The election is still thirteen months away, but in certain coastal circles, the quadrennial wailing has erupted right on schedule: “If that man gets in the White House, I’m moving out of the country!” This time that man is Rick Perry, who might have been computer-generated to check every box in a shrill liberal fund-raising letter: a gun-toting, Bible-thumping, anti-government death-penalty absolutist from Texas. And this time the liberals’ panic is not entirely over-the-top. Perry isn’t a novelty nut job like Michele Bachmann. He’s the real deal. It’s not implausible he could win his party’s nomination and prevail in enough swing-state nail-biters to take the presidency. He could do so because the times and the politician are in alignment. A desperate and angry country is facing the specter of a double-dip recession with zero prospects of relief from a defunct Washington. Perry is the only viable declared candidate—as measured by organizing savvy, fund-raising prowess, poll numbers, and take-no-prisoners gubernatorial résumé—hawking an unambiguous alternative to the failed status quo.
The important thing to remember about Perry is that he’s anathema to Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, and many conservative pundits no less than to liberals. His swift rise does not just reflect his enthusiasts’ detestation of Barack Obama. Perry’s constituency rejects the entire bipartisan Establishment of which Obama is merely the latest and shiniest product. For two decades, the elites in both parties and in the Beltway media-political combine have venerated a vanilla centrism, from Bush 41’s “thousand points of light” to Clinton’s triangulation to Bush 43’s “compassionate conservatism.” They’ve endorsed every useless bipartisan commission and every hapless bipartisan congressional “Gang of Six” (or Twelve, or Twenty, not to mention the new too-big-not-to-fail budget supercommittee). Perry, by contrast, is a proud and unabashed partisan. If he’s talking about gangs, chances are they’re chain gangs, not dithering conclaves of legislators. He doesn’t aspire to be the adult in the room, as Obama does, but the bull in the china shop of received opinion. Despite all the flak from political gatekeepers of most persuasions, he didn’t back down from calling Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” and “a monstrous lie” in his first national debate. Indeed, he touched the third rail of American politics and lived. Gallup found that his stand didn’t hurt him a whit among GOP voters. Though most commentators across the spectrum awarded the night to Romney, a CNN survey found that more Republicans by far came away feeling that Perry had the better chance of beating Obama. They, unlike Washington’s political aristocracy, may actually know what’s going on in America.
Whether Perry snares the big prize or not, he could prove a shock to the system tantamount to Barry Goldwater in 1964—and just as misestimated now as Goldwater was then. In Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein’s landmark 2001 book on the origins and triumph of the conservative insurgency, we’re reminded of how Washington’s wise men thought Goldwater’s landslide defeat signaled the decisive end to his movement. James Reston, the New York Times’ reigning sage, spoke for them all when he declared that Goldwater had “wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage.” But as Perlstein points out, “After the off-year elections a mere two years later, conservatives so dominated Congress that Lyndon Johnson couldn’t even get up a majority to appropriate money for rodent control in the slums.” The premature obituaries for the right, in Perlstein’s judgment, constituted “one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism.” What those journalists in the D.C. bubble failed to discern was that the bipartisan national consensus over the central role of government—which had held firm through the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations—was kaput. The Reagan revolution was in the wings.
Should Perry get the GOP nomination, he could capsize like Goldwater on Election Day. That’s the universal prediction of today’s Restons. But maybe he won’t. Perry would have a cratered economy to exploit, unlike Goldwater, who ran in a boom time when unemployment was under 6 percent and the GDP was up 5.8 percent from the previous year. Whatever Perry’s 2012 electoral fate, his lightning ascent is final proof, if any further is needed in the day of the tea-party GOP, that a bipartisan consensus in America is as unachievable now as it was after 1964.
