Thursday, October 11, 2012
The Inadequacy of Hope
Picture me in a fetal position on the floor, sobbing. What was that debate? What the hell happened? Yes, Romney brazenly lied about his own positions. Yes, he sounded like a moderate and reasonable man after spending the last year continuously genuflecting to the conservative movement, twisting himself into a right-leaning pretzel to reassure Tea Party types that he really is and always has been “severely conservative.” Yes, he showed that he is willing to say or do anything to become president. And, yes, finally, yes, yes, yes! – he has shown that blatant lying can work in the era of fractured media, an era in which people claim not only their own opinions but their own facts. Yes, let’s grant all those. But none of that explains why Obama didn’t fight back. The debate was one of the few opportunities to hold Romney to account, when he might have been exposed as a shape-shifting opportunist, as an empty suit with great hair. Instead the president stammered, hesitated, sputtered and caved. Romney didn’t beat Obama in this debate, Obama beat himself. And in classic Obama style, he beat himself with passivity. He died with a whimper.
My pre-debate analysis predicted that there was little a Romney debate performance could do to change the widespread media narrative of the election. And I was right. But I failed to consider that Obama might change the narrative, and that’s exactly what happened. More precisely, Obama has damaged himself by highlighting his one widely perceived weakness: his ineffectuality. Before the debate, even his supporters felt defensive about the weakness of the economic recovery. But when he failed to adequately answer Romney’s attacks he lent credibility to the notion that he’s just not up to the job of president. All the reasons given for his policy failures just feel like excuses. And ineffectuality is a killer. The conservative media and punditry quickly charged into the opening that Obama had given them. As Republican operative Mary Matalin put it on This Week, “he didn't bring his game because he doesn't have a game.” Conservatives are jubilant that all of America now finds some credibility in their perception of Obama as a media-protected amateur; Andrew McCarthy of National Review: “He is actually being vetted this time.” His policies are failures and so is he, and now no one can deny it.
It’s not true, of course, but does Obama have what it takes to fight back? Even many of his supporters have begun to wonder. There have been other moments when liberals were worried he wasn’t fighting hard enough. When, in January 2010, Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by Ted Kennedy’s death it looked like the Obama administration might give in on Obamacare. When, in mid 2011, the Tea-Party-addled Republican Congress threatened to force a US government debt default it looked like Obama might concede massive cuts in social insurance programs. In both cases, though, he ultimately stood his ground. There are two more debates scheduled and there’s still a month until Election Day. Maybe he’ll come through this time, too.
And come through he must. His re-election is terribly important. Conservative hands must be kept from the levers of power lest they take us once again down the paths of inequality, recession and debt. Despite Romney’s current incarnation as reasonable moderate, he is the standard bearer of a movement which largely (though not entirely) believes that much of the country are moochers “who can never be convinced to take responsibility and care for their lives”. This is a movement and a campaign which would weaken bank regulations, reduce government spending during a weak economic recovery, lower taxes on the already under-taxed rich, widen the deficit, and underfund and voucher-ize terribly important and popular programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Obama knows all this and he has vowed to fight against it. On debate night he claimed the populist mantle, saying that he’d “promised that I’d fight every single day on behalf of the American people and the middle class and all those who are striving to get in the middle class. I’ve kept that promise and if you’ll vote for me, then I promise I’ll fight just as hard in a second term.” Mitt Romney seems to really believe – if he believes anything – that conservative policies will well serve the American middle class. But, in reality, his debate avalanche of faux moderation only masks policies that do just the opposite. On debate night, Obama was standing face to face with the self-proclaimed leader of a movement whose blindness to the downside of modern capitalism brought about our current economic woes. That night, that debating stage was the most important battleground between those who wish to humanize capitalism and those who are happy to let capitalism have its way with humanity. That would have been a good time for Obama to fight for the middle class.