Earlier today I printed out the text of President Obama’s May 21 speech on national security and American values. I had previously listened to the speech live and skimmed the text online, but I had not actually sat down and read it. What struck me was an overwhelming sense of the strangeness of the speech. I want to talk for a moment about that strangeness.
As an aide to seeing what I am getting at, imagine that it is the summer of, say, 1998, in some nearby alternate universe. Imagine a President. Not Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush and not anyone else from around here; just some ordinary President: put him or her in a suit, make him or her as politically bland as you please. Traveling to this alternate America, you expect things to be ordinary.
Now out of his or her mouth comes this:
[I]t was my judgment – informed by my national security team – that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion, and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, endangering them in theaters of war.
I will deal with Congress and the courts as co-equal branches of government.
We are reforming Military Commissions, and we will pursue a new legal regime to detain terrorists. We are declassifying more information and embracing more oversight of our actions, and narrowing our use of the State Secrets privilege.
As our efforts to close Guantanamo move forward, I know that the politics in Congress will be difficult. These issues are fodder for 30-second commercials and direct mail pieces that are designed to frighten. I get it. But if we continue to make decisions from within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes.
At this point one supposes that half of this alternate America consists of smoking nuclear craters, or that Russian troops are massing at the Mexican border, or that some kind of weaponized biological agent out of a Michael Crichton novel -- or maybe Captain Trips from Stephen King’s The Stand -- has wiped out 1/3 of the population. One imagines, in any case, that the Americans whom this President is addressing are traumatized.
The President in this imaginary universe, as I read this text, is trying to calm these traumatized people. But he or she sees calming them as a struggle, a task just as daunting as defeating the god-only-knows-what monstrosity that crouches over them like a behemoth.
So much for thought experiment. Returning to the present day, and to the actual occasion of President Obama’s speech: The apparent need for this speech was not created by Captain Trips. It was not a bunch of smoking nuclear craters, it was not Russian troops massing at the border. And, note, it was also not Al Qaeda. I can say that because nary ten months ago President Obama was able to say these words at the Democratic National Convention:
I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing so that America is once more the last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.
One of the more remarkable rhetorical achievements of the Obama candidacy was the way he repeatedly put terrorism in with a group of other world-wide problems such as disease, poverty, and climate change, thus putting terrorism in its proper place: a non-singular, non-unique, and non-traumatizing problem to be dealt with. A problem to be dealt with by adults in an adult fashion, and no more.
No events in the world have dramatically increased the importance of terrorism since then; there have been no attacks on American soil. Yet somehow now-President Obama is forced into using the other-worldly rhetoric we heard on Thursday.
The explanation is simple enough. The monstrosity crouching over the American people in the real world is the Republican party. The rhetoric of the Republican party is the traumatizing force. It is what creates the "climate of fear" that made the President’s speech on Thursday necessary, and made that speech sound like something out of an asteroid-hits-Earth movie -- the part of the movie where the President appears on national television to read the names of people who get to live in sheltered caves.
But then again: it’s not that simple. It’s not that simple as saying "the Republican party did it" because at the moment there is, in effect, no Republican party. What there is, rather, is a disparate group of right-wing power-seekers who are willing to say anything to regain their hold on power. Newt Gingrich, I am quite willing to wager, doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Cheney’s agenda, nor vice versa. John Boehner: neither one.
Yet all of them are on television shrieking bloody murder to the tune of "O Fortuna - Carmina Burana" and worse ("You have people out there today who want to kill Americans, who would like to set off a nuclear weapon in an American city, who would like to set off a truck bomb down the street from where we are right now." – Newt, today) for the sole purpose of restoring, not the Republican party, which may as well not exist, but their own rightful places in the world. Free agent terrorizing buffoons with a national stage. What do they hope to accomplish?
We can see some of what is going on here, I think, by taking a look at the Pew report on "Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2009":
The proportion of independents now equals its highest level in 70 years. Owing to defections from the Republican Party, independents are more conservative on several key issues than in the past. While they like and approve of Barack Obama, as a group independents are more skittish than they were two years ago about expanding the social safety net and are reluctant backers of greater government involvement in the private sector. Yet at the same time, they continue to more closely parallel the views of Democrats rather than Republicans on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security.
There are many more independents than Republicans, right now; but more independents than usual are leaning right in every area other than national security. That is to say, the weirdness gets deeper: if Republicans want to win back some of these independents they are decidedly not going with their best play. They should be going with the economy; they are going with war. This is puzzling, but it seems to me that it admits of an obvious, if troubling, interpretation.
