Monday, January 23, 2012

Fighting a dumb war

Paul Krugman correctly reams Larry Summers for having given Obama exactly the wrong advice on the economy -- and having done so from the get-go, as revealed in Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article about the newly released White House memos.

The broader point about Obama, though, is one that Lizza characteristically raises and misses. As usual, he doesn’t deeply understand the meaning of his own facts – or even his own observations about those facts.

The thing he misses here is that there’s no such thing as “public opinion” in a holistic or monolithic sense. There are (a) widespread feelings (things are getting better or getting worse); and (b) strong feelings about particular topics (abortion is a woman’s right, it is murder). So, yes, there is general “distrust of government.” But there’s also at least equal distrust of business – and therefore a widespread desire for help against its predations. There’s an even more widespread desire for someone to lead, already. There are many widely held and mutually contradictory wishes and biases and feelings and beliefs.

The reason Obama flunked was his lack of any personal information about which of those actually mattered. He picked the wrong version of “the public’s beliefs” to follow. In fact, framing this whole thing in terms of “attitudes toward government” is, yet again, an example of accepting the right’s frames, rather than fighting your battles on your home field. Think "entitlement plans." Lizza, like most of the MSN, is stuck inside frames Obama himself promulgated, which speak more to the Precious's psychic needs than to the needs of the country -- or even the prospects for political success.

Objectively (vs. psychologically) speaking, Obama didn’t have to wind up hog-tied and flunko. He could have framed this whole thing as getting the American social compact back to health and getting Americans back to work – something Hillary would have understood and done in a heartbeat. FDR surely did. Despite Lizza's ruminations on the limits of presidential influence -- and despite actual presidents' own humility on the subject -- is there any credible argument that the public was already pressing for the New Deal before Roosevelt got into office? Can there be any doubt that FDR shaped a new frame, a new model of government itself? Or that he did so in a political environment every bit as polarized as this one?

Lizza does report some salutary observations and ideas -- e.g., that the polarization we've seen is asymmetrical. But then he doesn't follow through on their implications. Given that asymmetry, shouldn't any actual attempt to wind up in a space of actual policy efficacy have pushed harder against the GOP than the Dems?

The truth is that Obama lost these battles before they began, because he chose to fight (or, rather, to wave the white flag within) the wrong battles.
To paraphrase someone, he shouldn't have been against all wars -- just dumb ones.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A pivot?

God may or may not play dice with the universe, but She is clearly watching out for Barack Obama. (Or, conversely, our president cut a really good deal with Beelzebub.) Whatever the agency for the way events are rolling out, he/she/it is making sure that O'll cross the finish line first a year hence. The whole thing feels like "The Truman Show" (before Jim Carrey's epiphany -- when everyone in town was scrambling to construct a nice world around him).

Consider his likely opposition, and the basket case GOP that is shooting itself in the forehead around him. If David Axelrod had gone to sleep and dreamed of a foil as perfect as Mitt Romney has turned out to be... and if he had then drifted into a reverie in which the entire phalanx of Romney's wingnut opponents would brand him indelibly as a hybrid of Freddy Kruger and Gordon Gekko... Axelrod wouldn't have dared to write it down when he woke up -- it's that outlandish.

I can't think of anything comparable in my lifetime of watching politics. When the Left turned on LBJ and by extension Hubert Humphrey, at least they were criticizing them for not being left enough. For Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry to use their dying campaigns to brand Romney as the Bain of the working class... it's as though Noam Chomsky had bought time on the Super Bowl to eviscerate Hillary Clinton as a raging socialist.

Of course, the hypocrisy is jaw-dropping. So much so that one is tempted to wonder whether "Newt Gingrich" and "Rick Perry" were planted as Manchurian candibots 60 years ago -- by, you know, the Trilateral Masons.

Anyway, whatever it says about them, I think the branding of Mitt will stick -- its sources are ideologically impeccable, and it lights up exactly Romney's Achilles heel. Romney, of course, is reinforcing this branding with his every excuse and clueless metaphor. He's George H.W. Bush at the checkout counter on steroids.

I watched "When Mitt Romney Came to Town" tonight, and I have to say, it feels to me as though this moment is a pivot, if not to the left, then at least away from the right. When Krugman and Brooks walk into that same room through different doors for the same edition of the paper, maybe something's up. And the irony of ironies is that its beneficiary will be the phantom Democrat now in the White House, the Luck Child of modern global politics.

One can only hope there's a Truman Show-style awakening on tap for this show's second season.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A national -- no, make that global -- resource

I'm talking about Paul Krugman. He is truly a remarkable thinker, teacher, writer. Tomorrow's column is just one among hundreds that actually teach something. He is to economics what Pauline Kael was to film criticism.