Monday, November 8, 2010

Mr. Smith Fantasies from Mr. Rich

I try to pass on easy targets, but sometimes they just get to me...Frank Rich, on Sunday:
You can’t win an election without a coherent message. Obama, despite his administration’s genuine achievements, didn’t have one. The good news — for him, if not necessarily a straitened country — is that the G.O.P. doesn’t have one either.
OK, I guess I need some help.  Clearly, Barack Obama could not have won the midterm elections, since he didn't have a message.  Never mind that he wasn't actually a candidate.  Never mind that if you actually listen to just Barack Obama's speeches (and I heard a few over the campaign, with sound bites from quite a few more), it sure did sound to me as if he did have a coherent message (it had something to do with ditches, and "D" for going forward).   I'll grant Rich both of those. Fine; Obama and the Democrats could not have won the elections.

Except...apparently, Republicans didn't have a message either, and so they could not have won the midterms.  Now, again, I don't know what counts as "coherent" other than to say that the GOP "Pledge" probably didn't rise to that standard, but I did see quite a lot of other Republican rhetoric, and the Pledge and Glenn Beck notwithstanding, much of it was, in my view, quite coherent (not an actual program for governing, but coherent, nonetheless).  But again -- I'm happy to give Rich this one, if he wants it.

I suppose that everyone has seen by now that there's a bit of a problem.  I mean, the Libertarians may well have had a coherent message (that, I don't know about), but I'm pretty sure they didn't win.  Mostly, Republicans won.  Coherent message or not.  Perhaps, and I'll go out on a limb on this one, the idea that no one can win without a Rich-certified coherent message is, uh, a pile of crap.

I mean, really, I read the whole of the damn op-ed waiting for the kicker, in whcih he would reveal why the seeming contradiction he set up at the beginning was really not a contradiction after all.  Column writing 101, right?  But no; he just keeps going without paying any attention to the obvious nonsense he's babbling on about.

Speaking of which: Rich lets us know that it was a disaster for Obama to go to India because, he assures us, "optics matter."  To which I'd just say: how?  In what way?  And, why is it necessarily bad "optics" (ugh; what a word) to do a foreign tour?  Seems to me it's a pretty good way for a president I really have to say it...look, uh, Presidential.  (Look Presidential?  Optics!).

Meanwhile there's actual substance involved in governing, which does mean that presidents sometimes travel abroad.  Broader point: most of Obama's mistakes, and probably all of the mistakes that have really mattered (to the economy, and therefore, to elections) have been mistakes of substance.

Instead of calling Obama on whatever real mistakes he's made (hint: Tim Geithner's tax troubles?  Not an important mistake), Rich substitutes a Mr. Smith (or perhaps Jed Bartlet) fantasy:
He could call the Republicans’ bluff by forcing them to fill in their own blanks. He could start by offering them what they want, the full Bush tax cuts, in exchange for a single caveat: G.O.P. leaders would be required to stand before a big Glenn Beck-style chalkboard — on C-Span, or, for that matter, Fox News — and list, with dollar amounts, exactly which budget cuts would pay for them. Once they hit the first trillion — or even $100 billion — step back and let the “adult conversation” begin! 
OK, boys and girls, a piece of week-old candy for the first one who can figure out a way for John Boehner to get out of this flawless trap.  Don't everyone raise their hands at once!  Alright, you over there in the third row.  That's right!  All Boehner has to do is write "the taxes pay for themselves" and, well, we're all back to bickering again.  Hell, Boehner could just write "Eliminate earmarks" and everyone over on Fox News would applaud, regardless of whether that would pay for a single dollar of tax cuts.

Amazing how difficult these things are when Aaron Sorkin doesn't get to write the dialogue for both sides.

But of course, governing isn't about saying the perfect thing that forces the opposition to give up and admit you've bested them, anyway.  Nor, for that matter, is campaigning.  Mr. Smith is a pernicious myth, not a guide to how to succeed in politics.

Meanwhile, there's nothing -- absolutely nothing -- about this White House's communications strategy, or mastery of "optics" that a little good economic news can't cure.  I'll give Matt Yglesias the final word:
Back when Republicans were unpopular because of the poor economy in late 2008, Barack Obama’s calm demeanor amidst economic crisis was said to be key to his popularity. Then when Democrats became unpopular because of the poor economy in late 2009, Barack Obama’s calm demeanor amidst economic crisis was said to be the key to his unpopularity. But if the economy improves, then conventional wisdom about every single aspect of Obama’s personality and policy agenda will pivot around that fact. With the economy in the dumps, the health care bill is liberal overreach. If the economy improves, the health care bill will be said to demonstrate the genius of pushing a moderate proposal with no public option. Just you wait.


