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In Praise of Extremism

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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.


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