GOP's paranoia and cruelty: The real lessons of the Obama presidency

After tomorrow's midterm results, the media will settle on some tired explanations. Here's why they're all wrong

Published November 3, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist             (AP/Reuters/Doug Mills/Mike Theiler/Yuri Gripas/photo montage by Salon)
Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist (AP/Reuters/Doug Mills/Mike Theiler/Yuri Gripas/photo montage by Salon)

As I write this, the midterm elections are imminent. A number of races are quite close, but it seems safe to say that Republicans will probably win control of the Senate, if only by a slim margin. Should this happen, two things are virtual certainties: first, a blast of right-wing triumphalism, whose upshot will be that the electorate has endorsed Republican obstruction and its virulent rejection of all-things-Obama; second, an equally shrill threnody of Democratic recrimination, whose principal refrain will be (more or less) “Obama did it!”

So here at last we will have the bipartisan moment so many of our bien pensant thinkers and officials have longed for. Ain’t consensus grand?

These reactions, celebratory on the one hand, accusatory on the other, will probably exhibit another parallelism as well. Some Republicans will urge caution with their newly won majority, arguing that success with the 2014 electorate will not automatically transfer to the electorate of 2016. Others, flush with victory, will shrug off this concern; the 2014 results, they will say, bespeak the Mind of America. All that’s necessary to ensure success in 2016 is Fidelity (to conservative principles) and Resolve (in conservative loins).

The Democratic version of this conflict will similarly array the anxious against the assured. The former will wonder if another disastrous midterm doesn’t indicate a need for some recalibration of liberal politics; the latter will demur that the demographics of presidential electorates irresistibly favor the progressive cause.

Far be it from me to offer advice to Republicans. I would, however, like to comment on these two dilemmas as they bear on liberal politics. In each case, I will argue, real dangers lurk if Democrats learn the wrong lessons from the Obama years.

* * *

“It’s all Obama’s fault!” is an almost inevitable trope, given the president’s dolorous approval numbers and the spectacle of Democratic candidates everywhere scrambling to elude his embrace. The point here will be to insist that his failings are purely personal -- that they reflect Obama’s “aloofness,” his lack of interest in the tending of congressional egos, his inability “to lead.”

And so they do, to a certain extent. But to pretend that the president’s unpopularity is due entirely to personal factors is to commit one of the favorite mistakes of American political commentary: namely, to remove the politics from politics.

To see this, it will be helpful to recall the circumstances in which Obama first entered the White House. The economy, powered during the Bush years by cheap money and an explosion in corporate and household debt, had imploded in the third quarter of 2008 when the housing bubble collapsed. Bush’s legacy in foreign policy was, if anything, even more ruinous: two failed (and hideously expensive) wars, a grievously battered reputation abroad, a network of seriously strained alliances. Toss in a broken healthcare system, the need for an energy program shaped around the realities of climate change, and a failed immigration regime, and you had quite a full plate for the new president -- a real shit sandwich, as they say in France.

An army’s generals, it’s often said, are always refighting the last war. Similarly, politicians often find themselves engaging the opposition as it existed years earlier. Confronted with multiple crises, Obama responded as presidents before him always had in trying times -- with calls for national unity. To demonstrate his sincerity, he tendered proposals that incorporated Republican ideas in pursuit of fairly moderate aims: in healthcare, not a single-payer system but a reliance on private insurance markets wedded to an individual mandate, a notion borrowed from the conservative Heritage Foundation; in energy policy, an attempt to curb carbon emissions through the use of cap-and-trade, another market-oriented device originally favored by Republicans. To arrest the collapse of the economy, Obama turned to the same remedy employed by presidents since FDR -- a counter-cyclical stimulus, though in his case one much more modest than many liberal economists preferred and deliberately leavened with tax cuts to make it more palatable to Republicans.

We know now how it all turned out. Obama might have reasonably expected the same level of cooperation from the loyal opposition as other presidents had received in times of national emergency, especially as this particular emergency originated in Republican policies and occurred on their watch. That Republicans would feel some responsibility to assist in the solution of problems they largely created would have been a perfectly natural thought for Obama to have.

