Friday, February 24, 2012

A Reach Too Far

I watched most of the new PBS documentary on the Clinton Presidency on Tuesday night (“most” because my children occasionally demanded my grudging attention).  As a student of history, it was good to revisit the period and to be reminded about all that took place, both the good and the bad (read “salacious”).  Historical context is sometimes lacking in daily political tweeting, and seeing the 1990s events again in detail provides some context.  I don’t often think about the Oklahoma City bombing as a turning point in his presidency, or how the events in Bosnia and Slovenia shaped the Clinton Doctrine (whatever that was – insert your own joke here) and his subsequent foreign policy decision-making.  It’s been 20 years since Bill was first elected, so dispassionate perspective is just coming into view.

As you can imagine, the government shutdown and the impeachment trial were seminal events that loomed large over the Clinton story.  Both stories dominated the news for months, and both stories ended up playing to Clinton’s political advantage.  While both stories began as potential death blows to the president’s standing nationally, both resulted in a backlash against the GOP.  After the public blamed the government shutdown on the GOP, Contract With America architect Gingrich resigned, and Clinton’s popularity and power grew.  As the Starr investigation and subsequent Senate trial dragged on, public sympathies accrued to the Clintons, and he emerged damaged, but still popular.  What happened?  How did this tax-and-spend liberal sexual harasser gain the upper hand on the tax-cutting family values Republicans?

The theory was floated during the program that overreach by the GOP Congress at the time contributed to Clinton’s revival in public opinion.  How so?  First, the GOP thought that they could force Clinton into huge concessions on Medicare in exchange for funding the government.  Clinton had been seen as a weak leader wounded by his own universal health care overreach.  Gingrich and his crew saw an opportunity to finish him and the pillar of LBJ’s Great Society in the process, but the entire ordeal painted Clinton as a victim of mean-spirited and inflexible Republican lawmakers more interested in winning a battle than in winning a compromise.  The Starr investigation was only one of many that ran throughout the Clinton years.  There was Travel-gate, Whitewater, Vince Foster, and the list goes on.  There were so many charges and conspiracy theories floated that a legitimate inquiry into a president lying under oath during a legal deposition seemed like a pretense to oust a man they clearly didn’t like.  To twist a Michael Corleone phrase, it wasn’t business; it was personal.
Is that what the GOP is doing now with Obama?  Are they reaching so far that even legitimate critiques are seen as partisan rants without factual basis?

·         When dealing with a serious matter, such as the Fast and Furious program run by the ATF, as soon as the Right twists this into an excuse to accuse Obama of working to take away our guns, the public tunes out. 
·         When you spend years questioning Obama’s place of birth, you start to lose credibility with the 4-6% you’ll need to swing an election in your favor. 
·         When you question his religious faith as a Christian (while simultaneously chastising him for sitting in a Christian church for 20 years listening to the same pastor), you start to lose credibility. 
·         When you question whether or not he hates white people when you know full well that his mother was white, you start to lose credibility. 
·         When you advance the theory that Obama is ignoring gun control issues because he secretly wants to take your guns away once reelected, you start losing touch with reality. 

Attacks on Obama are starting to fall on deaf ears, not to the rabid base that laps this stuff up for their daily fair and balanced sustenance, but to independent voters – you know, the ones who pick presidents.

The GOP has push so far to the Right, and has insisted on such ideological purity that no one person can meet, that moderate Republicans are viewed as Socialist liberal Saul Alinsky radicals with Kenyan anti-colonial worldviews.  Really?  It’s no wonder that Obama’s personal popularity is growing in the polls.  The public recognizes overreach when you claim (as Newt Gingrich has) that Obama plans to “attack the Catholic Church” on the first day after Election Day should he win reelection.  The public recognizes overreach when you claim (as Rick Santorum has) that Iran will have a nuclear weapon as soon as Obama is reelected.  The 4-6% that decides elections starts ignoring your positions, at least until SNL decides to mock you for them.  Then the public will pay attention, but only to laugh and snicker.  When you start being ignored, you need to be even more outrageous in order to get attention again.  When the 4-6% starts laughing, it’s not overreach to say that they are laughing at you, not with you.

Remember the old political joke from Will Rogers: “I don’t belong to any organized political party – I’m a Democrat?”  That has been true for most of my lifetime.  In the past 2 years, that joke has flipped: “I don’t belong to any organized political party – I’m a Republican.”  The longer debate season has dragged on, the steadier has been Obama’s climb in the polls.  People are watching, and the more they see, the better Obama looks.  I blame rhetorical overreach (really, Newt, does every statement need to include the word “fundamental”?) and wild scattershot blasts of attacks about what Obama ‘might’ do, or what he is ‘planning’ to do.  Better to focus on reality, guys.  It plays better in Peoria.

Overreach against Clinton?  His popularity soared.  Overreach against Obama?  History could be repeating itself.  (Of course, you could just point the finger at the media and blame them.  That usually works for awhile.)

When the documentary of this period is filmed, “overreach” could be the theme.  If the ACA was Obama’s overreach, the GOP has outdone him with their own attack dog overreach, and it’s biting them right now.
The GOP is becoming the Big Tent party they always wanted, but they should have been more careful of what they wished for – the Big Tent is covering up a 3 ring circus.

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