One of the most frustrating things about being a liberal is watching Democrats constantly let the Republicans frame the terms of the debate. The Republican strategy of using language to advantageously frame the debate was clearly laid out in Newt Gingrich's GOPAC memo of 1996, in which he described how language is a "key mechanism of control", and listed a set of negative words with which to define Democrats. "Welfare", "bureaucracy", "taxes", "spending", "unionized", "liberal". All of these words were meant to be used as weapons by Republicans to attack their Democratic opponents. What is frustrating as a liberal is having to watch Democrats run from these words, tacitly accepting their negative connotations - accepting that taxes and spending are at best necessary evils, welfare (a term meaning health and happiness) is actually bad, unions are only to be mentioned quietly in primaries, and one must avoid that culture-war term "liberal".
That is why so many of us enjoyed the speech given by Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, on the West Wing. Santos is the young, charismatic, Democratic nominee for president, whose similarities to Barack Obama were oddly prophetic. As the NY Times put it:
Santos is a coalition-building Congressional newcomer who feels frustrated by the polarization of Washington. A telegenic and popular fortysomething with two young children, Santos enters the presidential race and eventually beats established candidates in a long primary campaign.
Wearing a flag pin, Santos announces his candidacy by telling supporters, “I am here to tell you that hope is real.” And he adds, “In a life of trial, in a world of challenges, hope is real.” Viewers can almost hear the crowd cheering, “Yes, we can."
In a pivotal presidential debate moment, Santos rejects the dismissive use of the word 'liberal' by the Republican candidate, played by Alan Alda.
Santos: "Republicans have tried to turn the word liberal into a bad word. Well, liberals ended slavery in this country.
Republican: "A Republican president ended slavery"
Santos: "Yes, a liberal Republican, Senator. What happened to them? They got run out of your party. What did liberals do that was so offensive to the liberal party? I'll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, 'Liberal,' as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won't work, Senator. Because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor."
Inspiring. Too bad it's only fiction, right? While there may have been superficial similarities between Obama and Santos, the new "caver-in-chief" would never draw such a firm distinction between liberals and Republicans, right?
Well it looks like Jon Favreau or someone else in the White House might be a bit of West Wing fan. Here is Obama's latest line in the battle of taxing the rich vs. the Republican plan of taxing the poor, delivered Wednesday at a Democratic fundraiser:
"Now, you’re already hearing the Republicans in Congress dusting off the old talking points. You can write their press releases. “Class warfare,” they say. You know what? If asking a billionaire to pay the same rate as a plumber or a teacher makes me a warrior for the middle class, I wear that charge as a badge of honor. I wear it as a badge of honor, because the only class warfare I’ve seen is the battle that’s been waged against middle-class folks in this country for a decade now."
(Unfortunately I can only find video hosted by Fox News).
You see what he did there? Taking this vacuous "class warfare" attack and instead of running from it, embraced the clear distinction that it offered between Democrats and Republicans. If they really want to fight an election about "class warfare", bring it on. It's a losing argument for them, but only as long as Democrats fight back.
Of course, there will be the cynics who warn that these are "just words". Look, i've had my disappointments with Barack Obama, but it seems a little strange to me to criticize the man for not fighting hard enough for the last two and a half years, and yet continue to criticize him now that he's fighting back. Is it just a cynical ploy to get reelected? I highly doubt it - it seems pretty clear to me that Obama believes all of this deeply, and that he also knows that he made some major mistakes in his first two years. From the new Suskind book:
Obama: "The area of my presidency where I think my management and understanding of the presidency evolved the most, and where I think we made the most mistakes, was less on the policy front and more on the communications front... The irony is, the reason I was in this office is because I told a story to the American people. It wasn't the specifics of my health care plan or Afghanistan. The reason people put me in this office is people felt I had connected our current predicaments with the broader arc of American history and where we might go as a diverse and forward-looking nation. And that narrative thread we just lost... I think I was so consumed with the problem in front of me that I didn't step back and remember 'What's the particular requirement of the president that no one else can do?' And what the president can do, that nobody else can do, is tell a story to the American people about where we are and where we are going."
"This job is not about just getting the policy right. It's about getting the American people to believe in themselves, and in our capacity to act collectively to deliver for the next generation."
"Going forward as a president, the symbols and gestures - what people are seeing coming out of this office - are at least as important as the policies we put forward."
This is, of course, reminiscent of what he said in Wisconsin in February 2008:
"It's true that speeches don't solve all problems, but what is also true is that if we cannot inspire the country to believe again then it doesn't matter how many policies and plans we have, and that is why I am running for President of the United States of America, and that's why we just won eight elections straight. Because the American people want to believe in change again. Don't tell me words don't matter"
If we cannot inspire the country to believe in government again, after years of deliberate Republican mismanagement, then it doesn't matter what policies we have as progressives. So even if these are "just words", they still matter - a lot.