Natural, but mistaken. Exactly three Republicans, all of them in the Senate, voted for the 2009 stimulus package. Not a single Republican in either chamber voted for the Affordable Care Act. And Senate Democrats were forced to table the Kerry-Lieberman energy bill, whose centerpiece was cap-and-trade, when it became clear that no Republican would protect it against an inevitable GOP filibuster. This pattern of fierce and bitter obstruction has persisted throughout Obama’s presidency; it is the defining feature of his administration’s relationship with Congress.

And it is an extraordinary development in our politics. It’s important not to miss this point because of cynicism or, alternatively, naiveté. Politics is about conflict, and Obama’s mistier rhetoric to the contrary -- all that stuff decrying our division into red states and blue states in favor of the United States of America -- was always absurd. He had no right to expect unanimous support. What he did have a right to expect, given the experience of previous presidents, was hard bargaining -- a series of negotiations that would ultimately lead, through compromise, to a consensus program. Politics is about cooperation, too.

Or used to be. We had a politics like that for most of our history, but not any longer. It changed for one fairly simple reason: because the Republican Party changed.

Thanks to the reporting of Robert Draper and others, we’ve known for some time that Republican leaders were not forced into obstruction by any principled objections to Obama’s policies. To the contrary, they adopted obstruction as a conscious strategy before they had seen a single legislative proposal from his administration. On the night of Obama’s 2008 inaugural, a coterie of Republican worthies, including Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich, met at a Washington restaurant to discuss the GOP’s posture toward the newly ascendant Democrats. How should they deal with Obama and his majorities in Congress? The project of absolute obstruction emerged from that gathering. Kevin McCarthy, another attendee, then a deputy whip in the House and now majority leader in that body, put it this way: “We’ve gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.” And so they did.

Like all presidents, Obama has made many mistakes. Personally I thought it was a blunder to move on healthcare reform in 2009 when the economy was in truly desperate straits and so obviously needed to be the focus of his time and effort. (And to be seen to be that focus.) Republicans owned the economic crisis, and making it the face of his agenda would have forced them to defend an inherently weak position if they wanted to oppose him. By taking up healthcare so early, he allowed Republicans to shift the argument to a much more complex, ambiguous and contested issue. One might also point to the disastrous rollout of the ACA website last October, an utterly gratuitous self-inflicted wound from which the administration has never really recovered.

Lamentable as these missteps were, however, it is now clear that Obama’s most crippling mistake was his failure to understand the changed nature of his opposition. His approach to congressional Republicans -- borrowing their ideas, trimming his legislative sails -- might have made perfect sense as recently as the Clinton years. (Before the Lewinsky farce poisoned everything, that is.) But there was never any chance it would succeed with the Republican Party Obama inherited in 2008--- much less the one he confronted after the Tea Party midterms of 2010.

There are many milestones in the evolution of today’s GOP. The McCarthy moment in the early 1950s signaled that a latent right-wing populism might be activated by the adroit exploitation of religious, social and political anxieties. A decade later, the Goldwater campaign discovered new valences in the racial resentments of the civil rights era South. Nixon showed his party how to fashion these insights into a coherent strategy; his later disgrace, and the feckless rump presidency of his successor, Gerald Ford, demoralized what was left of the Eisenhower wing of the GOP and cleared a path for the resurgent Goldwaterites, now under the leadership of Ronald Reagan. Newt Gingrich, elected in 1978 to represent a district in Georgia, adapted Nixon’s divide-and-conquer tactics to the internal politics of the House -- almost single-handedly, he drove Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, from his speakership on charges that Wright had profited unethically from a book deal -- and then to the fight for electoral control of the House itself. Republicans would remain a minority party, he warned, as long as institutional comity mattered more to them than victory. If they wanted to win -- really wanted to win -- they had to be prepared to use every weapon at their disposal, even if this meant vilifying their Democratic colleagues as threats to civilization. The us-or-them rhetoric of the GOP’s increasingly Southern electorate, and the cultural rage beneath it, were mobilized to do exactly that. When Gingrich’s “Contract With America” campaign delivered the House and Senate to Republicans in the 1994 midterms, it was widely accepted (among conservatives, anyway) as a vindication of his slash-and-burn politics.

The subsequent history of the GOP is essentially a series of footnotes to these developments. The party as it exists today combines the paranoia mined by McCarthy and Goldwater with Gingrich’s conception of politics as a theatre of apocalyptic cruelty. (Reagan’s crude redaction of an already crude Goldwaterism abides, but his sunny uplift, his sense of America as the future and of the future as untrammeled promise, has been rejected.) The Clinton impeachment, Islamophobia, Sarah Palin, birtherism, death panels, economic-stimulus-as-socialism, “legitimate rape,” Second Amendment solutions, Benghazi!, ISIS fighters on the U.S. – Mexico border, Ebola! Ebola! Ebola!--- this is the bitter harvest of the GOP’s 60-year declension into a party of white, rural Southern ressentiment. 

In any other period of our history, there would have been definite limits on a party’s ability to be taken seriously as a national force when it had so obviously curdled into a mainly regional entity. But that was then. Think of a political party as a mechanism for converting votes into money and that money into more votes and -- etc., etc. Most of the time, this logic forces truly ambitious parties into a broad ideological footprint, the better to maximize their electoral appeal. Now imagine a world in which political actors can acquire economic resources regardless of the breadth (or lack thereof) of their ideological visions. In this world, any systemic restraints on extremism have been effectively removed. The link between electoral appeal and economic success has been severed.

Thanks to institutional and technological changes in the right-wing universe, this is precisely the world we live in today. The proliferation of conservative “think tanks,” PACs and media outlets has created an alternative revenue stream for Republican politicians, one openly contemptuous of compromise or moderation and potentially much more lucrative than the traditional party model.

These developments have given rise to a class of conservative figures one can only describe as political entrepreneurs. Some of them, such as Sarah Palin or Jim DeMint, use the party model as a stepping-stone to media celebrity and the commentariat; others, such as Ted Cruz, move between both worlds. But the effect on the Republican Party has been singular and undeniable. For the first time in our history, one of our major political parties is dominated by people who no longer identify success with winning elections. Ideological purity is much more important, because it guarantees passage between the conservative realms. Defined by its twin poles of rigidity and rejection, this was the Republican Party Barack Obama confronted on Jan. 20, 2009.

* * *

A highly experienced politician of great strategic insight and superb tactical skills would have found it difficult to manage an opposition of this kind. Obama, sadly, is none of these things. By the time he figured out who he was dealing with, the damage had already been done. Perhaps the most fundamental of his mistakes, one that underlay a dozen other missteps, was his failure to appreciate one of the oldest pieces of political wisdom: Power abhors a vacuum. 

The Republican strategy of obstruction was, in part, a delaying tactic. In 2009, they knew how damaged the economy was -- having overseen most of that damage themselves -- and they knew it would get worse before it got better. They drew exactly the right conclusion from these facts: that as Obama took the oath of office for the first time, he was as popular as he would ever be. The level of public goodwill toward him and his policies, as captured crudely by his approval numbers, would inevitably decline as the economic wreckage deepened. This decline could be accelerated if Republicans did everything possible to thwart Obama’s economic program, thereby making it more difficult for him to reverse the contraction and stimulate growth. In the meantime the GOP would consolidate its forces, tend to its aggrieved base, and wait to offer itself as a newly plausible alternative to the public at large.

Delay had another aspect as well. Even where it did not produce an actual deterioration in circumstances, it could still have the effect of bringing government to a stand-still--- and this would serve Republican purposes almost as well. The endless filibusters in the Senate, for example, were designed with exactly this purpose in mind. Republicans knew that many voters would be unhappy with this tactic, but that ultimately they would blame Democrats more than Republicans--- and not just because of the obvious fact that Democrats are “the party of government.” They would blame Democrats because, in their eyes, they had given them control of the government when they gave them the White House. They invested this power in Democrats because they wanted them to make the government work on their behalf--- to get things done. When debate grinds on interminably without resolution, when government appears unable to respond promptly and effectively to obvious difficulties, when problems fester without relief--- the party in control of the White House always suffers more than its opponents.

One can certainly object that the public should be more discriminating in its allocation of blame, more sophisticated in its understanding of how Republicans have manipulated our constitutional machinery. One can suggest that Obama’s instinct for thoroughness in deliberation is exactly what we should want in a chief executive. There is force in all these replies, but they do not change the basic calculus here---when the public gives a party political power, they expect it to be used. Used judiciously, wisely, responsibly--- but used. In the context of Obama’s first two years in office, we might phrase this as a simple rule of thumb: If the voters give you legislative majorities--- as they gave Democrats in 2008 and may again in 2016--- do not hesitate to employ them. You will pay a price if you do.

