I’m afraid it’s necessary to expand — beyond the Limbaugh episode discussed in the previous installment — on the theme of American Liberalism forfeiting battles that need to be fought. I say “afraid” because the best way I know to do that is to examine a generally ignored — an intensely regrettable — part of the record of one of the current heroes of us liberals: former President Barack Obama, which I’m afraid will not be fun.
The reason that record needs to be examined in this context is not to tear him down. I myself am fond of him, and that would give me no pleasure. Rather, the reason is that this story shows the continuing failure of American liberalism to perceive clearly the problem of this habitual forfeiture of vital battles that should be fought and could be won.
In other words, this story about Obama is really a story about the continuing problem of blindness and weakness that has constituted the contribution of Liberal America to our national crisis. It was our failing before Obama, it was our failing through Obama as our leader, and I fear that the general non-recognition of that problem means that it threatens to be our problem in this era, as we battle against the Trumpian Republican Party.
What we’re up against is so ugly, so destructive, that America cannot afford for us not to do everything possible to overcome our defects as combatants in this battle. And that means that we are obliged to undertake even the unpleasant task on which, in this installment, I will now embark.
American Liberalism continues to show a worrisome lack of awareness of the essential role that the liberal side of the American political system has played in making possible the right’s movement into darkness. For what has happened to the Republican Party in our times didn’t happen in a vacuum.
How many times have you heard liberals asking themselves, “What should we have done differently to have prevented the nation’s reaching this perilous point?” I’ve been following the liberal conversation pretty closely, and I’m hard-pressed to recall any such inquiry.
Do liberals really think that the leaders of the Democratic Party were impotent to affect what parts of the other major Party gained ascendancy? Is it even plausible that in America’s system of two major parties, one of them could become such a monstrosity unless the other one enabled that transformation?
In a system where public opinion determines who gets the power, isn’t it axiomatic that a party that behaves badly should be so roundly denounced by the other that the bad behavior becomes unviable?
Instead, the Republican Party discovered that it could be rewarded for increasingly indefensible behavior, because the Democratic Party continuously failed to make it pay a political price for it.
Obama really is the fine fellow that liberals still enjoy celebrating. Not only did he bring a keen intelligence to the job, he also reliably make a good faith effort to do good for America. And with Obama being quite likely the most decent person ever to be President of the United States, and with his successor being quite clearly the least decent person to be President, it’s entirely understandable that he looks especially wonderful to liberals.
And surely, at this dark time, we need our heroes.
But that heroic picture of Obama is only a partial picture. It leaves out another piece of the truth about his presidency: his catastrophic failure to deal with the hostile opposition whose priority was to destroy his presidency.
What makes this piece important to look at is that Obama’s failures were and remain essentially invisible to American liberals. Which is surely an indication that Obama’s weakness and blindness was representative of a deadly failing in Liberal America generally.
When Obama was elected at the end of 2008, he should have known well what he was up against with his Republican opposition. Already for considerably more than a decade, a dangerous transformation of the Republican Party had been ongoing. More particularly, the eight years of the Bush-Rove-Cheney presidency should have given Obama full warning that he had a battle on his hands.
It had already been more than 30 years since the Republican Party had honored the American tradition of treating the election of a President from the opposing party as a legitimate expression of the will of the people that must be respected. The manner in which the Republicans in Congress had sought to delegitimize and destroy the presidency of Bill Clinton should have been vivid in Obama’s mind.
And Obama should have been aware of how much further this deterioration of the Republican Party had gone with the frightening history American had just gone through with the Bush-Rove-Cheney presidency. That presidency had displayed a degree of lawlessness and dishonesty that was quite extraordinary in American history.
The many potentially impeachable offenses committed by the George W. Bush administration seem to have been swiftly forgotten by many people. And that quite alarming picture has, in any event, been so far outstripped by the Trump administration’s still more open resemblance to a gangster enterprise that – just as W’s offenses were, as John Dean wrote, “Worse Than Watergate” – Trump’s wall-to-wall scandals make W’s presidency seem benign by comparison.
It took a while before it became publicly known that – even before Barack Obama had been inaugurated – the Republicans had met to decide that their top priority would be to make Obama fail. But even if that Republican meeting remained secret, its consequences were soon visible. As I wrote in an op/ed (published in the Baltimore Sun as an open letter to Obama during his first year in office):
[Y]our opposition is animated by that same dark spirit is shown in their making a divisive war of nearly every issue; in their continuous propagating of fear-mongering lies; and, above all, in their overriding commitment, even at a time of multiple national crises, to making you fail, simply so they can regain power.
Whether or not Obama been unaware of that “dark spirit” that animated the Republicans in the years before his presidency began, it was already clear in that first year that there was a problem with how he was dealing with that spirit as it assaulted him. Again, from that 2009 op/ed:
[E]xcept for rare instances, you’ve ignored how extreme and destructive is your opposition’s behavior by the lights of American ideals and the standards of American history….. It is because of your failure to fight back that the Republican Party – behaving more scandalously than any political opposition in memory – has grown stronger, while you have grown weaker.
Already, in the first year of Obama’s presidency, it was clear that, with the weakness of his response, Obama was enabling the very force he should have recognized was Job One for him to confront and defeat.
Your opponents are relentless, single-minded and ruthless in their efforts to weaken and destroy you. This is a continuation of the same struggle for which Americans chose you to be their champion. It’s your job not to ignore the battle but to fight and win it.
Eight years later, the already very ugly Republican Party — having had its every disgraceful action rewarded instead of punished – nominated and elected Donald Trump as President of the United States.