  1. Well, how would you like it if you were paid in the low six figures to come up with 800 pithy words twice per week for the next 40 years? It's hard work coming up with a new way of saying the same old shit every week for decades and decades. Just ask David Broder.

    ...Snark aside, thanks for your mighty satisfying eyeroll, Jonathan. This is why the blog-o-verse was invented.

  2. OK, Rich's bloviating often gets on my nerves too, and your criticisms are mostly spot-on. But are you really unable to see how going on an extended foreign trip so soon after the elections -- in which his party got creamed almost entirely based on perceived domestic policy failures -- might look a little.... I don't know... oblivious? Rich didn't explain why this was "bad optics" because, Frankly (as Bob Somerby might say), it's obvious!

    Also, I liked Rich's idea about inviting DeMint, Paul and Bachmann (along with McConnell and Boehner) to the White House to chat about policy. It would be shrewd for the White House to at least act as if the Tea Party maniacs are the real ones in charge of the GOP.

    Finally, Rich hints at this, but I don't think it would have been a bad idea to can Geithner the day after the elections, like Bush (finally) got rid of Rumsfeld in 2006. No, Geithner isn't really at fault for anything, but he'd make a useful scapegoat, and his firing would indicate that the White House is not content with the current state of economic affairs.

  3. I've studied the "Mr. Smith myth" in some detail -- it's had many manifestations and variants over the years, and in fact long predates the movie that gave it its name -- and yet that's not what leaped to mind when I read Rich's column. I don't think he's suggesting that there's some sort of purity of heart and soul that substitutes for political ideas, that would make its bearer instantly popular (not that that's exactly what happens in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but whatever), or that obviates the hard work of politics: bargaining, doing deals, arm-twisting, dividing-and-conquering and everything else the classic Mr. Smith refuses to do. Rich's ideal -- the image with which he closes the column -- isn't Mr. Smith but Harry Truman, or at least the Truman of legend: the scrappy, give-'em-hell partisan who called out Republicans for their nonsense and ran hard against it. If any pundits are pressing the Mr. Smith myth on Obama, I'd say it's those who are (predictably) urging him to "move to the center," by which they think they mean some place above or outside politics -- or at least above partisan strife -- but which in practice means surrender to the partisan demands of the other side. I take Rich to be arguing against that, not for it.

    Also, I think the blackboard image is a rhetorical device meant to make vivid the lack of Republican ideas, not something Rich actually imagines Obama doing. And you're being a bit unfair to him on the point about optics: Yes, it's less important than Rich makes out, but Rich himself is criticizing Obama's worry about it and the lame way he suddenly decided to call the Asia trip a "jobs mission."

    Anyway, not the guy's greatest column ever, but not without its virtues as another effort on the part of liberals -- #102,347,225, by my count -- to remind the Obama administration that they're in a serious and ongoing political fight, not a policy seminar at the freakin' Aspen Institute.

  4. While I generally agree with this post, I think that optics do matter at the margins, particularly given the media's obsession with fake news and storylines (e.g., without Fox News, I think Obama could have picked off a few Republicans to support his agenda).

    So, I think Rich's gambit could work, if Obama held an all-day deficit summit (modeled on the health care one), preferably in early December, just after his commission issues its report. It's harder for the Rs to make false claims in a roomful of experts, and the drama of the event forces the media to hear real arguments, as opposed to the bite-sized ones we usually get.

    I think Americans, particularly those that are engaged in the political process, want to see more substantive debate, and the media has failed them. By holding real debates every so often, Obama can increase the chances that substantive thongs will happen in the next two years.

  5. Jeff,

    I'd be interested in your comments about pre-Mr. Smith versions.

    I'd also say that there are a couple of things at work in Mr. Smith. One is the purity/non-partisan side of it, and I agree that's not in Rich's column. The other, though, is the idea that a pol, speaking the truth, can convince others through, basically, the force of logic and eloquence. I definitely consider that part of the Mr. Smith mythology, and it really shows up in Rich.

    I mean, I'm not against the kind of thing that Louis (in the comment above) wants to see. I'd just emphasize that the health care summit happened, Obama and the Dems made their case quite strongly IMO, and then...well, mostly, nothing. It certainly didn't stop GOP candidates from making up stuff. The world doesn't work like that.