* * *

The mention of majorities brings us to the question of demography. It is only natural that liberals should be tempted these days to take solace in the thought that time is on their side. Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of six presidential elections, and the older, rural white voters who most reliably support Republicans are in a long-term demographic decline. Liberalism, on this view, is simply on the right side of History. Resistance is futile.

Except when it isn’t. Here again we see the tendency to believe that politics is about something besides politics. Earlier it was the personal deficits of President Obama; now it’s the inexorable logic of demographic change. What this leaves out is all the ways in which Republicans can try to frustrate, evade, and minimize the effects of this change. We know they will try to do this, because they already have--- and quite successfully, in many cases. If you believe that the electorate is evolving in ways that are inconvenient for you, you have a number of options at your disposal. You might, most obviously, choose to evolve along with it. But if that is tactically awkward in the short- to medium-term, as it is for our Republicans, the next best thing is to triage the electorate--- to expel those elements whose presence would be most dire for you. All the newly passed laws in Republican-controlled states allegedly aimed at the non-existent menace of “voter fraud” are, of course, attempts to do exactly that. The other thing you might do is try to maximize the impact of any advantages you still have. The well-funded legal challenges to campaign finance reform, and the success they’ve met with in a conservative-dominated Supreme Court, must be seen in this light.

Not to be scanted here, however, is the fact that our system itself makes it easy for electoral minorities to thwart the will of the majority. It’s one thing to say that some rights are so fundamental they should be placed beyond the reach of legislatures and executives. This is the message of the Bill of Rights, and it is entirely proper. It’s quite another to say that an entire chamber of Congress should grant the millions of people in California no more legislative power than the half-million citizens of Wyoming--- yet this is the foundational logic of the United States Senate. To invest an already anti-democratic body like this with a ferociously minoritarian tool such as the filibuster is a double folly.

That all these devices, whether strategic or structural, have been exploited so relentlessly by today’s Republicans exposes at least two fundamental truths about our politics. The first is that their vision is itself a minoritarian one, rooted in the essentially Southern belief that power rightly belongs to those who satisfy certain criteria of worth or status. The principle of legitimacy is not democratic but racial, or religious, or ideological, or economic--- or some combination of these things. The second is that progressives must make the elimination--- or at least amelioration--- of these anti-democratic devices a principal part of their agenda. Their own future prospects depend on it. The Senate is probably here to stay, but the filibuster can and should be abolished--- not merely whittled down, as in Harry Reid’s reforms of last year, but ripped up root and branch. Democrats should also propose legislation--- call it the “Voting Rights Act For A New Century” if you like--- that rationalizes federal election law. It should standardize and necessitate periods of early voting, make election day a national holiday, and declare illegal any forms of voter ID with substantially disparate racial or ethnic impacts. It should also enforce uniform standards for the administration of polling places and precincts, including the provision of voting machines.

This agenda would be controversial and difficult to achieve. It would require strategic ability and tactical skill, strong advocacy and public argument. But what is the alternative? Demographic change will not magically usher in a progressive golden age; liberal political action is necessary if demography is to serve progressive ends. The passage of Barack Obama from elected office will mean the loss of a highly intelligent, well-intentioned, frustratingly occluded politician, but not the slightest modulation in the GOP’s insistence on the delusions and privileges of its electorate.

Democrats, of course, have their own delusions. The idea that our problems are rooted in Obama’s personality, that population change is a deus ex machina--- what these mistakes have in common is the belief that political agency can be removed from politics. It cannot. Nothing has shaped our political moment more deeply than the agency of conservative activists; the dark dreams of Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and Newt Gingrich are our inheritance. But influential too have been the strategic blunders Democrats made in response to these troubled visions. Unless they learn the lessons of this history, there is no good reason to think 2016 will dispel the darkness and let in the light.

By Kim Messick

Kim Messick’s work has appeared in Salon, Real Clear Politics, Huffington Post, and other venues. He’s writing a book about the liberalism of Lionel Trilling and Bernard Williams.

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