Monday, January 11, 2010

Andrew Sullivan: "Barack Obama locked in dirty war with the right"

Andrew Sullivan (London Times):
Republicans are bent on destroying the president in a violent clash of extremism— the victor will win America’s soul--One quote really hit home for me last week. It is quite typical of a certain kind of paranoid conservative subculture; it reflects conspiracy theories, and it’s motivated by extreme antipathy to Barack Obama. Here’s the quote: “President Obama is leading an extreme, left-wing crusade to bankrupt America.”
If you spend much time reading far-right and so-called Tea Party blogs, you will be familiar with this theme. The idea is that Obama is a secret Muslim communist whose goal is to destroy US capitalism through fiscal collapse in order for the government to take over the remnants of a dying market economy. Or something like that. All future debt is Obama’s fault (even though the majority was inherited and the rest skewed by the recession). And this, the argument goes, is deliberate. The cited quote is given extra piquancy by using the term “crusade”, subtly invoking the theme of religious warfare in a Christian battle against a supposedly Muslim president.

Who uttered this quote? John McCain. Yes: John McCain. Why? He’s facing a tough primary challenge for his Senate seat this year from the far right, and this is the only way he thinks he can survive. And, as we know, McCain will say anything and do anything to maintain power. If you’re looking for his soul, try eBay.

Now take another extraordinary quote. This one came immediately after the Detroit underwear bomber near miss, and argued that Obama was deliberately allowing the US to be attacked by terrorists, and refusing to take the threat seriously as warfare, because accepting the existence of the terror threat “doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency: social transformation — the restructuring of American society”.

Here the idea is that Obama is so intent on socialism that he is really uninterested in combating terror. At some level, it’s an accusation of treason — of deliberately risking American lives for the pursuit of socialism. Again, this does seem a little extreme, given that Obama has kept George W Bush’s defence secretary, kept Bush’s timetable for Iraq withdrawal, drastically increased troops and overhauled strategy in Afghanistan and declared emphatically, last week, that “we are at war”, while ordering a thorough review of intelligence-gathering. So who was this radical, throwing rhetorical bombs at the president at a moment of an actual terror attack that might — I can dream, right? — have actually brought Americans of both parties together?

The quote came from the former vice-president, Dick Cheney.

Look. There is a real and vital role for political opposition, and a robust, healthy, even vicious critique of Obama’s policies and a clear alternative to them is not just legitimate but essential for a democracy to work. But these statements from key players at the very top of the Republican party do not reflect this. They reflect a partisanship that seeks to impugn the core motives of the president, implying that he is, in fact, something alien and destructive to America, and must be opposed in everything he does, whatever it is, because his success would mean the end of America itself. It is not a declaration of opposition; it’s a declaration of war.

That is why in the week before Obama’s inauguration the most influential voice on the right, Rush Limbaugh, openly said he hoped the president would fail. That is why, in the first real test of the opposition, Obama’s stimulus package — with vast tax cuts in the middle of the steepest downturn in memory — garnered zero Republican votes. Zero. That’s why a health insurance reform plan that is in many ways more conservative than the Republican leader Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts pilot, a reform that cut the deficit, ruled out a public option, and gave the health insurance and drug companies millions of new private sector clients, won zero Republican support in the Senate and one, yes, one, Republican vote in the House.

Now recall Bush’s first signature proposal, his massive 2001 tax cut. Unlike Obama, he came to office with fewer votes than his opponent. In the wake of that election, 12 Democratic senators voted for Bush’s campaign promise, and 28 Democrats followed suit in the House. McCain actually voted against his own party on this critical first test. Now look at him. That is a sign of how partisanship and polarisation have only deepened since 2000, and Obama’s attempt to overcome it has simply fallen on barren ground. The response of the Republicans to Obama’s open hand has been pretty close to that of the Iranian junta: a clenched fist.

In Britain, an opposition party in total revolt can do only so much. In the US system, where the constitution makes big change very, very hard, an opposition can gum up the works much more successfully. Because the Republicans lost so many seats last time around, their current ranks are dominated by those in the safest seats, and their main worry is being picked off by primary challenges from the Sarah Palin-Dick Cheney wing. Because of the still-waxing power of religious fundamentalism in the American South, the Republicans increasingly frame their arguments in doctrinal terms, rather than pragmatic ones. And so the party has become more purist and more radical in the wake of its defeat. To give a simple example, last week the Republican candidate for the governorship of Alabama was forced to offer the following campaign pledge: “I believe the Bible is true. Every word of it.” He had previously gaffed that some parts of the Bible might not be taken literally, but as metaphor or parable. No, this is not Iran. It’s America. In 2010.

Obama’s promise was that he would try to end this culture war. My view is that — to great dismay among his own partisan base — he has largely fulfilled that promise. He went to dinner with conservative journalists before he schmoozed the liberal ones; he spent more time on Capitol Hill with Republicans in his first few months than Bush ever had; he asked the evangelical Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration; he avoided abortion and gay rights issues; he refused to investigate, let alone prosecute, the war crimes of his predecessor; and he has ramped up the war in Afghanistan. He has cut taxes and refused to nationalise the banks.

But for all this, he is the target of almost relentless and extreme opposition, painting him as the most radical and extremist anti-American ever in the Oval Office. And with a Senate that requires a 60-40 majority to get anything done, that makes his promises very hard to keep. When Europeans wonder if America is ungovernable, this polarisation is the critical thing to keep in mind. Obama’s gamble is therefore to outlast this reaction, to refuse to take the bait for total political warfare at home, and to enact as much as he can as quickly as he can in case the natural upswing of an opposition in a depressed economy renders his congressional majority moot by next November.

The Republican gamble, in turn, is that the extremism of their populist oppositionism doesn’t rally the fringe of their base at the cost of alienating the critical middle that still holds sway in American politics. My own sense is that in a low-turnout mid-term election, they could do very well with this tactic. But at a strategic level, I suspect that this is a trap for 2012. If they cannot attract younger or minority voters, if they continue to fail to offer actual policy alternatives instead of recitation of right-wing dogma, they could manage to stymie Obama later this year at the cost of immolation in 2012. Winning in 2010 could even persuade them that becoming even more radical is the way to win in 2012. A Palin nomination is perfectly possible.
It’s a war of nerves. If the Republicans win it, the culture war lives on. If Obama survives, he will remake the centre of American politics as a Democratic bastion again. Those are the stakes. And they keep getting higher.

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