Next, let us look more closely at just how Obama’s forfeiting of a succession of battles enabled the rise of the Trump.
Consider these battles—all of vital importance, and all essentially forfeited by Obama. And all those forfeitures seemingly not being recognized as such by Democrats, or at least not arousing them to object.
- The Republicans set out immediately to demonize Obama with their supporters, wielding lies like the birther lie. Obama never called out the lies, never contested the demonized image the Republicans were selling their base. The consequence was that the Republicans were secure in the base of their support, because Obama would never be able to reach them to correct any of the future lies the GOP would sell them. By forfeiting that battle, Obama made it possible for right-wing media to drive millions of Americans into so warped and unteathered a space that by the end of the Obama presidency, it became possible for them to choose an unthinkable man to be President.
And, meanwhile, Obama’s liberal supporters never said he should do otherwise.
- It quickly became clear that the Republican priority was to make Obama fail, to prevent him from functioning as President, never mind the injury to the nation. It is not difficult to show how that strategy is indefensible in terms of American values, the will of the people in hiring the winner of the election to serve as President. A campaign of denunciation of the indefensible from the bully pulpit would have compelled the Republicans to back down. But despite the vulnerability, Obama never beat the Republicans over the head with their putting party ahead of nation. And with that forfeit of the battle, he lost what chance he had to be the “transformational president” he’d hoped to be.
And Obama’s liberal supporters never said he should do otherwise.
- The Republican conduct on Obamacare was particularly indefensible. It was a responsible effort to deal with a genuine national problem—a problem that wasted more than $1 trillion and costs tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths of American every year. Obama had campaigned on the issue, and been elected. Yet the Republicans did everything they could to obstruct and then sabotage the measure, and nothing whatever to improve it. Such conduct was unprecedented, and the articulate and charismatic Obama could have successfully flogged the Republicans in the court of public opinion. But he never really took them on. Instead, the Republicans benefitted from their disgraceful conduct, using lies about Obamacare to win big and consequential victories in 2010.
And Obama’s liberal supporters never said he should do otherwise.
- Across-the-board obstructionism is one way to describe the Republicans’ indefensible – and, again, unprecedented – way of sacrificing the nation to disable the Obama presidency. (Quoth former Republican Senator from Ohio, George Voinovich: “If [Obama] was for it, we were supposed to be against it.”) This pervasive obstructionism led to the least productive Congresses in modern American history, even though the nation faced substantial problems needing to be addressed. Obama should have made the GOP’s lack of interest in meeting the nation’s needs the main issue of the 2014. But he – and the rest of the Democrats – never went on the attack. And just as in 2010, the Republicans were rewarded at the polls for their disgraceful behavior, with their vulnerabilities never exploited by the man with the bully pulpit. As a result, Obama was deprived of any legislative accomplishment and compelled to retreat to doing only what could be done on his own, through executive actions.
And Obama’s liberal supporters never said he should do otherwise.
- Finally, after years of conservative domination of a 5-4 Supreme Court, a corporatist Republican seat opened up while Obama still had a year left in his presidency. Immediately, the Republicans declared they would not consider anyone Obama might nominate to the Court. In clear violation of the spirit of the Constitution, in clear distortion of the intended meaning of “advise and consent,” the Republicans stole from Obama – in another unprecedented another power-grab – his constitutional right to name someone to fill a vacancy on the Court. But Obama did not raise a hue and cry to attack this act of theft. He did not take the issue to the Supreme Court to ask them to determine that the Republicans in the Senate were abusing their proper role to advise and consent. And as a result, the Republicans have been rewarded with renewed control over the Supreme Court, with enormous detrimental consequences for American justice.
And Obama’s liberal supporters never said Obama should do otherwise.
Because I was outspoken about the forfeiting of each of these battles, at the time – as a blogger, as the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 6th District of Virginia, and as a writer of op/ed columns, I was engaged by a variety of liberals, from whom I got a picture of how Liberal America was perceiving Obama’s options.
While some shared my frustration about the battles unfought, my impression was that the overwhelming majority of Democrats thought that there were no better options available than the course Obama was choosing.
One excuse was that, as America’s first black President, Obama couldn’t fight back lest he be seen as the “angry black man” that whites fear. They apparently did not notice that Obama was really quite effective when he made his occasional jabs at the Republicans, and his skill did not in the least conjure up such negative racial stereotypes. The problem was that, on those few occasions he got his opponents on the ropes, he’d let them recover and resume their attacks. He never pressed the battle.
Never, ever did Obama strike at the Republicans with anything even close to matching the intensity of the Republicans’ continual attack on him.
Another frequent excuse simply assumed that there was nothing that anybody could do to counter the Republicans with their determination to destroy Obama’s presidency. They apparently could not imagine what an effective counter-attack against the right-wing force making constant war on a decent president might look like.
And it is clear that — despite his good intentions but because of whatever was his combination of blindness and weakness – Barack Obama enabled the transformations on the right that have led to this nightmare of the Trump presidency.
And if liberals are going to get America out of this nightmare, it will need to confront the reasons that Obama’s failure was and apparently remains invisible to them.
If they couldn’t see the need to “press the battle” in all those situations, what battles are Liberal America failing to fight now? If liberals couldn’t see that a stronger attack was called for in response to disgraceful Republican behavior when Obama was objecting so mildly, where on the battlefield now is Liberal America — and its Democratic leaders — erring in the direction of weakness now?
And finally, if Liberal America were to overcome the kind of blindness and weakness that have helped enable the rise of Trump, what new possibilities would become visible concerning going after the 37%? Might the sense of “it’s futile” give way to a more empowered sense of how the supposedly impossible might actually be accomplished?