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From Hope and Change to Pipe Hitting

Last month, Noam Scheiber of The New Republic, in an article titled “From Hope to Hardball,” welcomed us to…

the Obama campaign, version 2.0. If, as Mario Cuomo once said, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, then running for reelection may be something akin to grunting at regular intervals. In 2008, Obamaland prided itself on rejecting such brass-knuckle politicking, much of it perfected by Bill Clinton. “We don’t do war rooms,” was a Team Obama mantra, as one veteran of the campaign and the administration recalls. These days, by contrast, there are dozens of operatives raring to pounce on the slightest Republican misstep.

The outsized war-room capabilities are hardly the only Clintonite technique the Obama apparatus has adopted. President Obama has rewarded his mega-donors with frequent trips to the White House. And, just as Clinton did in 1995 and 1996, Team Obama has lashed a moderate GOP front-runner to right-wingers in Congress and portrayed him as a mortal threat to the welfare state.

Far from a badge of dishonor, though, the new ruthlessness is actually a sign of maturity.

Now (as Alana points out) comes New York’s John Heilemann, who informs us that Team Obama will “maul [Romney] for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues…”

“Thus, to a very real degree,” Heilemann reports , “2008’s candidate of hope stands poised to become 2012’s candidate of fear.” The months ahead, we’re told, “will provide a bracing revelation about what he truly is: not a savior, not a saint, not a man above the fray, but a brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler determined to do what is necessary to stay in power – in other words, a politician.”

Except that this isn’t what the politician in 2008 promised he would be like. Not by a country mile.

Just for old time’s sake, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the man who once personified hope and change.

Obama would “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” And the man from Hyde Park would “cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past.”

“I believe the American people are tired of fear and tired of distractions and tired of diversions,” Obama told us at the Jefferson-Jackson speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on November 10, 2007. “We can make this election not about fear but about the future. And that won’t just be a Democratic victory; that will be an American victory.”

“If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from,” Obama said in accepting the nomination of the Democratic Party on August 28, 2008.

His election, he told Americans, was a sign we had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” On the day of his inauguration he came 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.”

“The time has come to set aside childish things,” he told us on the day he took the oath of office.

Now journalists sympathetic to Obama are telling us that “the new ruthlessness” is a sign of maturity. Fear is the emotion that needs to be tapped into. Reason and elevated discourse are out; pipe-hitting is in.

Some people might argue that Obama is simply being a politician, that we all knew his promises in 2008 were misleading, a mirage, a hoax. But more than a few people took Obama at his word. It was the major part of his appeal. And if they didn’t believe he would eliminate all the divisions in our society, they did believe the core of his campaign – which was that Obama would prove to be an unusually unifying, dignified, and irenic figure in American politics – should be taken seriously.

Now I guess we’re all in on the joke. We’ve learned that for Obama, hope and fear are interchangeable. Mauling and disfiguring an opponent is fine if it’s necessary. One election you appeal to the best instincts of Americans; the next election you use brass knuckles and pick axes. No matter. The guiding ethic for Obama & Company is “Just win, baby.”

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that it won’t work out quite that easily or quite that way. That Obama, in so completely demolishing his image from four years ago, will do considerable damage to himself and his reputation. And that history and his fellow citizens will eventually judge him to be not simply a loser of an election, but as a cynical fraud.

It didn’t have to end this way. But I rather believe it will.


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