Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Truman Show, Part Deux

It was November 1946 and then President Harry Truman had just suffered a humiliating political defeat as the Republicans took control of both Houses of Congress in the midterms. Asked what he planned on doing about it, Truman was alleged to have replied, “I’m going keep doing what I’ve always done. Whatever I feel like.”

Defiant to the end, Truman kept to his word, and for the next two years he consistently challenged the Republicans in Congress, defining them as the “Do Nothing” Congress. Against all odds Truman came back from political oblivion to win reelection in 1948 over Thomas Dewey. Not only that, he capitalized on a Republican Party that badly overplayed the hand they had been dealt two years earlier and was instrumental in helping Democrats win back control of the House and Senate.

With all the talk about how resilient Bill Clinton was after his disastrous 1994 midterms, Truman wrote the book on the subject. No other president sunk to such depths only to rise up from the ashes and have the last laugh. While Barack Obama has made no secret of his great admiration for Abraham Lincoln, he would do well to read up on old “Give ‘em Hell Harry.” In deed, if I were him, I’d commit to memory every nuance, every mannerism, every speech of the 33rd president as if his political life depended on it, because it does. Over the next two years Obama will either become the next Harry Truman or he will become the next Jimmy Carter. The decision will be his alone.

Not that there aren’t lessons he can’t learn from Bill Clinton – as I mentioned in my last post, Clinton’s ability to pivot and triangulate was essential in his ability to turn the tides on the GOP and win reelection in 1996 – but the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the circumstances that surround Obama more closely resemble 1946 than they do 1994. The fact is that by 1994, the economy was already turning around; unemployment was on the way down; and thanks to Clinton raising taxes on the top income earners to 39.6%, the treasury was beginning to recoup some of the revenue it sorely needed during the Reagan years. By comparison, Truman had to deal with a stagnant post-war economy, courtesy of the ending of World War II, and the reality of millions of men returning home to the States and suddenly looking for work. Unemployment rose steadily, and a savvy Republican Party vowed to undo all of the FDR New Deal programs. Adding to Truman’s woes was the fact that many thought him way too detached. Compared to the charisma of Roosevelt, old Harry was like a cold shower in the morning. The parallel between Truman and Obama is unmistakable and staggering.

Like his predecessor, Obama is faced with a defining moment in his presidency. Does he continue to seek consensus in the naïve hope of finding some common ground between himself and his opponents, or does he stay the course and challenge the opposition to in essence put up or shut up? The safe play is the former and we all know how well that worked during the first two years of his administration. Clearly boldness is called for. The only question that begs to be answered is whether Barack Obama is up for the challenge.

Earlier I mentioned a plan of attack. Well, here goes.

Let’s start off by stating the obvious first. The entire game plan of the Democratic Party for the last two years has utterly failed and must be exorcised like a demon from a possessed man. Nothing less than a totally wiped slate will do. You don’t get two bites at the apple from the same broken down mare.

Secondly, remove from all minds the notion that the Republican Party is interested in sharing power or working with Democrats or open to compromise. It should be crystal clear to every Democrat that the lone objective of the GOP is to wrest control of the reigns of power by any means necessary. Consensus was and is out of the question. To continue to reach across the aisle is a fool’s errand.

Third, there never was, nor is there likely to be, any viable action plan from the Republican Party on how to “jump-start” the economy for two reasons: either they don’t have one or they know the one they have is the one that already failed; and there is no incentive in coming to the table with one, since a recovering economy would only benefit Obama in 2012. That means we can expect more of the same Party of No ideas over the next two years. Democrats must get this through their heads. They are the only party that has at least tried to improve the economy, while the other party has sat on the sideline and watched the house burn to the ground.

Fourth, and this is where Obama must take the lead, the message of the Democratic Party must be clarified, simplified and intensified so that the public finally gets it and understands it. The precipitous drop in Democratic opinion polls from January of ’09 to November of ’10 had virtually nothing to do with a shift in the public’s values (i.e. leaning away from liberalism and towards conservatism), but was owed in principle to an innate inability to explain where they were going and why. The stimulus, the auto bailout, and the healthcare and Wall Street reform bills were essential steps in improving the economy. But if Democrats cannot explain and defend these legislative accomplishments, Republicans will continue to beat their brains in with them. One thing Clinton and, especially, Ronald Reagan did incredibly well was to define a narrative and sell it to the electorate. To this day some people still believe that supply-side economics works, despite all the evidence to the contrary. That belief is owed directly to Reagan’s ability to spin a yarn. One thing Obama is going to have to develop is a story he can deliver effectively along with (gulp) a modicum of empathy. He will have to start talking to, instead of at, the American people.