This is the harsh reality Obama has been way too slow to recognize. But in his post–Labor Day “Pass this jobs plan!” speech before Congress, the lip service he characteristically paid to both Republican and Democratic ideas gave way to an unmistakable preference for Democratic ideas. Soon to come were his “Buffett rule” for addressing the inequities of the Bush tax cuts and a threat to veto any budget without new tax revenues to go with spending cuts. When he tied it all up in a Rose Garden mini-tantrum pushing back against the usual cries of “class warfare,” it was enough to give one hope. No, not 2008 fired-up hope, but at least the trace memory of it. Should Obama not cave—always a big if with this president—he might have a serious shot at overcoming the huge burdens of a dark national mood and flatlined economy to win reelection.
That Obama has so long held to his faith that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America,” as he intoned in his glorious 2004 keynote at the Democratic convention, is in part because that’s who he is. But it’s also because he’s all too susceptible to Washington Establishment groupthink (which is how he was seduced into the jobless Summers-Geithner “recovery” in the first place). From the moment Obama arrived at the White House, the Beltway elites have been coaxing him further down the politically suicidal path of appeasement and inertia even as his opponents geared up for war.
As these elites see it, Obama must always hold his fire because we are perennially just one step away from the nirvana of national unity, no matter how glaring the evidence to the contrary. A classic example was a David Brooks column headlined “The Grand Bargain Lives!” published on July 22 of this year and predicting an Obama–John Boehner mind meld on a far-reaching debt-reduction deal. That same day, embarrassingly enough, those negotiations collapsed, with Obama complaining that Boehner hadn’t returned his calls and Boehner stating that “the deal was never reached, and was never really close.” Brooks, who also flogged the unheeded Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission as “the only way to realistically fix this problem,” has merely picked up where the Polonius of bipartisan Washington punditry, David Broder of the Washington Post, left off when he died in March. So beguiled was Broder after the “Gang of Fourteen” halted filibusters (temporarily) on judicial appointments that in 2007 he wrote that Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell had “forged a personal relationship of unusual trust,” setting off a “powerful current toward consensus building” in the Senate.
This delusional faith in comity reached its apotheosis in the debt-ceiling showdown. With the reliable exception of Paul Krugman, who shuns Washington and calls centrism “the cult that is destroying America,” almost every Establishment observer in our own time bought into the magical thinking that the radical Republicans would never go so far as to risk a default of the American government. Only when the tea-party cabal in the House took Washington hostage did it fully dawn on the Beltway gentry that the country was in danger. But even now, Obama keeps being urged to make nice with the rebels so that he can woo independents, who, we’re constantly told, value bipartisanship every bit as much as the pundits do. The “all-important independent voters,” as the “Lexington” columnist at The Economist recycled the conventional wisdom earlier this month, “are said to be looking for a president who defuses partisan tensions, rather than inflaming them.” Said by whom? Mainly other Washington bloviators.
Obama, after all, is exactly that president. For the good deed of trying to defuse partisan tensions, he has been punished with massive desertions by the very independents who are supposed to love his pacifism. In the last Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll, his support among them had fallen by half since he took office, from 52 percent to 26 percent. Perhaps that’s because these independents, who represent roughly 36 percent of voters, are not the monochromatic ideological eunuchs they’re purported to be. One polling organization that regularly examines them in depth, Pew, has found that nearly half of independents are in fact either faithful Democrats (21 percent) or Republicans (26 percent) who simply don’t want to call themselves Democrats and Republicans. (Can you blame them?) Another 20 percent are “doubting Democrats” and another 16 percent are “disaffected” voters, respectively anti-business and anti-government, angry and populist rather than mildly centrist. The remaining 17 percent are what Pew calls “disengaged”—young and uneducated Americans, four fifths of whom don’t vote anyway. There’s nothing about the makeup of any segment of these “all-important independent voters” that suggests bipartisan civility has anything whatsoever to do with winning their support.
To pursue this motley crew of the electorate as if it had a coherent political profile is nuts. Its various subsets are on so many different sides of so many questions no ideological hermaphrodite could please them all. Rather than win these voters over with bipartisan outreach, Obama may instead have driven them away. His steep decline among independents is paralleled by the decline in voters who credit him as a “strong leader.” A president who keeps trying and failing to defuse partisan tensions risks being perceived as a wuss by Democrats, Republicans, and, yes, independents alike.
