Sunday, August 15, 2010


“You have to know that this was orchestrated, this was Obama's attempt at triangulating. There's no question Obama used Gibbs to try to go out there and create a Sister Souljah moment, by going out there and criticizing the left. ‘Ah, yeah! These professional leftists, professional liberals!’ That's practically -- that's the ruling class he's attacking, and that comment was aimed at whites and independents who are fleeing Obama in droves. Can you really believe that the White House press secretary would run down Canadian health care, when that's exactly where they're aiming? Single payer health care is exactly where they're aiming! And yet Gibbs goes out there and says (paraphrase), ‘Yeah, they're upset, they want Canadian health care, it's never going to happen.’ It is going to happen! That's their sole objective! So once again, Obama has to hide behind Gibbs, lie about his intentions, in order to try to win back some mainstream support that he's lost, and the same thing with the Pentagon. Believe me, don't doubt me, if these guys could, they would make the Pentagon as irrelevant as they could. They already announced some budget cuts yesterday. They eliminate the Pentagon, never going to happen. It probably won't happen, but don't doubt for a moment that Obama and his most trusted inner circle would love to make the Pentagon irrelevant. That's who they are.”

So said Rush Limbaugh last week on his radio program. He was referring to an incident that still has many progressives shaking their heads. It involves statements that President Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs made for reasons known only to himself and, if you believe the rarely-believable Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama. Gibbs took many shots at the so-called “professional left.” But it is clear that he wasn’t just referring to left-leaning political operatives but to any frustrated progressive. Gibbs said that “I hear these people saying [Obama is] like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug-tested. I mean, it’s crazy.” According to Gibbs, “Liberals wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.” But "they will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not reality."

The fact is that Limbaugh, as they say in golf, was talking out of his customary spot in the thick rough when he claimed that our President would love to make the Pentagon irrelevant. That would be national suicide, and Barack is anything but suicidal. But Limbaugh was hardly the only person to wonder if Gibbs was somehow speaking for Barack – voicing thoughts that Barack would like to express but wouldn’t dare do so directly. And indeed, if that is true, and I for one have no inside dirt on the answer, it would indeed be tremendously disturbing. Because clearly, while we don’t know whether Barack was behind Gibbs’ comments, it’s pretty clear what Gibbs was thinking. He must have been aiming for a Sister Souljah moment. I just don’t see any way around that conclusion.

To those who have forgotten that reference, Sister Souljah was a rapper who was quoted in a May 1992 Washington Post interview as saying that “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people.” Seizing the opportunity, then candidate Bill Clinton, attempting to portray himself as a “New [meaning, more moderate] Democrat,” compared Souljah to David Duke, the Klansman. The tactic worked for Clinton, and as a result, the idea of the Sister Souljah-moment has become a well-known strategy employed by politicians who would like to position themselves as a moderate. Wikipedia defines this tactic as “a politician’s public repudiation of an allegedly extremist person or group, statement, or position perceived to have some association with the politician or their party. Such an act of repudiation is designed to signal to centrist voters that the politician is not beholden to traditional, and sometimes unpopular, interest groups associated with the party, although such a repudiation runs the risk of alienating some of the politician’s allies and the party’s base voters.”

I can think of no other reason why a press secretary would blast liberals with straw men other than to have his own Sister Souljah moment. But in this context, is there any possible reason why such a tactic could work? For the past 1 ½ years, the Republican Party has attempted to block President Obama’s agenda in nearly every way imaginable, except for in limited instances where he was clearly carrying on the policies of his predecessors. Meanwhile, Democrats have generally been loyal to the President, and criticism of his supposedly tepid commitment to progressive policies (like truly universal health care) have been relatively disorganized and muted. In short, Gibbs is taking on a group that hasn’t exactly provided Sister Souljah-like sound-bites. Yet he blasted them anyway.

It is difficult to believe that a single “swing” voter will become a fan of the Administration as a result of Gibbs’ comments. But what isn’t nearly so hard to fathom is that many of those progressives who have been largely alienated but still supportive of the Administration (as a sort of “lesser of two evils”), will decide to send a message to the White House: “Don’t you dare take us for granted. We might not be willing to work for the Republicans, but that doesn’t mean we’d be willing to work for you either – not if you’re going to treat us as political props and ignore our core issues.” I personally have stopped short of going that far, but I don’t doubt that plenty of others would not.

Gibbs’ comments were delivered at a time when the Administration seems to be involved in an endless, pointless war in Afghanistan and a time when editorialists are questioning whether Barack could have warded off the present unemployment debacle had he emulated FDR and paid attention to Main Street and not just Wall Street. Indeed, the great irony of Gibbs’ comments is that to many if not most progressives, the main reason why they were supporting President Obama notwithstanding his limitations is that they do NOT see him as just another George W. Bush or John McCain. They see him as a major step up. Still, there is plenty of frustration on the left, and well there should be. Candidate Barack Obama didn’t merely say “Vote for me because I’m better than Bush and McCain.” He said that “We are the change we have been looking for.” In other words, he presented himself as a truly transformational candidate. Progressives, however, are still waiting for that dramatic transformation – the kind we’ve seen under FDR or, for that matter, Reagan.

From where I’m sitting, most progressives are waiting patiently. That is why Gibbs’ comments are being seen as such a punch in the face – and a sleazy one at that. Does he really think that the folks who are frustrated with Barack’s Afghanistan policies – like those in charge of the New York Times Editorial page – want to eliminate the Pentagon? Or has Gibbs simply discovered his inner-Limbaugh? And does he really think that voicing support for a single-payer, Canadian model of healthcare is worthy of ridicule? Most progressives I know who supported that model originally ultimately supported Obama’s compromise plan – they read about how much better Canada’s health care system is doing than ours and they pine for something similar. Whether you agree with that position or not, what is so insane about it that makes it worthy of derision by a Democratic Administration?

If Gibbs truly had balls, he would have demonized liberals instead for supporting the unconditional right to gay marriage. That’s a position that Barack Obama claims to oppose but most of us suspect he truly supports and simply is afraid to say so publicly due to concerns of political expediency. If that conventional wisdom is correct, and if this is indeed an Administration that places the practical over the ideal, why bash those members of its base who dare to argue for what they really believe? Should we all just wait for the Administration to tell us what slightly-progressive positions constitute “reality,” and then goose step in line right behind them? Should progressives start saying things like “Gay marriage as a federal right? I oppose it. It’s just not ‘reality’ to argue otherwise.”
Is that the kind of Democratic Party Robert Gibbs wants? Or more to the point, is that the kind of Democratic Party Barack Obama wants?

I am not sure that Gibbs’ little outburst by itself is worthy of dismissing him from his job. But candidly, I haven’t seen anything else from this guy that warrants retaining him in his position. From what I can tell, he did a serviceable job during the campaign and has been ineffectual ever since. He’s one reason why, from a communications standpoint, President Obama has had to serve as a virtually one-man band for this Administration. His wing man appears to be way, way over his head.

So yes, I’d very much enjoy seeing the President send Mr. Gibbs packing and bring in someone who can both figure out a way to augment the President’s own words and show respect to the idea of dissent. President Obama has spent so much time showing respect to dissenters on the right that he appears to have forgotten the value of dissent on the left.

In a two-party system, many Americans on both the left and the right are likely to be without representatives who are closely aligned with their political views, and sometimes, they're bound to vent. We don’t need politicians to agree with their critics. But we do need our leaders to avoid hyperbole when responding to their critics. Who knows? Maybe if Gibbs listened more and whined less, he could persuade his boss to support the right of consenting adults to marry and the futility of pursuing a war policy that few Americans understand. In fact, once Gibbs gets over his apparently bloated sense of self entitlement, he might realize that we progressives aren’t nearly as “crazy” as he might think.

No comments: