Strategic Thinking

From The New Criterion

Political Theatre in Olden Times

“Dana Milbank,” says the columnist’s capsule biography in the Washington Post, “writes about political theater in the nation’s capital.” Ha ha. He’s just kidding. He actually writes about politics and (especially) politicians, but he treats them as if they were theater. Because they kind of are. Get the joke? I’m not quite sure Mr Milbank himself does. Just look at the mock bafflement in the opening paragraphs of his column on the morning after the Republican victory in the mid-term elections.

During political campaigns, candidates usually tell voters what they would do if elected. But Sen. Mitch McConnell had a different idea. “This is not the time to lay out an agenda,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters four days before Election Day. A week or so before that, the man who would be the next Senate majority leader provided more details of his theory. “It’s never a good idea to tell the other side what the first play is going to be.” No, but it might be a good idea to tell the voters what you’re up to.

No it mightn’t. Political campaigns by either party have become highly skilled at not telling voters what they would do if elected. Mr Milbank ought to know better than anyone why Senator McConnell was reluctant to publicize the Republican playbook in advance of the game — a metaphor that itself suggests the reason. It is that the game — or, if you prefer, the theatrics — of the election is now all there is. The triumph of the media culture of scandal and mandatory outrage, a culture which has enjoyed victory after victory over the humble customs, prejudices and little hypocrisies of our traditional politics in the 40 years since Watergate, has seen to that. As Mr Milbank’s Washington Post colleague Cris Cillizza put it that same morning, “McConnell tries not to make himself the issue in races because he knows he’s a mostly behind-the-scenes guy whose strength is in strategy not speeches.”

Just so. Strategy. The media themselves no longer have any idea of politics apart from strategy, and yet they go on expecting or pretending to expect of it something like the Lincoln-Douglas or Nixon-Kennedy debates. Why then, pray tell, is the only thing they remember about the latter Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and sweaty upper lip? They know very well, or they surely ought to know, that criticizing the other side for lacking in substance or positive proposals is itself a purely strategic move. “Because Republicans didn’t run on an agenda other than antipathy toward all things Obama,” Mr Milbank continues,

they created a policy vacuum — and it’s about to be filled by a swirl of competing, and contradictory, proposals. Republicans find themselves with neither a consensus program nor a clear hierarchy among congressional leaders, the half-dozen aspiring presidential candidates in Congress and the various governors and former officeholders who also think they should be the party’s 2016 standard-bearer. Republicans have set themselves up for chaos, if not outright fratricide.

The confidence with which he pronounces this rather petulant-sounding prediction suggests that he is pretending to expect Republican chaos and fratricide as much for his own benefit as for that of his readers. No doubt with the same idea in mind, The New York Times editorialized on the morning after the Democratic defeat: “Negativity Wins the Senate.” As if there were any other candidate in the race! As if a victory for Democrats touting the GOP “war on women” or “obstructionism” — or, in many cases, the pretense of their own opposition to the President — would not have been at least as negative as the Republicans’ targeting of Mr Obama.

As if, too, Dana Milbank doesn’t know that what he derides as the “bromides” and “platitudes” of the Republican program are now all that either party has got to offer. And where a proposed measure might seem to be not a bromide or a platitude, as in the case of raising the legal minimum wage, all the rhetorical energies of the proposer are expended to make it one. Earlier this year, for example, the New York Times purported to prove editorially that new research had shown there was no economic downside to raising the minimum wage and that, therefore, raising it could not even be considered controversial anymore. We didn’t have to choose after all! People in low paid jobs could now have more money without any cost to anyone — and there would be just as many jobs as there were before. As in the case of the Democrats’ dangerously large budget deficits, which the Republicans eventually gave up attacking, some genius had once again been found to prove that conservative common sense was mere superstition.

You will no doubt recognize the tactic from one that has long been employed by the global warmists. Because, it is said, no serious scientist has any doubts about anthropogenic “climate change,” we are all meant to be shamed into supporting an economically ruinous program of reduction in fossil fuel consumption. Except that — guess what? — there is naturally another gaggle of economic masterminds standing ready to assure us that it wouldn’t be ruinous at all! As Secretary of State Kerry told graduates at Boston College last May, totally retooling and adapting our economy to use renewable energy would mean only that “we put millions of people to work. . .we make life healthier because we have less particulates in the air and cleaner air and more health; we give ourselves greater security through greater energy independence — that’s the downside.”

Sure it is. The point in these and similar cases is obviously to extract the content from political debate itself, leaving nothing for reasonable people to differ about and, as an inevitable corollary, differences that could only be unreasonable, stupid, bigoted or self-interested. From the beginning of the Obama presidency, the good news was meant to be that we didn’t have to choose anymore, now that we had chosen him. Just as, in his first inaugural address, the President explicitly rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” now (as he proudly announced in confirming Mr Kerry’s good news), “we don’t have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children.” Funny, isn’t it, how all the hard choices that politics was once thought to involve suddenly seem to have disappeared? It’s surprising that Mr Milbank appears not to have noticed it — especially as he certainly has noticed that, if there is no longer to be any doubt that we can simply vote ourselves or legislate ourselves or borrow ourselves into being richer and better and happier, no one but a knave or a fool could possibly refuse to do so.

This is how it has happened that the only permissible point of contention in any election comes with the need to decide who are the good people and who are the bad — and why the left are stunned into incredulity when they find themselves playing, however briefly and tentatively, the role of bad guy. For there must have been among the Republican voters on the election days, a number who felt just a bit ashamed of themselves for turning away from the party of benevolence and compassion. All the media’s good work for decades in casting their political drama this way cannot have been undone overnight. Perhaps, too, some vague belief in the New York Times’s editorial page assurance that the experts had yet again discredited common sense conservatism lay behind the success on election night of ballot measures, even in states that voted Republican, to raise the minimum wage — a success that proved to be one of the few bright spots on election night for the progressive left.