Yet the glorification of bipartisanship as a political steroid is actually gaining favor in the Beltway, especially in liberal quarters, as Election Year approaches. The first trial balloon, all but bursting with hot air, was the announcement of an organization called No Labels last December. Venerating the “vital center” and vilifying “hyperpartisanship,” No Labels was endorsed by Michael Bloomberg, the former George W. Bush operative Mark McKinnon, and MSNBC’s bipartisan-minded morning talk show Morning Joe, which celebrated No Labels’ opening festival of civic-minded treacle as if it were the birth of the United Nations. Among the star attractions was Evan Bayh, the former Democratic senator from Indiana, a Broder-anointed patron saint of bipartisanship who quit the Senate in 2010 after writing a self-martyring Times op-ed whining about congressional dysfunction. (“Why not have a monthly lunch of all 100 senators?” was one of his helpful remedies.) Bayh has since elucidated his definition of bipartisanship by signing on as a talking head at that haven of nonideological civility, Fox News, and by partnering with the former Bush chief of staff Andy Card on a Chamber of Commerce–sponsored “bipartisan” road tour opposing EPA regulations on smog-producing ozone. No Labels, meanwhile, has gone on to create a blog that awards “high-fives” to politicians upholding its content-free ideals. Among the winners have been Boehner (for asking his caucus to show up for Obama’s address to Congress) and Gabrielle Giffords (for showing up to vote for the debt-ceiling bill). While Woody Allen may be right that 80 percent of success is showing up, if that’s now the high bar for a functioning government, America can pack it in.
No Labels has since been joined by two other bipartisan campaigns, both with prominent liberal supporters and both poised to damage Obama in 2012. One is the brainchild of Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, which, in a perhaps unintended bit of cultural synergy, is also the signature sponsor of Morning Joe. Schultz took a full-page ad in the Times this month to nationalize his crusade, first announced in a mass e-mail to his employees, for a moratorium on campaign contributions to protest “irresponsibility among elected officials” who “have put partisan agendas before the people’s agenda.” Exactly which “people” he means isn’t clear—presumably those who share his own largely Democratic orthodoxy—but his scheme was promptly embraced by Times columnists (not Krugman!) and by No Labels, which recruited him for a national teleconference. Schultz boasts of being “overwhelmed” with support and of recruiting some 100 CEOs to sign his no-giving pledge. USA Today, digging deeper, discovered that most of those 100 executives had given less than $5,000 or nothing at all to politicians in recent years. Somewhere the Koch brothers, pouring millions into the tea-party coffers to further the agenda of their own “people,” are laughing at this decaffeinated exercise in unilateral political disarmament.
The other new bipartisan scheme is a web-based campaign, Americans Elect, promoted by Thomas L. Friedman, McKinnon, and Douglas Schoen, a Bill Clinton and Bloomberg pollster with a sideline of using Murdoch outlets to berate Obama for not sufficiently emulating Clinton and Bloomberg. Americans Elect has collected more than 1.8 million signatures to put a third-party presidential candidate on the ballot in six states (so far) next year. If there are any candidates on the organization’s wish list, they are secret, as are some of its donors—though Friedman has written that its “swank offices” were “financed with some serious hedge-fund money.” As he sees it, this patriotic start-up could do “what Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music” by ending the two-party duopoly. And what would be Friedman’s third-party platform? His domestic bullet points include a short-term stimulus, Simpson-Bowles deficit cuts, a gasoline tax for government-supported scientific research, and a carbon tax to finance new infrastructure and clean-power innovation. That’s an agenda to delight attendees at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Morning Joe devotees, Bloomberg fanciers, and, for that matter, Barack Obama. It would draw only a fraction of those independent voters identified by Pew and no Republicans except for the one percent that likes Jon Huntsman, a No Labels “high-five” honoree whose presidential campaign, dedicated to bipartisan civility, is in a race to the bottom of the polls with Rick Santorum’s.