Perhaps the Republican strategy is not to win over these burgeoning independents by enlarging the Republican tent, but rather to scare them into voting R even if they remain too disgusted with the GOP to actually join the party. The Republican party, with a strategy so understood, need take no heed of moderation or of ordinary political practice at all.
The Republican party so understood need not engage in politics in any traditional sense. They may act rather as political saboteurs firing noxious quasi-political lobs from a pup tent on the margins of discourse. There is no reason, in principle, that this could not work. They could win a reasonable share of elections and sometimes a majority. Political party as character assassination guild with a stable membership of only 20% of the population. There is, after all, only one other political party. When there is only one other party there is no need for yours to be rational.
That strikes me as the bet the Rs are making right now. They need not even "win anyone over to their side." That would explain why the Rs are not leading with their strengths; the remnants of the Republican party don’t care about those strengths. "Small government" can go screw for all they care.
In such a "climate of fear" as would be generated by such a perverted "political party" the independents would not necessarily run to the other side, i.e. the Democrats, even if the independents think the Dems have got it closer to right on the very issue about which the character assassination guild is shrieking most loudly, i.e. national security. What the independents would want, after all, is a choice; the minimum requirement for living in a democracy; an a-or-b switch to flip, and that in itself would be enough to keep them from crossing over to the D-side. In the words of the endless litany of independents, "On some things I'm liberal and on some things I'm conservative."
Perhaps this is not convincing. After all, my hypothetical strategy does not really seem like it would help Republicans gain stable seats in congress. So I'll go further with this guess of mine and say: So what? Exactly which of the remaining Republicans are supposed to care? The ones on television lately? As we have seen from Obama's speech, it makes no difference how many seats they have in Congress: Dick Cheney can influence the national conversation from the margins. In the absence of any better ideas, why not do more of that? Being a congressperson probably sucks anyway.
It seems to me that under the surface President Obama’s speech had little or nothing to do with actual terrorists and everything to do with the climate of fear generated by a nothing-to-lose political party that is not a political party at all but a pack of disparate and disproportionately influential scaremongers wanting their rightful place at the roundtable on Meet the Press. A semi-organized bunch (at best) who somehow got President Obama, the most intelligent and well-educated President we’ve had in many, many years, to say weird crap like this . . .
I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe.
. . . like the Last Sane Man in some kind of cyberpunk novel. (Which he may actually be, provided the cyberpunk novel is Washington: the Senate voted 90-6 to keep Guantanamo open.)
How are the Republicans going to get out of this spot they’re in, a spot that is damaging not to them but to the country? How are they going to regain actual political, as opposed to visceral, relevance? Bobby Jindal? Are you kidding me? This both is and is not our problem. It is not our job to figure it out for them, but it is our job to figure out how to respond to the political landscape as we see it.
What I see right now is a discombobulated jihad of right-wing extremists with nothing to lose but a lot of facetime with a massively over-valued punditocracy. A punditocracy whose very attention keeps the R's disastrous claims looking just sane enough to those independents who have no one else to lean towards in a poll. This vaguely Rovian strategy is not new: what is new is the lack of concern for how much the party dwindles; not caring how disorganized it is. (Michael Steele? What?)
What I suppose all of this amounts to is this: my response to President Obama’s speech on national security is that we need (a) to somehow compel the Republicans to engage in political discourse like adults, or (b) to force the punditocracy to stop behaving like "neutral arbiters" between, on the one hand, a discombobulated jihad of right-wing extremists and, on the other hand, all three branches of government, or (c) give independents who are not in agreement with us about social issues some avenue of political expression so that their non-agreement with Republicans on national security and war can have some weight.
Independents don't have to become Democrats for Democrats to win, but it seems paradoxically that independents have to have a voice for progressives to get anywhere.
Any of (a), (b), or (c) would have the effect of allowing President Obama and the Democrats on the Hill the breathing room to do what we voted for: decisively end the dangerous experiment in terror democracy begun or at least perfected by Obama’s predecessor, Dick Cheney. And all of (a), (b), and (c) amount to giving independents avenues for political thought that don't involve the unhappy choice of either siding with madmen or creating what none of us would want anyway: a one-party country consisting of nothing but the following: Democrats, disorganized independents, and whatever you want to call the current Jihad-O-P.
We need rational people to be able to disagree with us without their thereby agreeing with irrational people. Perhaps that is what would give President Obama the room to enact a Democratic agenda.