Thursday, November 19, 2009

Perils of Niceness

There is no doubt that political factors constrain the Obama administration’s freedom of action severely, but it is impossible to say, with anything approaching precision, just how constraining those constraints are. They would have to be contested to tell, and the Obama administration hardly tries. Instead, groveling before the powers that be –“business as usual” in Washington – is the Obama style, notwithstanding claims to the contrary repeated throughout his campaign last year and still occasionally heard from willfully blind Obama supporters.

Bowing before the Emperor of Japan, as Obama did last week and as protocol requires, is a sign of weakness, according to the still unprosecuted war criminal Dick Cheney; a charge taken up by the Republican Party and therefore echoed across Fox News. This is ludicrous, of course; like almost everything else emanating from the bowels of the GOP. But it is true that the Obama administration exudes weakness – precisely because it does not test the limits of the constraints confronting it. This is one reason why the healthcare legislation passed by the House is so awful, even if, on balance, it does improve upon the status quo. Awful healthcare legislation is what you get when you grovel before health care profiteers. And it is why Israel is now flagrantly jerking Obama around – by authorizing illegal settlement expansion on the fringes of occupied Jerusalem just days after Hillary Clinton praised Bibi Netanyahu for his flexibility and openness to resuming negotiations. There are countless other examples that might be adduced: from the administration’s positions on environmental issues, on “free” trade, on questions of war and peace, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, of course, on Wall Street (re)regulation.

Again, it is not clear how necessary Obama’s groveling before entrenched economic and political power is -- though it is surely excessive. What is clear, though, is that the Obama administration, with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate in tow, evinces weakness of another kind altogether; and that, despite what Rahm Emanuel and other Clintonite Obama advisors may think, there is nothing necessary about it. This weakness is a bi-product of Obama’s excessive civility – of his “niceness” in situations where ruthlessness is called for. Republicans don’t understand much, but they do understand the value of party discipline; and they understand that, when “reasonable” (cooperative) people are at odds with obstreperous ones, the obstreperous almost always prevail. Democrats are clueless about such things.

That’s why three right-wing Democratic Senators – Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln – can threaten to keep the health care bill Harry Reid fashioned from even reaching the Senate floor; and why Joe Lieberman threatens to filibuster the bill if it includes a “public option,” even one as innocuous as the one included in the bill passed in the House.

[Shame on the Senate leadership for allowing Lieberman, sanctimonious and treacherous as ever, to receive the public attention he craves by holding hearings on the Fort Hood shootings, raising the prospect of throwing the government’s case into legal jeopardy!]

It is also why Blue Dog Democrats have the power they do; and why anti-abortion Democrats, led by the hapless Bart Stupak, were able to join Republicans in putting women’s reproductive rights in mortal jeopardy. There is plenty of blame to go around for these shenanigans and others like them, but the buck stops with the Forgiver-in-Chief.

He is proving himself too nice to fight -- too deferential to people whose views are not only unworthy of serious consideration, but harmful in ways that exceed the harms inherent in the political constraints he faces. Obama is turning out to be the quintessential “reasonable” liberal; well-meaning, but ill-disposed to take a principled stand or even, as Robert Frost famously said of liberals generally, his own side in an argument.

Before it’s too late, if it isn’t already, Obama should look around and see that in the real world nice guys, as they say, finish last. He should realize that to cede an inch to the Moronic Minority – or to their representatives in both political parties -- is to give up almost everything. And he should realize that it is impossible to govern, much less institute “change,” without offending the Republican Party’s “base.” One need only look at the spectacle reported from Grand Rapids, Michigan yesterday where hordes of benighted non-readers gathered to buy the book of that cartoonishly incompetent Republican “superstar,” Sarah Palin, a petty and vindictive woman who can’t write and doesn’t think, and who would be yesterday’s lunch were she less easy on the eyes, less ostentatiously patriarchal and God-fearing (professing to Oprah her belief in “Todd and God”), and less identified with the delusions of the terminally mediocre.

Make nice to Palin people? Well, maybe some of the “patriotic Americans” waiting in line in Grand Rapids turned out just to see a celebrity; and maybe a few of them are teachable. But I wouldn’t count on very many of those true believers breaking loose. If the future is like the past, the hopelessly benighted will be always among us. Of them, all one can say is what William Blake, an author Sarah Palin may never have heard of, despite her attendance at any of a half dozen colleges, said -- that “as the air is to birds and the sea to fish, so is contempt for the contemptible.” In other words, it isn’t just bought and paid for Republicans and Blue Dogs and Lieberman who merit contempt, and who should be treated accordingly. Those who placate the contemptible, who shower them with "niceness," merit it as well.

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