Saturday, February 20, 2010


A couple of weeks ago, a very politically conservative friend of mine asked me to write a blog-post responding to an article in the Washington Post published on February 7th. The article, entitled “Why Are Liberals So Condescending” begins as follows:

“Every political community includes some members who insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots. But American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration. Indeed, all the appeals to bipartisanship notwithstanding, President Obama and other leading liberal voices have joined in a chorus of intellectual condescension.

“It's an odd time for liberals to feel smug. But even with Democratic fortunes on the wane, leading liberals insist that they have almost nothing to learn from conservatives. Many Democrats describe their troubles simply as a PR challenge, a combination of conservative misinformation -- as when Obama charges that critics of health-care reform are peddling fake fears of a ‘Bolshevik plot’ – and the country’s failure to grasp great liberal accomplishments. "We were so busy just getting stuff done . . . that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are," the president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in a recent interview. The benighted public is either uncomprehending or deliberately misinformed (by conservatives).

“This condescension is part of a liberal tradition that for generations has impoverished American debates over the economy, society and the functions of government -- and threatens to do so again today, when dialogue would be more valuable than ever.”

I could go on, but you get the drift. Liberals are viewed as dogmatic, disrespectful to the point of disdainful, and ultimately uninterested in any ideas that emerge from the American right. More to the point, to the extent that a meaningful left-right dialogue is completely absent from the American public sphere, the fault is assigned primarily to the liberals, who are seen as far less open minded than the bulk of their conservative counterparts.

Is it true? Are liberals primarily to blame for the pathetic state of our left-right dialogue? Candidly, I find that question about as pointless as asking who was more at fault, the Hatfields or the McCoys. Once the feud reached a fever pitch, who cares how it started, and who could possibly identify one “family” as any crazier than the other? Right now, the voices on both left and right have become thoroughly shrill and disrespectful to the other. But what’s worse is that the statesmen and women in the so-called center – the ones who call themselves “bi-partisan” and claim that they are attempting to work across the aisle – have become anything but trustworthy. Just look at the moderates in the Senate who held out their support for the Health Care bill until they were able to extract a large helping of pork for their home state. Now, when someone calls him or herself “moderate” or “bi-partisan” s/he comes across as an opportunist with an agenda. The action these days is clearly well to the left and the right of center. And I don’t see either group being terribly interested in listening to, or respecting, the other. Frankly, it hardly takes a great diagnostician to spot that problem.

Those of you who read my first book, The Creed Room, remember how important I think it is for liberals not only to appreciate the arguments that fuel conservative thought, but also to recognize that without some sort of buy-in from the business community, progressive reforms will be at best reformist tinkering. If we want to fight a war – whether it’s against climate change, poverty, or any other enemy of progressivism – we need all hands on deck. Conservatives can fight their wars simply by cutting taxes and gutting Government agencies. But it’s not so simple for us progressives. When it comes to Government, we’re not trying to flush something bad down the drain, we’re trying to design a beneficent, efficient system on a rather massive scale. It’s easier said than done. And without a broad range of support – in other words, without some degree of bi-partisanship – the potential for meaningful change is severely limited.

One of the reasons why I supported Barack Obama is because I thought he could help foster a bi-partisan spirit in Washington. In that regard, he certainly gets an A for Effort. He has appointed Republicans to his cabinet. He has continued George Bush’s policies in bailing out Wall Street and in continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the Republicans threatened to filibuster a bill, he immediately backed down, despite the fact that his Party has the clear majority in both houses of Congress. And when it came to articulating his positions (such as when he claimed to advocate a “public option” in the health care arena), he repeatedly announced that he was not wedded to any one approach and would be happy to entertain alternatives.

Many of these steps have driven progressives to distraction, but Barack felt no compulsion to appeal to his base, or at least not ONLY to his base. This is clearly a guy who likes to get along with everyone and started his job with optimism that he could do just that. Though he never explicitly said he’d be “a unifier not a divider,” we all inferred that message from his campaign speeches. Unfortunately, as much as Candidate Obama promised in that regard, that’s how little President Obama has delivered. This is the most polarized climate that I can recall in Washington in the 40+ years that I’ve lived here.

We’ve all heard the expression that some people can turns lemons into lemonade. Barack Obama has figured out a way to turn lemonade into a big fat lemon. He’s taken that A for Effort in Bipartisanship Class, and turned it into a D for Doh! I’m referring to the fact that once it became clear that the GOP wasn’t going to play ball with him, he continued to try to play with them. He made no attempt to reward his supporters in Congress or punish his friends. He never embarrassed the GOP into filibustering or stood up to Democrats who threatened to oppose his agenda. And when the time came to make speeches, this supposedly great communicator came across as distant, professorial, and frankly, just going through the motions. Gradually, people on both sides of the aisle have started to wonder if he really feels passionate about the issues, or whether he only wanted to get elected and hob-nob with celebrities. It was as if every time any Republican or Blue Dog Democrat stood up to the guy, he simply said “Oh, never mind” … and a couple days later, you’d see him on TV entertaining some championship sports team or a group of other celebrities with that big, Hollywood smile on his face.

Barack is way too telegenic to become the next Jimmy Carter. But at the rate he’s going, unless there’s a second act, he might well be a one-term President who someday gets hailed as the “best ex-President who ever lived.” Somehow, that’s not exactly what supporters like me had in mind.

When I was beginning my career as a Government litigator, one of my agency’s grey eminences took me aside and taught me a principle that I’ve never forgotten. “When you’re a Government lawyer, you’re expected to be so ethical that you’re essentially tying one hand behind your back. Just don’t tie both.”

Barack’s problem is that he so desired to be bi-partisan and to get along with everyone that he’s let his enemies tie both hands behind his back, and he doesn’t even seem to be panicking about it. Perhaps he should rethink that strategy. Like the writer of the Washington Post suggests, there’s no reason for him to condescend to conservatives or treat them with disrespect. That will merely backfire. But it’s high time for him to take off the gloves and fight. Ram the health care bill through the reconciliation process. Find another popular bill and force the GOP to filibuster it for a full month. Don’t just say that the GOP is the “party of no,” let the cameras demonstrate that point to the American public. And all the while, speak respectfully about the GOP … and to the extent that they have legitimately valid ideas, implement them! But do it unilaterally. For when it becomes to bi-partisanship, it’s time to make THEM come to you. You’ve tried the other path. How’s that working out for you?

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