Friday, May 24, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
One year ago, newly elected President Barack Obama had reason to believe he could unify Americans in the crucible of crisis. The national economy appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Republicans had failed so badly that millions in their own ranks were disgusted. Culture war had finally exhausted the public.
On the campaign trail, he rejected the notion of a red America and a blue America and embraced instead that old chestnut, the United States of America. That line didn’t sound like mere rhetoric. The candidate seemed to believe it. On inauguration day, speaking as the commander-in-chief, he repeated the sentiment.
“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” he said on January 20, 2009. “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
He didn’t know how wrong he was, but we’re about to find out. Today, the people of Massachusetts go to the polls to vote in one of the most profoundly ironic contests in the history of American politics, ironic for obvious reasons, because a seat that belonged for three decades to Senator Edward Kennedy, the last powerful son of the indispensable Democratic dynasty, a politician who came to embody the causes of progressive liberalism, the man who anointed Obama himself to be the next Democrat candidate for president, is likely to belong tomorrow to a conservative Republican who repudiates most everything Kennedy stood for.
Most ironic? No one saw it coming.
If state senator Scott Brown defeats Martha Coakley today, as he is predicted to do by a 3 to 1 margin over at FiveThirtyEight, the transfer of power will end the Democrat supermajority in Congress and seriously endanger the healthcare agenda that Obama has labored for months to push through his own Congress.
Focusing on the danger to healthcare misses the far greater peril, however. If it has been difficult to get legislation to pass with Democrats in control and Republicans merely stonewalling, how much more daunting the task when the GOP can threaten filibuster. The nuclear option becomes the order of the day. If Obama has been cautious with the House and Senate on his side, what form of compromise will the new constellation inspire?
No compromise, says Politico this morning, and while that might have been a better approach in the past twelve months, given the ambitious plans, it now sounds like a recipe for absolute disaster. Here’s an excerpt from the story:
“The response will not be to do incremental things and try to salvage a few seats in the fall,” a presidential adviser said. “The best political route also happens to be the boldest rhetorical route, which is to go out and fight and let the chips fall where they may. We can say, ‘At least we fought for these things, and the Republicans said no.’”
Whatever words Obama chooses, however, will have trouble masking the substantive reality: A Massachusetts embarrassment would strongly increase the pressure Obama was already facing to retreat or slow down the “big bang” agenda he laid out a year ago.
Democratic operatives on Capitol Hill have made clear that enthusiasm is cooling for tackling controversial cap-and-trade legislation to curb carbon emissions as the party heads into an election year. The same is true for the always-sensitive issue of immigration reform. On the fiscal front, massive deficits were already pushing Obama toward more austerity on spending.
Perceptions among the pundit class would also be brutal. An upset by Republican Scott Brown would be covered in many quarters as a repudiation of Obama, especially after Obama’s last-ditch campaign appearance with Coakley 36 hours before the polls opened.
So, in the wake of an embarrassing defeat, a wounded and vengeance-seeking administration takes on an emboldened and bloodthirsty opposition. Where in this scenario does the people’s business get done? Here at Purple State, we’ve never believed that too much softening of one’s own principle leads to peace. On the contrary, it is a fearless and confident projection of conviction on both sides that allows for dialogue and even cooperation.
Too long, say his critics, Obama has allowed the chimera of bipartisanship to determine his tactics in pushing through health reform. He could have moved much more quickly and with far more support from his base if he’d just allowed the Republicans to stew in their own juices. Instead he reached across the aisle again and again, each time receiving a petulant slap as his reward.
Now, it seems, the gloves are going to come off. He intends to become the leader the base has wanted. He will put on his warrior avatar. If the Massachusetts Senate seat is lost, he can justifiably say he tried everything to win over his opposition, and the efforts simply wouldn’t take. Fair enough. The Republicans wanted war. They’ve got one.
The cost will be high, however. Members of Congress, lobbyists and bureaucrats will continue to draw paychecks while the vast majority of American citizens struggle to make ends meet. Under the circumstances it’s understandable that Obama would start to punch back, and Republicans have already demonstrated their willingness to scorch earth when necessary, but their casualties will be the rest of us.
Do we keep on taking it or do we finally stand up for ourselves? That’s the question at hand if Brown wins.
It may be time, at long last, for a silent majority of the American public to revolt. We need a declaration of independence for our own era. This declaration wouldn’t guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It would demand respect, comity and the pursuit of common goals. The enemy would be the vast and tireless machine that stretches from cable news and the Internet to small grassroots organizations that exist only to poison wells and manufacture bullets, and it would have to be met in a house to house campaign of non-violence.
This American revolution won’t be won with the rhetorical gun. It can only be won with the principles espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. It can only be won on a moral high ground that is unimpeachable and unmistakable. The arguments must be simple yet fierce, and they must be stated in terms that everyone can understand. A first draft might go something like this.
We are burning down our own house, the place which we wish to leave to our children. We are using the sword of rage to cut down their future. We are building a palace of hatred in which none of them will be able to live. Is this what we want? is this the thing for which our soldiers die? Is this the hope for which the immigrants come? Is this the vision of the millions of dead who worked day in and day out in the belief that their country was different?
Massachusetts can be the beginning of the great betrayal of that singular promise or it can be the beginning of the end of the great demolition of the ground beneath our feet. Politicians won’t choose the course this time. From now on, it’s on us.
