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In Praise of Extremism

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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.


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