  6. Jon, your take-down here gets at the root of the problem with the Republican party in its current incarnation: post-modernism with a substantial helping of epistemic closure. I don't know to what extent you view this as a problem; I certainly do though. The problem is that it is exceedingly difficult to hold a conversation about policy and politics with rank and file Republicans; on election day I had a conversation with my father and pointed out that the evidence indicates that the government and both parties responded well to the recession (TARP, Auto bailouts, Stimulus) and that we could have been in a much bigger hole...but all he could talk about was Republican platitudes like debt and big government. All around frustrating for anyone who cares about having a decent conversation about policy. So what is the logical end-point in all this? Do you see any chance that in the future, the Republican Party will come around to empirical reality or will they continue to be the party of post-modern truth, given the huge market for it? And do you believe the Democrats will head down the same path, or will we forever be without the "hack economists" on the Democratic side?

  7. I disagree that nothing happened after the health care summit, as I don't know if a bill would have been passed without it (at the very least, the summit gave the media something to report on instead of the interparty negotiations by the Dems).

    If Obama had held a similar summit earlier in the game (for example, if he had presided over a televised meeting of the Senate Finance Committee in June or July of 2009, and forced wavering members to state their positions on the elements of the bill before cameras), I think we would have seen the bill pass more quickly. As we have moved toward a de facto parliamentary system, the role of the President has changed, so doing this kind of work makes a difference.

    I think a large part of this has to do with Obama's skill set. After watching him for a few years, I've decided that he's great at two things: the big speech, and debates, particularly with Republicans. He's okay at the town hall, and the party pep rally, and he's a fairly tepid fireside chatter. I think politically engaged Americans are eager for real debate on hard issues, and Obama would be well served to use his skills as a debater to get issues before the public.

  8. Louis,

    I think the health care summit was fine p.r., and perhaps an effective way to get Dems to take a public (and therefore binding) stand on an issue during a time that a lot of them may have wanted to shy away from committing. What I don't think it did was convince anyone on the fence, nor did it even come close to ending GOP reliance on talking points that were thoroughly debunked during the summit.

    There really is no rhetorical trick that can force Republicans to admit that their budget talking points don't add up. The fact that House Republicans will have an obligation to produce a budget may (but may not) get them to use real numbers, but not clever Dem tricks.

  9. I don't mean to pick away at the Mr. Smith thing, because I agree with the point you're using it to make about the impossibility of somehow rhetorically forcing the other side to admit the truth. But: In the movie, Mr. Smith isn't making a political argument. (True Mr. Smiths don't really make political arguments.) He's inveighing against one specific case of corruption, while the grafters make him a political punching bag. What "works" isn't his arguments but his moral example -- one man willing to take a stand, etc. -- and it doesn't really work; the public believes the lies and turns against him in droves, and the only people he "convinces" are a bunch of kids who already admire him, plus one lone Senator, a formerly honorable public servant who's become a tool of the corrupt machine. The movie ends when that guy flips, not in the sense of changing his political views but in the sense of confessing to a crime, like a witness in a Perry Mason episode. Meanwhile, Mr. Smith has collapsed unconscious; as far as we can see, he's done, and will accomplish nothing further in politics.

    Point is, it's a grimmer, less optimistic vision than the Mr. Smith myth would have us remember. But there is such a myth that appears in sunnier versions too. I believe (since you ask) that its precursors lie in the legends of Washington and Lincoln, and especially in novels of the Populist / Progressive era like President John Smith (!) by Frederick Upham Adams and Philip Dru, Administrator (catchy title, no?) by Woodrow Wilson's close friend and advisor "Colonel" Edward House. I'm compressing a lot of history that can be read about further here, but in short: Washington cultivated the legend of Cincinnatus, ancient Rome's Mr. Smith, and casting him as above party, faction, region and class was part of the early Republic's nation-building srategy. Lincoln was the first president to be written about in "novelistic" ways, i.e. as a character with a developing inner life, one whose early trauma and life-struggles lead to moral greatness. This Great Soul, moreover, is at the same time a perfect exemplar of the the People, an archetype / embodiment of the nation's own greatness -- and therefore the one called to save it in its darkest hour. (Of course, this legend emerged after he was martyred, on Good Friday; in life, Lincoln's contemporaries, including his supporters, saw him quite differently.)

    And the Progressive Era novels, generally labeled "utopian," strain to imagine how politics could be ended and replaced with "the Rule of Common Sense" (actual chapter title from President John Smith) -- that is, with a vision of society that all would embrace except the actively corrupt. Today, we get a right-wing version of this idea in Tom Clancy's novels, among others. "Utopian" is really the wrong term for this vision; I suggest that it should be called upolian, another made-up word, since it imagines not a perfect world but a world cleansed of politics. Very popular idea a hundred years ago.

    Sorry for the length; I'm stepping away from the blackboard now.....


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