Sean Wilentz continues to survey the river of delusion running across certain segments of the American population.
Forget experience: Opinion-slingers are mooning over Barack Obama’s instincts. Don’t they remember how badly that worked out last time?
Every now and then in American politics, normally balanced people get swept up by delusions of greatness about a presidential candidate, based on an emotional attachment to the candidate’s oratory or image. The youthful William Jennings Bryan brought down the house and swept up the nomination with his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1896–only to be crushed by the dreary William McKinley in November.
Political journalists have never been immune to the delusional style. But editorialists and pundits are supposed to be skeptical experts, who at least try to appear as if they base their perceptions in facts and reality. Enthusiasm for a candidate because of his or her “intuitive sense of the world,” “intuitive understanding,” and discovery of “identity”–the favored terms in some recent press endorsements of Barack Obama–is presented as the product of such discerning, well-considered thinking. But it is in fact nothing more than enthusiasm, based on feelings and projections that are unattached to verifiable rational explanation or the public record.
In recent years, pundits from across the political spectrum–and not just in politics–have denigrated informed and reasoned decision-making in favor of hunches, snap judgments, instincts, and what the upscale middlebrow’s favorite trendspotter, Malcolm Gladwell, defends as “instant intuition.” The political pundits have praised candidates based on their projections about the candidates’ characters, personalities, and inner lives–and what they imagine about the candidates’ instincts. Possessed by a will to believe in somebody, the pundits intuit intuition. It is the delusional style in American punditry.
The style was particularly prominent during George W. Bush’s rise to the presidency. Although Bush had a thin record on domestic matters as governor of Texas, no record whatsoever on foreign policy, and things to hide about his past, none of it mattered. As president, he has asked the American people to trust him because of his faith in himself and his God-given instincts–what he calls his “gut.” For years, the Washington press corps was bowled over by such self-assurance. Having decided that the wonkish, reasonable Al Gore was boring and inauthentic, reporters covered Bush as a centered man with superb intuition.
Wilentz cites the Boston Globe endorsement of Obama as “an ideal specimen of the delusional style…” Wilentz harpoons the bloated fish that pretends to be a whale by additionally noting that Dreams From My Father, the first, or is it the second, Obama autobiography is crafted from “composite characters and other fictionalized elements…”
Fareed Zakaria, David Brooks, Karl Rove and former Rove deputy Peter Wehner are likewise dumped by Wilentz into the “deluded” bin.
Joining the fight for rationality is Joe Conason.
In the weeks since Karl Rove offered his unsolicited advice on how to defeat Hillary Clinton in the pages of the Financial Times, right-wing expressions of support for Barack Obama have become increasingly conspicuous and voluble. Although often couched in high-flown moral terms that accept the Illinois senator’s definition of himself as a fresh and unsullied figure, his Republican endorsers cannot quite conceal their underlying animus.
Exactly why the American right hates the Clintons so fervidly remains a subject of debate among both political scientists and psychiatrists, but the persistence of those emotions is beyond dispute, especially among commentators and activists with little actual exposure to Hillary Clinton herself. (Evidently her conservative colleagues in the Senate have developed warmer feelings for the first lady they once demonized, but that’s another topic.) So powerful is their fury that they will not hesitate to promote the career of a liberal black politician whose background and religious affiliation they regard with suspicion. Of course, they’re also quite confident that they can bring him down later, too.
For the moment, at least, he is their shining hero. That is why the Weekly Standard ran a cover story in early December that provided a swooning rehash of Obama’s life story and a series of masterful scenes from the campaign trail. (“He sounds like a man who knows what he’s talking about and knows what he wants to do. There are no questions that catch him off guard, no issues he hasn’t considered.”) Written by Stephen Hayes, the admiring biographer of Dick Cheney and perhaps the last journalist on earth who still believes that Saddam Hussein was allied with al-Qaida, the flattering Obama profile raises none of the expected concerns over his eagerness to negotiate with the Iranians and other enemies of democracy. Why spoil the moment?
The wind behind that Hayes puff blew up into a bilious gust last week when William Kristol endorsed Obama in an editorial titled “Time to Move On … From Hillary,” urging Democrats to prevent the return of the Clintons to the center stage of American politics. He worked himself up into a lather of fake indignation over the clumsy attacks on Obama in recent days by Bill Shaheen, Bob Kerrey and Mark Penn. So did George Will, whose column excoriating Hillary Clinton invoked a very tired comparison with Nixon.
Conosen understands Obama is “merely another weapon to be deployed” in the right wing attempts to defeat the only Democrats that have defeated them – Bill and Hillary Clinton.
But nobody should imagine that the right-wing media whose voices now praise Obama will continue to do so if he wins the Democratic nomination, or that the mainstream media, which still takes so many cues from the right, will do likewise. The conservative movement’s affection for any Democrat is always fickle and flimsy. Its assessment of any black Democrat, let alone a presidential nominee, is more likely to reflect the bigoted crudeness of Limbaugh than the manufactured erudition of Will. (And we can expect to see many more cartoons like this one.)
Should Obama hope to continue to enjoy his free ride, he should consult his old mentor Joe Lieberman, the senator from Connecticut who used to be a Democrat. Conservative commentators and right-wing media outlets always loved Lieberman for his willingness to echo their talking points on subjects such as school vouchers and Social Security privatization. When he agreed to join the Democratic ticket as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, the Weekly Standard and the National Review, among others, suddenly discovered how despicable Lieberman actually was. Having abandoned the Democrats altogether, he is now fully rehabilitated.
But Obama and his supporters must cherish no illusions about what will happen to him if he vanquishes Clinton. He will need the same kind of armor that she has worn proudly for years. What the right likes best about him is that he doesn’t seem to own any.
Paul Krugman again and again sounds the “wake up” alarums:
First, does it make sense, in the current political and economic environment, for Democrats to lump unions in with corporate groups as examples of the special interests we need to stand up to?
Second, is Mr. Obama saying that if nominated, he’d be willing to run without support from labor 527s, which might be crucial to the Democrats? If not, how does he avoid having his own current words used against him by the Republican nominee?
Part of what happened here, I think, is that Mr. Obama, looking for a stick with which to beat an opponent who has lately acquired some momentum, either carelessly or cynically failed to think about how his rhetoric would affect the eventual ability of the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she is, to campaign effectively. In this sense, his latest gambit resembles his previous echoing of G.O.P. talking points on Social Security.
In yet another article these past few days, Krugman places Obama’s ugly campaign in historical context:
Have you seen or heard about the radio ad that Obama is running in Iowa about health care?
It has a man and a woman talking, with the man leading off saying that health care mandates “force those who cannot afford health care insurance to buy it, punishing those who don’t fall in line.”
This is what I’ve been complaining about. I was willing to cut Obama slack on the lack of mandates in his plan, even though the economics says they’re necessary; I figured that in practice, if elected, he’d end up doing the right thing.*
I started ramping up the criticism when he started attacking his opponents from the right, making the lack of mandates a principle rather than a compromise — because that was poisoning the well, making it much harder for any future Democratic president to implement a plan that will work.
And whaddya know, now he’s running an ad that bears a striking resemblance to the infamous “Harry and Louise” ads, run by the insurance industry, that helped block health care reform in 1993.
Call it the audacity of cynicism.
Slowly but surely the forces of rationality are growing more numerous and getting louder. They are sounding the alarm. We are sounding the alarm.
In eight days, in the cornfields and the cities and the towns of Iowa, rationality will confront idolatry and Big Media power.
After 7 Bush years, it’s long past time for a great awakening of rationality and a return to sanity.