On Sunday night, when agent Jack Bauer returns to the Fox television network for the 8th season of the wildly popular torture epic 24, he’ll be the cherry bomb on top of a remarkable week for the country’s most controversial media brand.
Last weekend, Avatar, a 20th Century Fox production, currently the most popular movie in the world and already the second most popular movie of all time, made $50 million in its fourth week on the big screen. Meanwhile, on Tuesday and Wednesday, American Idol launched its 9th season, and the country’s most popular television show promptly landed almost 30 million viewers, more people than have watched any other single program this year.
As if that wasn’t enough to make an old media magnate smile, in the wake of the implosion of NBC’s entertainment schedule, as Jay Leno climbs back into the top bunk of the badly wounded Tonight Show, rumor has it that Conan O’Brien may take his $40 million severance deal and go to Fox, which may finally get something it always lacked, a viable late night franchise.
It doesn’t stop there. In the last seven days, we also learned that Sarah Palin will become a commentator on the Fox News network, which made $700 million last year, thanks in large part to the efforts of Roger Ailes, who made $23 million for his efforts and has now received the highest possible honor, the undying enmity of Rupert Murdoch himself, who appears to believe that Ailes is taking too much credit.
All in all, it seems to be the best of times in the halls of America’s most beloved and despised media company, and yet what’s even more remarkable is the sorry state of the people who make Fox what it is, who go to its movies, watch its television shows and consume its news. As Rupert Murdoch’s empire thrives, its avid, adoring public braces for another bleak year of high unemployment, escalating healthcare and credit card bills, record home foreclosure and general anxiety.
Is it any wonder that Fox is doing so well? No other company has capitalized so gorgeously on the intense suffering of the moment. No other company has so successfully monetized fear and loathing and, yes, hope.
Anyone who has a steady job in a healthy industry or institution right now is inevitably ignorant about what’s happening in most of the United States. It’s understandable. There are protected zones in American life, economic Green Zones, if you will, and within those zones life can seem rather cheery. It can have a semblance of normalcy, and folks can even feel a certain optimism, because the worst seems behind us. Whether we’re talking about an employee of an investment bank, a tenured academic at a well-heeled university or college, a lawyer at a Washington lobbying firm or an executive at a movie studio, one can imagine the beginnings of a skip in the step.
Most everywhere else, it’s Mordor in America, and the instability turns the need for strong, cheap emotion into something like an addictive craving.
For people who have lost their jobs and stand to lose their homes, which feels like the more resonant news experience, the latest from Haiti in the mildly concerned tones of an obviously well-fed and financially sound CNN correspondent or the panicky ugliness of a Glenn Beck, who may be exceptionally well-paid but who projects the spirit of a crazy homeless guy just given a new suit and a big house and the promise of job security as long as he continues to make people smile?
Which is the more attractive moviegoing experience for a family forced to leave behind its house, the huge, blue, crude expanse of James Cameron’s Avatar, in which a quadriplegic marine gets a second chance on an alien planet, or the precious antics of wealthy social progressives in the world of Nancy Myers It’s Complicated? The former is a movie about people who have almost nothing and have to fight to keep it from being taken away, the latter about people who have everything and have to fight to keep from getting bored.
And finally, for people whose last job was at a Starbucks and whose next job looks like McDonalds, does hope look more like Obama talking about change we can believe in or American Idol contestants going for the main chance in front of Simon Cowell? What smacks more of paradise in the age of taxpayer-funded Wall Street bonuses, the prospect of actual healthcare reform or making it big as a singer on the most highly rated reality show in history?
So don’t be surprised, come Sunday night, when the premiere of 24 blows every other scripted drama out of the water. Jack Bauer may be bad news. He may torture people and kill the wrong bad guy from time to time, but he’s also desperate, angry, in danger and out of a job, which doesn’t make him special in America in 2010. It makes him typical.
Going Rogue by Sarah Palin is the number one book on the Amazon.com bestseller list today. Is there an American over the age of 18 who hasn’t seen the cover image?
Forget Bill Clinton. Forget Obama. Palin is quite simply the most divisive politician of our era, the flagship enterprise of partisanship, the creme de la creme of polarization, the Big Sis of the Big Sort. Nothing she can do dampens the enthusiasm of those who love her. Nothing she can say mollifies those who despise her.
By her own party, she is believed to have torpedoed the Republican bid for the White House, and her book evidently heaps scorn on the McCain campaign in response. By the opposing party, she is seen rather nervously as a gift that keeps on giving, but does anyone in the Democratic leadership know for sure that her popularity won’t translate into votes?
Last night, Jimmy Fallon’s late night show did a spoof on the book, in which the book itself went “rogue”, shooting Rachel Maddow and having sex with the Stephenie Meyer novel New Moon. Did anyone else see it? Is it just me or was there an honest, even admiring affection there?
Americans love people who can’t help appearing goofy. We love underdogs, dark horses and moose-hunting malapropists. How else to explain the success of comedians like Will Ferrell, Danny McBride and Steve Carrell? It’s a counter-weight to our national image as the most powerful nation on earth. Sarah Palin represents a collective refusal by a certain part of the American public to have good table manners at the world’s banquet.
Those who hoped Palin would go away have seen their hopes dashed. Those who want her to one day be President of the United States will come away equally empty-handed. This is one of those careers that will end in astonishment, just as it began, and perhaps just as quickly, but not just yet.
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