This morning I heard someone on the radio speculating as to the priorities for the incoming Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Would they really try to repeal this year’s health care reforms? Push to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? Dismantle the minimal but hard-won new regulations passed in the wake of the near-collapse of the country’s finance industry?
And it occurred to me what strange questions these were, being that Republican leaders have already made it clear what their one and only priority is between now and 2012. They’ve spoken of it publicly since just over two years ago, their candidates have campaigned on it, and it was articulated most recently by Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate’s Republican caucus: to ruin the presidency of Barack Obama and ensure it ends with a single term.
The GOP and the conservative pundits and personalities who promote (and, to an alarming extent, determine) its interests have likewise made no effort to hide what their strategy will be in pursuing this goal. They intend to wreck the Obama presidency through the tried-and-true method of making shit up.
Andrew Sullivan on what he calls “The Big Lie”:
It seems to me that the last year or so in America’s political culture has represented the triumph of untruth. And the untruth was propagated by a deliberate, simple and systemic campaign to kill Obama’s presidency in its crib. Emergency measures in a near-unprecedented economic collapse - the bank bailout, the auto-bailout, the stimulus - were described by the right as ideological moves of choice, when they were, in fact, pragmatic moves of necessity. The increasingly effective isolation of Iran’s regime - and destruction of its legitimacy from within - was portrayed as a function of Obama’s weakness, rather than his strength. The health insurance reform - almost identical to Romney’s, to the right of the Clintons in 1993, costed to reduce the deficit, without a public option, and with millions more customers for the insurance and drug companies - was turned into a socialist government take-over.
Every one of these moves could be criticized in many ways. What cannot be done honestly, in my view, is to create a narrative from all of them to describe Obama as an anti-American hyper-leftist, spending the US into oblivion. But since this seems to be the only shred of thinking left on the right (exacerbated by the justified flight of the educated classes from a party that is now openly contemptuous of learning), it became a familiar refrain - pummeled into our heads day and night by talk radio and Fox. If you think I’m exaggerating, try the following thought experiment.
If a black Republican president had come in, helped turn around the banking and auto industries (at a small profit!), insured millions through the private sector while cutting Medicare, overseen a sharp decline in illegal immigration, ramped up the war in Afghanistan, reinstituted pay-as-you go in the Congress, set up a debt commission to offer hard choices for future debt reduction, and seen private sector job growth outstrip the public sector’s in a slow but dogged recovery, somehow I don’t think that Republican would be regarded as a socialist.
Sullivan also reminds us of the oft-parroted charge that Obama has rejected the notion of American exceptionalism. Since I see the United States as having rabid nationalism to spare, the charge doesn’t really upset me. The problem, of course, is that there isn’t a shred of truth to it. The line cited as evidence for Obama’s opinion that American is nothing special comes from a trip to Europe he took in April 2009, where he responded to a reporter’s question about American exceptionalism by saying the following:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
I see nothing unreasonable about that statement, but to the Sean Hannitys and Glenn Becks of the world, it was tantamount to treason. But that single sentence was not the end of the president’s answer to the question. The full quote gives quite a different impression:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.
And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.
In other words, Obama emphatically doesn’t reduce the idea of American exceptionalism to "benign provincialism." Quite the contrary: he explicitly asserts that the values enshrined in the Constitution are exceptional, and defends them and the US’s history in front of a foreign audience. It’s worth pointing out this factual error at such length because everyone in the conservative movement has already made it.
[. . .]
What’s especially remarkable about this hackery - and there are numerous other examples - is that these conservative authors don’t just egregiously misrepresent the president’s actual position. It’s that all of them actually cite, as evidence, an out of context line from the very speech that proves their analysis is wrong.
Yesterday I linked to Sullivan’s article on my Facebook profile, and a friend and regular commenter ‘round these parts said that even in context, the president seems “wishy-washy” about the greatness of the United States. This led me to wonder: what would be enough? What declaration would be sufficient to clear Barack Obama of the charge of being “wishy-washy” about the greatness of his country? Sean Hannity attacks the president for “never talking about the greatness of America” so often that he seems to expect him to talk about nothing else when he travels abroad.
Would that be good enough? Perhaps for his next European tour, Obama should make stops across Britain, France and Poland and spend his time boasting to the locals of the military and economic supremacy of the United States, always making sure to remind them that they’d all be speaking German if it wasn’t for us.
Even that wouldn’t make a difference. As Sullivan observes in his follow-up, “The Big Lie II,” those who invented and proliferated the image of Obama as a radical socialist intent on spending the country into oblivion aren’t interested in the truth. Their quarrel isn’t with the actions and philosophy of an actual person. It’s with the leftist zealot they imagine him to be. The facts of the Obama presidency could not be more beside the point.
It’s not a new strategy, though I don’t recall it ever being embraced so fully by both the Republican party and the various media outlets that support it. Most depressing of all: it’s working.
Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. Straw men don’t punch back.
Read both excellent pieces by Andrew Sullivan at his blog on the website of the Atlantic:
“The Big Lie”
“The Big Lie II”