by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
The Race Card Gets Trumped
I think almost everyone expected that once President Obama embarked on a highly partisan agenda at a time of record deficits in the midst of a recession, he was going to meet resistance. And I think almost everyone likewise expected that when he did, his supporters would cite racism, and angry white males, as the culprits for popular discontent (the most recent attempt at that is by Michael Crowley in the Guardian with the headline: “Barack Obama must beware the rise of the angry white man: Bill Clinton faced the sometime violent fury of middle America’s dispossessed. Now, the same ugly face confronts Barack Obama”).
(1) The Left needs to get its story straight. Most recently, the theme had been that the protesters were well-dressed elites and the upper privileged classes, who selfishly did not wish to imperil their own singular healthcare. Now, apparently, they have morphed into something like the Pennsylvania clingers, with Nazi-like, mob-like, and un-American-like tendencies.
(2) Identity politics and racialism have so far been more prominent on the left. The so-called white vote was fairly evenly split in the last election; the African-American vote, in contrast, rejected liberal Hillary Clinton in the primary by vast margins along racial lines. The Gates incident, the Sotomayor references, the president’s “stupidly” comments, the Holder “cowards” outburst, etc., are all simply a continuum from the campaign’s “typical white person” comment and stereotyping of the so-called white middle class, as in the infamous clingers remark. These polarizations are the natural wages of identity politics when one’s race and ethnic profile are seen as essential for careerist purposes rather than incidental to the content of one’s character.
(3) Barack Obama has had little experience with partisan attacks of the type that were pursued viciously against both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In Illinois he used lawsuits to eliminate potential candidates in a state race, and later he benefited from mysterious but opportune leaks about sealed divorce records that eliminated both his primary and his chief general-election rivals in the 2004 U.S. Senate race. Once elected, he compiled the most liberal record in the Senate. In the presidential campaign he benefited from unpopularity of the incumbent Bush, a record amount of campaign money, and a rather subdued campaign waged by the moderate/centrist McCain. So today’s 50/50 poll ratings, coupled with an angry opposition that feels strongly about $2 trillion deficits, cap-and-trade utopianism, nationalized health care, and the inevitable taxes to come (given the size of the deficits), are all something entirely new to Obama.
But what is old is the predictable smearing of legitimate opposition as somehow racist in spirit. It is an unfortunate act of desperation, but one that if pursued will probably take the president’s ratings down another 4–7 points and accomplish in 9 months or so what took the similarly once-popular George Bush 6 years.
Obama’s Healthcare Mess
Ironies abound in the healthcare debate. Bush was pilloried by the Obamanians for (1) not planning for the postwar occupation of Iraq; and (2) not being able to articulate the ends and means of the administration’s war. Yet in the hubris of high ratings, Obama apparently felt that he neither had to present a comprehensive finished blueprint of healthcare reform, nor that he or his associates should have to sum it up succinctly and clearly. The result is that most Americans not only do not know what the administration plan is, but sense that their president does not either.
Healthcare is stalled and insidiously undermining the presidency of Obama precisely because the public senses he has not leveled with the American people. Of the uninsured, how many millions are young people who feel no need right now to buy insurance, how many million are illegal aliens, how many millions chose to use their optional income for things other than a low-cost catastrophic health plan, how many millions still find care outside the insurance system?
Nor do most Americans feel their system is broken. They worry about redundant care, frivolous procedures, and lawsuits, but sense that all in all it can be improved rather than scrapped. They know that Americans with cancer and heart disease survive longer than anywhere else due to superior American care. And they know that longevity is influenced by factors well beyond medical care. The president just as easily could tackle the epidemic of homicides and youth violence, as well as automobile accidents, if his concern really were to ensure that Americans on average lived longer than any others.
Bottom line: Too many Americans, whether rightly or wrongly, believe that Obama has other agendas that transcend simply ensuring American live longer, healthier, and better — such as growing government, enforcing an equality of result, and creating permanent constituencies that administer and receive expanding federal entitlements.
And what looms over the entire debate? Debt, debt, debt — both the recognition that one cannot expand those covered and save money at the same time without rationing or higher taxes; and the notion that all Obama’s new entitlements essentially involve borrowing money, much of it from Asia, as our indebtedness soars.
Many have pointed out the quite different national attention given to one Kenneth Gladney, an African-American and apparent conservative who was roughed up by union thugs and subject to racial slurs outside a town meeting in St. Louis, seemingly for selling American flags. But there are probably lots of similar instances that retrospectively illustrate just how asinine was Prof. Henry Louis Gates’s behavior during his famous run-in with Cambridge police — not to mention the presidential reaction to it.
For example, 68-year-old Bob Dylan, in rolling-stone fashion, was innocently walking alone in a Long Branch, N.J., neighborhood recently. A 20-something police officer thought this was odd, and pulled over to question the suspect. No ID. Support was called in. Neither of the two officers recognized the American icon. Indeed, they apparently had never even heard of Bob Dylan — and so put him in the first squad car to take him back to his hotel to verify whether he was really an entertainer of some sort.
When his story checked out, the officers released him and left. A city official said of Dylan, “He couldn’t have been any nicer to them.” Apparently there were no Dylan rants about whom the police were “messin'” with, no reference to their mothers, no mayoral or gubernatorial editorial, no presidential sermon on police acting stupidly by profiling and putting a man in a police car for simply walking the street.
One wonders what would have happened had Gates acted like Dylan or Dylan like Gates?
The Great Race
Team Obama knows that just as the Great Depression and FDR’s eloquence led to a radically new statism, so too the late 2008 meltdown and Obama’s charisma have given the Left an historic chance to enact a doctrinaire liberal agenda that otherwise polls poorly.
The key will be to rush through as much as possible before last year’s panic and Bush become ancient history — and Obama’s own soaring rhetoric becomes trite and boilerplate.
That’s why cast-off comments like Obama’s “stupidly” and his ill-informed references about tonsils become more important than they otherwise would. These chance asides mean nothing in isolation, but slowly in toto they are building a portrait of an executive at times ignorant (cf. the fill-up-your-tires mantra of last year), and occasionally mean and partisan. And because his agenda — cap and trade, nationalized healthcare, stimuli, higher taxes, deficit spending, apology diplomacy — is not really supported by the American people, his own popularity is critical. Lose that, and he loses the rest.
The Sotomayor and Holder comments, coupled with Gatesgate, bring up memories of the mess with Reverend Wright and Father Pfleger. The tonsils comment, the Special Olympics gaffe, the historical blunders in Cairo, etc. suggest not a hip, smart, postracial candidate, but an inexperienced, though tough-minded, tribal Chicago pol. If all that results to below 50% approval, there will be an entirely new politics. Unpopular presidents cannot enact unpopular legislation, no matter how once popular they were, no matter how much they blame their predecessors and Wall Street greed.
Obama is about one or two more gaffes away from a stampeding herd of House Democrats.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson