as well. 

But when it comes to a President, just like the doctor, fair doesn’t matter.  We want to feel better, and Obama hasn’t made us feel that way. On the two seminal issues, peace and prosperity, we are all unhappy. The war in Iraq that all but the most die-hard neocons wanted to end, has basically ended, but a new and virulent disease has sprung up, allowing those die-hards to demand it continue endlessly to legitimize their mistakes.  The economy is better (and much better if you compare it to the day Obama took office) but the recovery is uneven—the rich are richer than ever before, and the middle and working classes are just getting by. 

That backdrop makes it far harder for Obama to persuade people that things are improving.  Then, you layer in the big, ugly social issues that enrage subsets of the population; abortion, guns, gay rights, immigration, the role of religion in public life—all of which have played out with great violence over the last few years, and you have an unhappy stew of dissatisfaction.  Everyone has something to complain about.  

The Democrats know it.  They have been running as fast as they can from Mr. Obama. Obama is like the biblical Jonah, whose presence on a ship induces an enormous storm, and needs to be thrown overboard for the seas to calm.

But, I don't think the Jonah analogy is at all apt, if for no other reason that tossing him isn't going to save anyone.  Rather, I keep coming back to a different trope I’ve seen in far-right publications.  Obama is like Captain Queeg, perhaps competent for some lower-level job, but burned out, unhinged in a typhoon, unable to deal with myriad crises, and ultimately relived of command for being unfit. The brave officers who stepped in did so at the risk of their own reputations and their own professional futures.

It’s a tempting analogy, and one easily repeated and adapted.  But one of the nice things about fiction is that it’s a lot like politics, in that the teller can demonstrate a convenient memory and an even more convenient conscience.   Watch The Caine Mutiny to the end, and you get a little different take.  Barney Greenwald, the defense attorney who gets Queeg to crack on the stand (the strawberries) later shows up at a cocktail party where the now-acquitted mutineers are celebrating.  He’s a little drunk, and a little indiscreet, and throws a little cold water over things. It is true that Queeg failed—he was intellectually and emotionally exhausted, but he wasn’t helped by any of the officers at the party, who spurned him and made fun of him and thought he wasn’t good enough.  

Bad government (or even less-than-perfect government) doesn’t just happen. It's a team effort, and whatever Mr. Obama’s flaws are, they are matched by a large number of officers (our officers, since we send them there) who just weren’t going to help.  Six years of government, not one single moment of cooperation.

That’s a winning strategy.  As The Hill points out this morning, the GOP has succeeded in making this election about Obama, and is about to reap the rewards.  But later, there’s a ship to run, and typhoons seem to be popping up everywhere.

When I look at the leadership in Washington these days, from Mr. Obama on down, I don’t see a lot of hope for positive change.  The GOP has a big stake in showing they can govern responsibly, as a predicate for attempting to sweep in 2016, but I honestly think they don’t have it in them. 

Still, tomorrow night, the champagne will flow, and flow red.

Wednesday morning, the rest of us will have the hangover.  It’s still our ship. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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