Another was that, apparently, the Republicans had been victorious only by virtue of purging the worst of their own bad guys. Both the Times and the Post led their coverage with long, how-did-this-happen? stories on the strategy that Mr McConnell’s team had allegedly used to win. They could be summed up in the Gray Lady’s headline: “Republicans’ First Step Was to Handle Extremists in Party.” The Post’s article was a bit less tendentious and declined to describe the dreary list of losing Republicans in previous campaigns — Akin, Mourdock, Angle, O’Donnell — as “extremists.” But the point of its nearly 5000 words was also and equally strategic, at least insofar as it seconded the media (and Democratic) conventional wisdom that social conservatism — now virtually synonymous with “extremism” to large segments of the media and the public — cannot win elections.

If there was a silver lining to the gloom that enveloped the left it lay in this presumptive acquiescence by those the left and right had agreed to call “establishment” Republicans in the recently-established Democratic and media rulings as to the political views permissible to decency or respectability — or at least electability. Thus Thomas B. Edsall in the Times  considered it a significant development of the election that “the Republican establishment, at least for the moment, has wrested control back from the Tea Party wing. This will make it more difficult for Democrats to portray their opponents as dangerous extremists.” He was echoed by John B. Judis in The New Republic who found that “by moving to the center, the Republicans neutralized Democratic efforts to paint them as extremists.” With what mixed feelings must the defeated Democrats have consoled themselves in the thought that Republicans had won only by becoming more Democratic!

Perhaps some such idea was in the mind of President Obama himself at his post-election press conference. There, the election behind him, he might have been expected to release at least a bit of the genuineness and humanity that had obviously had to be incarcerated for the duration, if only to show that he was as susceptible to remorse and self-doubt as the next guy — and thus to reassure the next guy that he was still the man whom 81 per cent of voters in 2012 believed “cares about people like me.” Not at all, as it turned out. He couldn’t even bring himself to demonstrate a nodding acquaintance with the bare reality of defeat. “Obviously, Republicans had a good night,” he said. “And they deserve credit for running good campaigns. Beyond that, I’ll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday’s results.”

For himself, he resolutely refused to see those results as a repudiation of himself and his administration. “What stands out to me, though, is that the American people sent a message, one that they’ve sent for several elections now.” Wait a minute, Mr President! So when people voted for Democrats they were sending the same message as when they voted for Republicans? Yes! Hard as it might have been to believe, the message was that “they expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do. They expect us to focus on their ambitions and not ours. They want us to get the job done. All of us in both parties have a responsibility to address that sentiment.” Talk about bromides and platitudes! Even Dana Milbank professed a certain amazement:

“I hear you,” President Obama said to the voters who gave Democrats an electoral drubbing in Tuesday’s midterm elections. But their message went in one presidential ear and out the other. The Republican victory was a political earthquake, giving the opposition party control of the Senate, expanding its House majority to a level not seen in generations and burying Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Yet when Obama fielded questions for an hour Wednesday afternoon, he spoke as if Tuesday had been but a minor irritation. He announced no changes in staff or policy, acknowledged no fault or error and expressed no contrition or regret. Though he had called Democrats’ 2010 losses a “shellacking,” he declined even to label Tuesday’s results.

Theatre critic as he professes himself to be, Mr Milbank must have had in mind here some such idea as that, in declining to acknowledge in defeat any fault of his own, any mistake or even the defeat itself, the President had failed to play a predetermined role as the political drama (still) demanded it should be played. He even cited George W. Bush in 2006 as his example of someone who had successfully learned the part he was supposed to play in a similar situation. The other rules may have changed, but a President is still supposed to show at least a touch of grace and humility in acknowledging such a defeat, and this had proven to be beyond Mr Obama.

Yet why should we be surprised? It must be hard to imagine what grace in defeat even looks like if you see yourself as a man of destiny and you have lost to the kind of people whom it has been your life’s work to portray as merely stupid, brutish, nasty, bigoted or hateful. How do you retreat from that characterization without annihilating yourself? Or admitting it was all just an act in the first place?

No, I’m inclined to let Mr Obama off the hook on this one. The part he has chosen to play in our American extravaganza does not admit of grace. But what excuse have the hard-faced party men of the New York Times editorial page?

There were demands (they write) that he take personal responsibility for the Democratic losses, or exhibit public contrition, or describe exactly where he plans to give in to Republican demands. He was right to ignore all of that, and instead he got directly to heart of Tuesday’s message from the public: “What’s most important to the American people right now, the resounding message not just of this election, but basically the last several is: Get stuff done,” he said. . . .Mr. Obama was justified in sticking with what he called “the principles that we’re fighting for,” which got him elected twice: creating job opportunity by expanding the economy, the top issue on the minds of most voters. There is no need to backtrack on goals like a higher minimum wage or expanded health insurance when most voters say they want those things. . . Voters said they wanted the two parties to stop bickering and work harder, not erase the progress made in the last six years.

Leaving aside the commonsense observation that voting Republican must betoken a desire for more bickering in Washington, not less, didn’t the voters also, at a minimum, call into question the certainty of the New York Times and other die-hard Obama-ites that the last six years did in fact represent progress? Weren’t they implicitly suggesting just the grain or scruple of a doubt that the erstwhile good guys were “on the right side of history” after all? Ah but that, surely, is the one thing that the believers in political good guys and bad guys, “settled science” and no more hard choices can never, never admit to.

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