As Bill Clinton said at the 2008 convention, “I love Joe Biden.”
All night, Biden hammered Ryan with his words and gestures and Ryan stuck to his talking points. While Obama seemed withdrawn in the face of Romney’s dazzling, primetime flip-flop to the center, Biden was prepared for Ryan to do the same and instead of retreating in incredulousness as this right-wing duo feigned outrage at their longstanding positions being accurately described, Biden took turns chuckling and looking aghast.
After that performance, I’m just waiting for Mitt’s next opportunistic flip flop as he announces his new VP pick, Joe Biden.
Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, CharlesKrauthammer, and other right wingers have begun to converge on a unified theory of Obama – a systematic critique of who he is, what he stands for, and what he is trying to do. Part of this theory – one of the core themes being developed – is that Obama is the most far left American leader ever. Rush Limbaugh expresses this as well as anyone – and I’ve spliced together two clips from his interview this past Sunday with Fox News. (Full interview here.)
Let’s take two of these quotes out for a moment:
We’ve never seen such radical leadership at such a high level of power…
I don’t know of any Republican who would try to take over one sixth of the U.S. economy. I don’t know one Republican who would put forth this…this…irresponsible cap and trade bill. I don’t know one Republican who would actually do that.
To understand why this is such a bizarre thing to say you need to look at some history. It illustrates what I mean when I call the Republican Party and the right wing – and much of our public debate as it attempts to find the middle ground between the right and left – unhinged. Take a minute to look at the history of the policy proposals regarding the two examples Limbaugh cites – health care and cap and trade.
The plans moving through Congress now have an historical precedent in most of their aspects in the two serious Republican attempts to reform health care after LBJ’s introduction of Medicare and Medicaid – Richard Nixon’s health care proposal in 1974 and the Dole-Chafee bill in 1993. Between the two bills, they contained a technocratic institution to reign in health care spending by looking at medical practices – similar to the IMAC that Sarah Palin called a death panel (Richard Nixon’s proposal); an individual mandate, an extension of Medicaid eligibility (the Dole-Chafee plan); an end to insurance industry abuses – for example, banning people with preexisting conditions, subsidies or vouchers for individuals who couldn’t afford health insurance to purchase it, and the creation of a standard minimum level of benefits for health insurance plans (both plans.)
Those who developed the base model that of health care reform now – used these models as the base onto which they grafted a health insurance exchange and a public option. They combined market forces with decentralized decision-making – the exchange on which private companies would offer health insurance – with a more top-down centralized approach – the public option which would compete with the private companies. Clearly, though the plan is distinctly liberal, it was developed by people who have a deep appreciation for some of the central conservative critiques of government planning and New Deal/Great Society-style liberalism. The plan is also clever politically – as a great majority of the American people, in their wisdom, see great value in having a choice between public option and a private one. Michael F. Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute accidentally justified the rationale behind this popular sentiment:
Any payment system creates perverse incentives…which is why we need competition between different payment systems to temper the excesses of each.
Unlike the Dole-Chafee bill which sought to undermine the current system with the hope that something else would develop, the plans working through Congress now are more conservative as they seek to preserve the status quo while introducing an alternative model that people could opt into if it works.
You wonder how far to the right the Republican Party Rush imagines is if he claims he doesn’t know any Republican who would propose anything like this.
The one thing that makes this plan distinctly liberal is the public option. Yet, if anyone believes that after dropping it, the Republicans would support a health care bill, they haven’t been paying attention.
On climate change, the story is even more dramatic.
Cap and trade started out as a hair-brained scheme to solve the problem of acid rain thought up by a Reagan administration lawyer, C. Boyden Gray. Environmentalists and liberals hated the idea. They saw it as a license to pollute, a “morally bankrupt” “license to kill,” or more reasonably as a “scheme for polluters to buy their way our of fixing the problem.” They preferred the more “command-and-control” approach of top-down regulation. Regulators resisted the idea – as it forced them to surrender “regulatory power to the marketplace.” Industry opposed it, claiming it “was going to shut the economy down.”
But George H. W. Bush thought that free market principles could realign the incentives to fix this problem – and he wanted to placate the Canadians who were bearing the brunt of the acid rain.
So he pushed through a cap and trade scheme to eliminate acid rain over these strong objections. It beat all expectations. Eventually environmentalists came around and industry continued to thrive. This Republican success on solving a major environmental issue without top-down regulation made cap and trade a popular, bipartisan idea. Eventually, Bill Clinton saw it as a way to tackle global warming. But as a significant minority of Republicans continued to question whether or not global warming was real and whether or not it was man-made (along with every other scientifically moot question that industries raised) any possible deal was postponed. Still, as late as 2008, the Senate had strong bipartisan support for a cap and trade program – with Joe Lieberman and John McCain taking the lead. Now McCain is a major opponent of the cap and trade legislation, complaining about the lack of support for nuclear reactors in the bill as a reason to oppose it. This when as late as a year ago, he reiterated his statements of the past eight years in saying that global warming demanded “urgent attention” – that we must “act quickly” to “dramatically reduce our carbon emissions” with a “cap-and-trade” program.
