Obama is a threat to your precious bodily fluids. (wikimedia)
In law, there's a particular phrase called mens rea
. Translated from the Latin as literally as possible, it means "guilty mind," but it's the phrase that is basically used to describe the idea of criminal intent. In a significant number of crimes, the consequences of an action are not the primary determiner of culpability; rather the intent is, even if the result ends up being the same. Thus, if I am at your residence and through an ill-fated attempt to cook dinner, I accidentally cause a fire that burns down your house, a reasonable court will not find me guilty of arson. Similarly, if I am out hunting and I shoot Cheney my hunting partner, resulting in his death, I may be on the hook for involuntary manslaughter, and even then only if I'm found negligent; but if I do so intentionally and with forethought, I am guilty of the far more serious and potentially capital crime of premeditated murder. In both cases, the end result is exactly the same: your house and everything in it is burnt to a crisp, and my hunting partner still has a face full of buckshot. But my intent is what determines whether I'm a felon, or whether I'm just a bad friend. Politics can be thought to function in a similar vein; just, without the exactitude of law, order, and the United States Code. What you've accomplished or failed to accomplish in elected office matters, to be sure; but if you play your cards right, the track record of your consequences can take a surprising backseat to the question of your perceived intent.
Our current president provides a splendid example. Obama continues to enjoy significant favorability ratings among Democrats in general, but among some in the activist community, his actions have given him a reputation as someone whose exact ideology is difficult to pin down. For instance: does he support marriage equality or does he not? Does he really believe in stronger Wall Street reform, or does he not? These are among the many questions about Obama's actual positions that vex the progressive left. But despite this ideological tepidity, the right wing sees a fierce partisan, and perhaps the most ideological president in American history. This disconnect has arisen despite Obama's attempts to negotiate and compromise with a strident, hostile and intransigent Republican leadership, even when Republicans were a minority in the House.
The reason? While we mull all available evidence and attempt to determine if the president is playing chess in the 11th dimension in the hopes of deciphering a governing ideology, the right wing was busy declaring Obama's ideology by fiat and forcing every single action to be viewed through the lens of that narrative. Their partisans would much rather stay away from the specifics of policy, action and consequence, choosing instead to focus on Obama's mens rea: his supposed far-left ideology that is somehow comprised of the most fundamentalist elements of communism, black-liberation theology, Islamism, radical environmentalism, and the so-called homosexual agenda, all wrapped into one self-contradictory poison capsule. And because of the right wing's fervency in establishing the narrative of Obama's evil intentions, no action he ever does and no bill he ever signs can ever be viewed through a positive lens lest that narrative be tarnished. Instead, every single thing Obama does must have been done with an ulterior motive in mind. This, incidentally, is part of the reason that the GOP was so inclined to turn the death of Osama bin Laden into an attempted vindication of Bush's secret torture prisons: they would rather bring that up again than deal with a signature foreign policy accomplishment that could not possibly be spun in an anti-American light.
While the dichotomy in perceptions of Obama are instructive, the narrative of evil intentions from the right wing are by no means unique to him. The LGBT equality movement, they say, is actually on a mission to destroy religion and sow the seeds of sodomy among students in kindergarten. The women's movement wants to emasculate men while committing genocide; the green movement doesn't care about air, but rather wants to destroy American business (for reasons left entirely unspecified); and so on. It doesn't have to make sense, it just has to be sinister. And specific policy is irrelevant to the equation.
The left, meanwhile, tries to maintain a fact-based approach that focuses on legislation and leaves it to the voter to ascertain intent and its consequent morality. Yes, the GOP is pushing to the destruction of Medicare and Social Security. But why? Do they really believe that doing so will create more prosperity for the average American? Or is it rather because the party rests in the hands of corporate neo-feudalists who want to suck up those public dollars into their own grossly tumid coffers? Similar questions could, and should, be asked about every single odious Republican policy, from redefining rape to gutting the EPA.
The failure of conservative policy is self-evident. But some people benefit. Isn't it time to challenge their intentions too? Turnabout is nothing other than fair play.