Fifth, be fearless AND down to earth. This goes back to the message. One third of the country doesn’t like liberals and almost all of them watch Fox News. They will never be turned. It’s time Obama and Democrats in general stopped being worried about them, and started paying attention to and wooing independents, moderates and progressives. Obama didn’t win a landslide victory by appealing to Rush Limbaugh fans. Why on Earth are he and the Democrats concerned about them now? Diss them, trash them, belittle them at your heart’s content, but make sure when you do you reach out to the rational and the sane and offer something of substance they can sink their teeth into. Do NOT be afraid to draw distinctions between what you stand for and your opponents stand for. Running from your record or apologizing for it is fatal. As Harry Truman once observed, if people have to choose between a fake Republican and a real Republican, they’ll chose the real one every time. Also be wary of coming off as snobbish and off-putting. Most people know Obama is smarter than Sarah Palin, yet most of those same people still voted for Republicans this year. The lesson here is that sometimes intelligence can backfire on you. Dumbing it down a bit wouldn’t hurt.

Sixth, know when to pick your fights and when to acquiesce. Bill Clinton coined it triangulation. Basically you spend equal amounts of time swinging back and forth between both sides of the political spectrum to 1) keep your opponents off guard and 2) make it seem as though you’re steering towards the center. It proved to be the corner stone of Clinton’s successful 1996 reelection. Like it or not, Obama is going to have to do a Clinton and give in from time to time. Education has become something of an embarrassment to progressives, as it is becoming painfully obvious that the status quo cannot be maintained. With conservatives clamoring for the abolishment of the Department of Education, Obama can head them off at the pass and preempt their demands by appointing Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public School System, to head the Department. Rhee is an outspoken critic of teacher tenure and was vehemently criticized during her time in D.C. for closing schools that were under performing. She could be Obama’s “welfare reform” moment. While progressives would fume, independents and moderates (many of whom have children) would see it as an attempt to reach out to them. Throwing the occasional bone will make it easier to stand your ground when the time comes; e.g., the attempted repeal of healthcare and Wall Street reform and extending the Bush tax cuts.

Seventh, pick and role. Obama can partner up with select members of the other side sympathetic to some of his ideas to drive a wedge down the middle of the Republican Party. If you thought Harry Reid had his hands full keeping Democrats on the same page, just wait till John Boehner becomes Speaker of the House in January and he has to deal with the open rebellion of the Tea Party. The O.K. Corral would seem tame by comparison. If Obama can take advantage of that menagerie by getting Ron Paul, and perhaps his son to support cuts to defense, and maybe the few rational members of the GOP that are left, it would take some of the steam out of their engine. Like triangulation, it would improve Obama’s image among independents, while poring itching powder on the Republicans and revealing them as the obstructionists that they are.

Eight, and this is a bit of a stretch, so don’t count on it. Promote Hillary to Vice President. Joe Biden has been, at best, a mediocre VP; at worst, he’s been the gift that keeps on giving for Republicans. Switching VPs would kill two birds with one stone. It would give Obama someone who could counter any potential momentum a Sarah “I’m a woman running for President” Palin would engender. It would also embolden progressives who quite frankly haven’t had much to crow about for almost two years. While Clinton would be missed at State, there are a number of qualified candidates for her position who would do more than a credible job. To appease the Right a bit, perhaps Colin Powell could reprise his role as Secretary. Powell has long expressed regret for the role he played in the Bush Administration’s build up to the Iraq War. This could be an excellent way of making amends and repairing some of the damage to American credibility.

And finally, get mad. The anger, frustration and fear that gripped the nation these last two years was stoked and tapped brilliantly by the Right, while the Left and the majority of the Democratic Party remained, mostly, above the fray and appeared way too disconnected. The indignant, irreverent and disrespectful way the GOP treated this president was way over the line and was never once challenged by either the Administration or Congressional Democrats. At the risk of suggesting a full-on food fight, it is high time that a right cross be met with a left hook. Every single president who was successful has known this and employed this technique with aplomb. One does not have to lose one’s cool to push back and show a righteous anger. People identify with a fighter and flee from a wimp. Obama needs to smile less and growl more.

Well, that’s it, for better or worse. An attack plan that if employed will stem the tide of Republican momentum and, in the process, help make Obama more than a one-term carbon copy of Jimmy Carter. I’m sure there will be other things that I will come up over the next few months, but for now, this is a good starting point.

The nation is at a cross roads. Calm and rational behavior is in retreat, while the irrational and the unhinged seem to be on the ascent. The ghost of Harry Truman is roaming around the White House and calling out to any and all within its confines. His warning is as loud as a cannon going off on the Fourth of July. The tragedy of tragedies would be if Barack Obama was either too proud or too deaf to heed it.

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