As I said regarding health care, if anyone thinks that McCain will come around to support this legislation that is so similar to what he supported as essential a year ago if the Democrats just tossed some more money into nuclear energy, then you haven’t been paying attention. McCain will likely start calling it a “power grab” and a “government takeover” of the world, echoing Cheney and Krauthammer by the time the bill is up for a vote.
In both cases, Republicans proposed ideas based on core conservative principles – on a respect for the free market, on avoiding rapid change, on avoiding top-down regulation. And now Democrats led by Barack Obama have taken up these proposals – amending them somewhat to take into account liberal ideas such as a distrust of large corporations and a concern for community goods – hoping to pass bipartisan legislation.
What they are met with instead is screams of “Socialism!” and “Government takeover!” and “Unprecedented!” “Attacks on liberty!” and “Why do you hate America?”
As Barack Obama and Dick Cheney prepared their dueling speeches last month, Reihan Salam observed:
National security has become part of the culture wars, only with Dick Cheney as the new Jerry Falwell. It doesn’t matter that Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan or that he’s embraced rendition. To Cheney, Obama’s anti-torture stance represents the moral vanity of a naïve one-worlder.
We’ll be hearing much more about this new culture clash. During the hearings on Obama’s first Supreme Court appointment, Republicans will spend more time hammering the Democratic nominee on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush than about Roe v. Wade. At the moment, Obama looks untouchable. But the politics of national security could prove his undoing.
This observation is seeming more and more apt as the months go by. And yesterday morning’s appearance by Mitt Romney on This Week With George Stephanopoulos suggested that if Romney has anything to do with it, the Culture War will extend to foreign policy as well.
Foreign policy and national security have always been matters of contention between the political parties – but Culture War issues functioned a certain distinct way.
In some sense, the Culture War can be traced back to the “psychodrama of the baby boom generation” as they fought over Vietnam and then social issues. By the 1990s, the Baby Boom generation dominated most institutions in the country and a large number of Americans had divided into two warring camps along a familiar lineup of issues: abortion, homosexuality, guns, censorship, separation of church and state, etcetera. Each party became dominated by those with the most extreme positions on these issues. There were only two ways for savvy politicians to position themselves – to triangulate and try to find some reasonable accommodation; or alternately to find a reasonable position and make sure that they were wrong – but on the right side of the issue. During this time, issues of national security and foreign policy didn’t break down in the same partisan way. Republicans opposed Clinton’s proposed anti-terrorism measures; Democrats were more hawkish than Republicans in Bosnia – and in both cases, neither side was completely aligned. These issues weren’t litmus tests – but matters upon which reasonable people could and did disagree.
Then came September 11 and George W. Bush’s and Karl Rove’s explicit decision to use the War on Terror as a political weapon. There were no mainstream Democrats opposed to most aspects of Bush’s emergency measures, so Rove tried to make any slight suggestion of disagreement tantamount to treason. Though this worked well enough as a political tactic, it still hadn’t moved national security issues into the Culture War entirely.
The turning point came when allegations of torture began to surfare – and the photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib came to light. Everyone was shocked – Republican and Democrat. Everyone condemned it. Except the far-right partisans. I remember reading The Corner and other blogs around this time – and an extraordinary thing happened. For weeks, these men and women had been insisting that America did not torture – only, maybe some bad apples – and that to suggest we did torture was a form of America-hating. Then, almost overnight, all of these same men and women began to talk about ticking time bombs and demanding to know why we shouldn’t torture a terrorist who hated America!
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was an election year – and with everything viewed through this prism, it’s easier to justify something awful. But regardless of the reason, in that moment, national security became part of the culture war. Karl Rove accomplished what he had been trying to do. He polarized the electorate so that it became necessary for any savvy politician on the right to be wrong on the right side of these issues.
By 2008, this was evident – as the sensible position that there had been overreach in Bush’s War on Terror – and that for example, Guantanamo should be closed down – gave way to Mitt Romney declaring that he would “double Guantanamo” to cheers. It’s a nonsense phrase – but the Culture War isn’t about policy – but about position.
Now, Romney is continuing this – and pushing it into foreign policy.
Yesterday morning, Romney, adopting the freedom of expression and lack of accountability typical of party out of power, launched a critique of Obama’s response to the Iranian elections – and to the Middle East in general:
Romney criticises Obama’s use of “sweet words” (sounding eerily similar to Zawahiri who denigrated Obama’s “elegant words“) – yet his only suggestion for how to react differently to the Iranian elections would be to use Romney’s own words – which admittedly aren’t as “sweet” or “elegant.” And of course while Romney denigrates Obama for relying on words without action – Romney’s only response to the Iranian election is to use his own words.
(This brings up an interesting difference: Obama uses the power of words to affect what is going on, as in his Cairo speech, his race speech, his speech on national security – while Romney insists we must use our words to express ourselves and to show what side we are on. This difference in the use of language is precisely what makes Obama an effective speaker – but this is a topic for a different day.)
The time may come for the president to stand with the majority of Iranians – to voice his support – but Romney’s demand for instant moral clarity demonstrates a Culture War view of foreign policy – of a need to be wrong on the right side of the issue. As a candidate, this Culture War take on national security and foreign policy can be effective – but as a governing tactic, it is disastrous.