Thursday, January 21, 2010

William Greider on Obama's Wake-Up Call: Monumental Miscalculations Led to Massachusetts Debacle

More good commentary about what the Massachusetts senatorial defeat portends for the Obama administration. I’m particularly impressed today with William Greider’s “Obama’s Big Wake-Up Call” at Alternet.

In Greider’s view, the Massachusetts special election reveals “monumental miscalculations by which Obama has governed, both in priorities and political-legislative strategies.” And I agree.

As I’ve noted repeatedly on this blog, there’s a fundamental problem with the politics of pragmatic calculation, period. The miscalculation begins with the belief that political leaders can prescind from the hard work of making sound value judgments, and do nothing but calculate: calculate to win. To stay on top. To ride the prevailing wind.

To triangulate and manipulate. To manage refractory constituencies by setting one against the other.

The cynical, pragmatic, values-vacant calculation began from day one of the new administration. It began even before the administration founds it feet, with the choice of such cynical calculators par excellence as Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner, and David Axelrod as Mr. Obama’s closest advisors.

Axelrod is already spinning the Massachusetts election results fast and furious. The New York Times reports today that he’s told their reporters that this is a classic case of people caught napping.

Not a classic case of malfeasance in governing. Not a classic case of squandering a healthy popular mandate for real change we can believe in. Not a classic case of monumental calculation.

Our side was caught napping.

Oh, and Senator Brown is a sweet guy. Pleasant guy. Appealing.

Just another guy. One of us, wearing a red suit while ours is blue.

The doltish stolidity of Mr. Axelrod’s remarks about the meaning of the Massachusetts election, the guy-talk, the refusal to entertain questions about the fundamental significance of Massachusetts’ sudden political sea-change: all of this reveals the moral vacuousness that is, front and center, the reason many ardent supporters of the new president have become so disillusioned with him so quickly. And are withdrawing their support and constructive energy from an administration that has so bitterly dashed the hopes of its strongest supporters.

As Greider notes,

Obama's most disturbing quality is that he evidently intended this from the start. Soaring rhetoric notwithstanding, he managed the presidency as a pragmatist in search of the possible. The real goals for change were minimalist, not visionary. This has to change and soon, if he is to revive his presidency.

Obama, in other words, has to change himself. That may sound too wishful and maybe it is. But we know he is a brilliant politician, astute in his political vision. The great politicians, when faced with new circumstances, revise themselves. We will see if Obama can.

He evidently intended this from the start. He intended the cynical, calculating pragmatism from the start—from the moment he chose to surround himself with Emanuel, Geithner, and Axelrod. From the minute he picked Rick Warren to give his inaugural invocation.

There’s a straight line from the cynical, calculating minimalist pragmatism of those choices, to the Nobel speech, in which the president tried to use Niebuhrian Christian realism to argue for the continuation of cold-war politics whose pertinence has long since vanished from the world’s political arena. There’s a straight line from the cynical, calculating minimalist pragmatism of the president’s very first choices, when the reins of power were placed in his hands, to the muddle that the Democrats have made of health care reform as they’ve appeased economic interest groups and ignored the strong public preference for universal coverage.

Leaders lead first and foremost by leading. Not by calculating. They lead by articulating clear, values-laden objectives, and then choosing leadership teams who buy into those objectives and know how to communicate the values on which they depend.

Leaders don’t lead by revoking promises they’ve made in the hearing of millions of people, by acting as if their word counts for nothing, by surrounding themselves with political power-brokers tone-deaf to values. Leaders radically undermine their leadership when they play cynical political games with their own base, triangulating their supporters, leaking off-hand slams about leftists and pajama-clad bloggers to the media while they cut back-room deals with big business.

I’m well aware that the problem the new administration faces is not the president’s alone. It’s a problem that runs through the Democratic party itself—a party that has lost its soul, because it has capitulated to the same economic interest groups that have run the Republican party for a long time now. I know that blue dogs in places like my home state have done the president no favor through their back-stabbing truculence when any progressive reform is brought to the table, and through their whoring of themselves and their integrity to any corporate maven willing to throw money into their coffers.

Even so, I hold the president accountable first and foremost for what has happened to his administration, because he is its leader. What he says sets the tone. What he does gives a signal to his followers about where their priorities should lie.

As Pam Spaulding notes in a recent posting at her Pam’s House Blend blog, the flares went up early in the new administration for Mr. Obama’s LGBT supporters. We saw Rev. Warren strut and fret his hour upon the inaugural stage while Bishop Robinson’s mike was turned off, and we knew. We knew what was coming.

When the promise to end DADT suddenly became hopelessly problematic after the administration told us it would end this unjust policy; when the new administration defended DOMA with breathtakingly homophobic briefs after it had told us that it opposed DOMA; when the president’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, suddenly developed severe amnesia anytime a question about gay rights or gay anything came up: we knew. We knew what was coming.

And so, it was no surprise to us when, as Pam Spaulding notes, the worm turned on every other aspect of the new administration’s progressive agenda. And now, a year down the road from the inauguration, one of the most predictably Democratic seats in one of the Democratic strongholds of the country has gone Republican.

And the response of one of the new president’s chief advisors is to engage in sweet-guy talk, pleasant guy, appealing guy.  Just got caught napping by a super-sweet guy who had his act together better than we did.

What seems to be smart political calculation is always foolish miscalculation when the people doing the calculating are blind.  And deaf.  And soulless.  And fundamentally misinformed about the state of American politics in the 21st century, as they continue to take their cues from a playbook that was already outmoded when the last Democratic Grand Calculator, Mr. Clinton, sat in the White House and imagined that cutting deals with the sweet guys wearing red suits would assure his party a lasting role in the American political process.