Frank Rich on the National Circus: Democrats’ Premature Panic

Don’t worry: I got this.

Is it time for Democrats to panic?” was the lead of a front-page Washington Post story Wednesday morning. Is it?
Not in June. The proximate source of this alarm is a memo written by James Carville and the pollster Stanley Greenberg, and seconded by another old Clinton hand, Douglas Schoen, a persistent Obama basher who months ago called for the president to abdicate after one term and let Hillary run in his place. The point of their angst is that Obama needs a new economic message, more like Clinton’s. Perhaps. More effective might be a stronger anti-Romney message. The Republican candidate avoids the press (Fox News aside), largely ducks the public, and offers only standard issue party boilerplate as his own “jobs” plan. The question is when and how the Obama campaign will knock this brittle opponent off his anodyne memorized talking points, out of his bubble and into interaction with the real world. The new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that among “swing-voting independents” the economic plans of both candidates are more or less equally despised, with a 38 percent favorable rating for Obama’s and 35 percent for Romney’s. That’s a serious opening for Obama.

But the Romney camp has done quite well in throwing Obama off course by seizing on his “private sector is doing fine” line of last week to brand him as “so out of touch,” in Romney’s repeated words.
As the Obama campaign has pointed out, Romney is also out of touch when he knocks the president for saying we need more firemen, policemen, and teachers. Most Americans actually think we do need more such public employees, and if it weren’t for the Obama stimulus we’d have even fewer of them. But Romney is counting on the likelihood that the tea-party right doesn’t know that the hated federal government pays for goodies it actually likes. After all, it was tea party protestors who gave us the immortal slogan, “Get Government’s Hands Off My Medicare!” Still, it is no help that this is the week when the Obamas do a fund-raiser with Anna Wintour at Sarah Jessica Parker’s town house in New York; we are already being treated to photos of bustling servants preparing for the arrival of the Prada crowd to the big event. As political imagery, it is the urban answer to the photos of Ann Romney’s equine adventures in “dressage.” Out of touch. 

Gabby Giffords’s former district director Ron Barber (who was himself injured in the assassination attempt) won his old boss’s Arizona Congressional seat last night over a tea-party-backed former Marine. Was this race just about Giffords? Or do you see any national resonance? How do you square this with Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin last week?
National implications of Gabby Giffords’s aide’s victory on a scale of one to ten: Zero. National implications of Walker’s victory: At least six because it revealed the power of the GOP’s Sugar Daddy PAC money over the Democrats’ organization even in a blue-tilting state.

On Monday, Jeb Bush told a group of reporters that both his father and Ronald Reagan would have had a “hard time” fitting into today’s radical GOP. He also praised his father’s 1990 bipartisan deficit-reduction deal (the one in which he broke the “no new taxes” pledge). Do you buy that Bush 41 and Reagan were really more reasonable Republicans? Why did Jeb make those comments? He must have known that conservatives would howl “bloody murder.”
Bush was saying the obvious. It isn’t a matter of opinion but fact that the GOP has handed power to the radical right as it hasn’t since the Goldwater nomination of 1964. Bush said it because he’s not running for anything, and because he realizes that one particular aspect of his party’s radicalism, its embrace of Hispanic bashing in the guise of policy initiatives like Arizona’s harsh immigration law (a “model” for the nation, according to Romney), will doom the GOP demographically, possibly as soon as this November. That the far right holds the GOP in such thrall now can be seen not only in how Romney panders to the radicals but in the silence of the cowed former presidents in Jeb Bush’s family. Give Jeb credit at least for having the guts to speak out. 

The situation in Syria looks like it’s going from terrible to all-out war. Should Obama do something more to support the resistance? Do you think the escalating conflict will have an effect on Obama politically?
It’s hard to imagine what Obama (or Hillary Clinton) could be doing additionally now that would be effective in ameliorating this horrific crisis, given the inchoate nature of that resistance and the intransigence of Russia. The “let’s do more, damnit!” caucus of John McCain and Lindsey Graham, besides being discredited by its post-9/11 national security prescriptions, has no credible alternative and no discernible support among the American public, which doesn’t want to pay for the wars we have now. Polls are rarely even asking voters what they think about foreign policy issues these days, so far are they off the radar screen in hard domestic times. So the effect of Syria on Obama politically will be nil, I suspect, no matter what happens there. The tragic effect on Syrians is the more urgent and important point, and it’s hard to imagine that the U.S. and its international partners will fail to exploit any opening that presents itself against Assad.

On Sunday, Clybourne Park, the Bruce Norris play about race you recently wrote about in New York, won the Tony Award for Best Play. What did you make of the rest of the Tony telecast?
Best seen in rapid fast-forward on DVR. The most telling moment came when CBS cut away from one acceptance speech to a woman in the audience — conspicuously sitting next to the songwriter Alan Menken (Newsies) — as she let loose with a spectacular yawn. She spoke most eloquently for an audience that surfed past the Tonys in droves on a night when the brilliant Mad Men season finale was just one of many other more alluring viewing alternatives. 

Frank Rich: Democrats’ Premature Panic