If Americans Elect gains traction, virtually every vote it receives will be at the Democrats’ expense. The Democrats, and Obama, may well deserve it. But does the country? We are at a genuine juncture that cannot be adjudicated over a Starbucks latte while easy-listening music soothes in the background. A radical movement controls one of the two parties. That party is so far right that when Ron Paul, now polling third among the GOP contenders, told a debate audience this month that “9/11 came about because there was too much government,” not a single one of his opponents dared object. Like it or not, Obama is the sole alternative to this crowd in 2012.
In a best-case scenario for him, the GOP will spurn Perry for Romney. It’s a given in Washington, of course, that Romney is the tougher opponent for Obama because he appeals to “moderate” and “independent” voters. The Beltway hands making this case are usually the same suspects who caution Obama to stick to the “vital center.” As Michael Gerson, the Bush 43 speechwriter turned columnist, put it last week, Romney is the GOP’s “safe choice” because he represents the “reassuring center.”
Gerson argues that Romney’s “prospects are better than his current polling” and likens him to Thomas Dewey without a hint of irony. A more accurate assessment comes from another conservative writer, Jonah Goldberg, who compares the inauthentic Romney to an alligator or a shark, animals “that just seem fake when you see them in real life.” Obama should only be so lucky as to run against a robotic leveraged-buyout tycoon whose Massachusetts health-care reforms resemble his own and whose religion vexes orthodox Christians in the GOP base.
For Obama to pull it out against a slick conservative populist like Perry—or some yet-undeclared Perry alternative who could still emerge to usurp him among the tea-party troops—he cannot revert to his usual ways. Yet as recently as Labor Day, the White House was sending the message, as the Times reported, that it would “rebrand the president as a pragmatic problem solver prepared to set aside ideology.” Rebrand? That is the Obama brand. Surely someone at even this White House must recognize that it is in danger of being recalled by voters because the country’s problems have not been solved.
Obama can’t change his DNA. He is by definition a conciliatory man of the middle: as a black man raised in white America, as a mediator among warring political factions at The Harvard Law Review, as a community organizer, as a child of divorce. But sometimes blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, and moms and dads cannot reconcile their differences. Sometimes the negotiations and compromises that are the crux of politics are nonoperative. This is one of those times. The other side has no interest in striking grand bargains or even small ones. It wants not so much to reform government, a worthy goal, as to auction off its parts and distribute the proceeds to its corporate backers. It’s a revolution beyond the one even Goldwater or Reagan imagined. They didn’t talk about seceding from the union.
Last week, like clockwork, David Brooks again channeled Broder to speak for the Washington club when he promptly slapped the newly feisty Obama for reviving “the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country” rather than “embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.” Obama had produced not “a jobs bill,” he wrote, but “a campaign marker.” Yes, and why not? Back in the real world, no jobs bill, let alone one of those “many bipartisan reform packages” forever floating around the Brookings Institution, has had a prayer of getting through Congress since November 2010. It’s not “stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country,” but the intransigence of the tea party and the Republican leadership it has cowed. And so, with no legislation possible and no economic miracles in store, Obama’s presidency has shrunk to the bully pulpit. His best hope is to use that pulpit, with all the muscle, talent, and energy at his command, to ferociously define and defend the American values under siege by the revolutionaries at the capital’s gates. That doesn’t mean more eloquent speeches from Washington. It means relentless barnstorming night and day. It means at long last embracing a big-picture narrative. It means going on the road and out-Trumaning Truman in drawing clear lines of battle with either the Dewey or Goldwater who emerges. It means—and this, thankfully, is another part of Obama’s DNA—playing to win.
“Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country,” Perry said at his maiden debate. It is time, and Obama is certainly capable of giving as good as he gets. The Washington hands who assume Perry and his constituency will self-destruct are as misguided as those who thought the conservative movement couldn’t survive provocative language like the 1964 Goldwater mantra “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Extremism in defense of liberty may be a vice, but so is retreat in the face of extremism. The many who would have Obama surrender without a fight in 2012—whether Beltway wise men addicted to bipartisanship, vain and deluded third-party entrepreneurs, or White House strategists chasing phantom independents—are fiddling while America burns. If Obama succumbs to their siren call again, he will too.