Rahm Emanuel takes liberal base-bashing to a whole new level

The former Obama aide says the president's most loyal supporters are imagining promises he never made

Published October 16, 2012 2:00PM (EDT)

Among the least effective ways to help a struggling candidate is to berate that candidate's base voters. Self-evident as it is, this basic lesson is nonetheless often ignored by President Obama's most vocal supporters. Typically, they criticize liberals who have not merely the audacity to hope - but also the audacity to cross-reference the president's record with his original campaign pledges. So anathema is such an act to Democratic partisans that Obama administration officials now brazenly defy their most crystal clear promises - and then openly mock those who object to the duplicity.

Now, though, as the election enters its final death throes and the spasms of partisan desperation get ever more intense, Democrats are flinging out a special version of the old berate-the-base tactic. Rather than copping to the president's betrayals and explaining them away as allegedly necessary compromises, one of the president's chief surrogates, Rahm Emanuel, is publicly insisting that the president's most loyal supporters are downright stupid because they believe Obama made specific promises which he supposedly never made.

Emanuel's salvo comes in the new and exhaustive PBS Frontline documentary about the election. It's particularly relevant in advance of the upcoming presidential debate on foreign policy and national security. Here's the key excerpt:

Q: So let's talk about the war and him being a war president, something that a lot of his supporters didn't understand about him at the beginning.

EMANUEL: I find that -- it's like this. He told everybody he was going to be aggressive. He told everybody what he was going to do about targets. He said that "If I can find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I'll take that chance." You may not want to hear it, but he's talked about it. It's not a surprise. You may have been selective in what you heard, but he said it. You can't point to a single part of the way he's executed policy that he didn't enunciate beforehand.

Emanuel is correct on one point: Candidate Obama did, in fact, promise to invade Pakistan if he had "actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets." Where he then veers into ugly fantasy is his allegation that when it comes to national security policy, Obama has simply followed through on what he clearly enunciated. That's an egregious, fact-free, Romney-esque lie - one that deems millions of Obama voters ignoramuses for supposedly being "selective in what (they) heard."

Here are but three sets of facts to consider:

• Obama expressly signaled his opposition to the Bush administration's policies on rendition, indefinite detentions and secret military tribunals for terrorism suspects. Then as president, he endorsed all of those abominations, to the point where top Bush officials openly praise him for mimicking their policies. Worse, President Obama has asserted the right to assassinate U.S. citizens without charge, judge, jury or trial - a power no president has ever before publicly claimed, and one that candidate Obama never even tried to "enunciate."

• In his presidential run, candidate Obama told the Boston Globe that "the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." It was a statement specifically designed to attract votes from constitutionalists and anti-war liberals. Since becoming president, though, Obama has involved the United States in an ongoing drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; used U.S. military force in Libya; and is currently deploying troops to the Syrian border - all moves that happened without congressional approval. In fact, the one constitutionally mandated congressional vote cast about these wars was a House vote against the war in Libya - a vote President Obama summarily ignored.

• Candidate Obama repeatedly promised to "eliminate warrantless wiretaps" and "revise the Patriot Act." As president, Obama has presided over a huge increase in warrantless surveillance and extended the Patriot Act without serious reforms and for longer than even the GOP wanted.

It's up to individual voters to decide whether these betrayals are so profound as to warrant a vote against Obama in the election. There are persuasive arguments on both sides of that political debate.

However, there should be no debate about whether Obama has "executed policy" in national security affairs in a way "that he didn't enunciate beforehand." He hasn't done that. The only people who would argue to the contrary are professional political shills like Emanuel - and thanks to such incessant revisionism over the last few years, the narrative around Obama's national security policy remains muddled. As evidence, just look at the way PBS framed its discussion - the criticism of Obama's hawkish national security positions is billed not as a natural result of his reversals, but as "something that a lot of his supporters didn't understand about him at the beginning" - that is, as proof that liberal voters in 2008 were somehow ignorant or not paying attention.

While the chief-of-staff-turned-Chicago Mayor is certainly right that some "may have been selective in what (they) heard" - the "some" aren't principled liberals and civil libertarians. They are hyper-partisans like him who believe that holding candidates to their pledges is akin to blasphemy.

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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Barack Obama Liberals Pbs Progressives Rahm Emanuel