Commentary Magazine

The Purposes of Political Combat

O my America, how partisan you have become! How difficult you have made it for visionary politicians who want nothing more than to improve you!

You have been paralyzed into stasis by the status quo, which has injected its subtle toxins into your bloodstream by means of radio frequencies between 530 and 1700 kilohertz and a lone television cable-news channel, whose incomprehensible power overruns the combined effect of two others like it; nightly newscasts on three broadcast channels; and the vast majority of newspapers and magazines in the United States. Rallies of surly citizens claiming the mantle of Revolutionary War Bostonians in the spring of 2009 and rude questioners at political gatherings with elected officials home from Washington in the summer of 2009 were harbingers of the inexplicable political reversal that has since been made flesh by electoral defeats in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and polling numbers suggesting a catastrophe in the offing for President Barack Obama’s party come November, when elections for all 435 House seats and 33 Senate seats take place.

How can this be, my America? You had given Obama and the Democrats a nearly free hand; not since 1977 had the political balance in Washington been tilted so completely to the advantage of one of the two parties. Seventy million cast their ballots for Obama, and on that same night, Democrats won a 50-seat majority in the House of Representatives and (after much recounting) the 60 seats in the Senate they needed to enact legislation almost at will. Under such circumstances, partisanship should no longer have had any meaning or held any sway, for, O my America, you asked for change, and you gave the change agents the power they needed to enact change; but after only a few months, the works got all gummed up. It will now require procedural tricks and sleights of hand to effect the very change you sought—and in effecting it, and thereby following your will, Democrats may seal their own fate in this election year. Thus has partisanship worked its ugly dark magic, turning the political system upon itself when the verdict of the electorate in November 2008 should have been final.


The preceding paragraphs re-present a distillation of liberal thought about the political circumstances of the present moment. The degree of bafflement liberals express at the surprisingly perilous position in which Barack Obama and the Democrats find themselves is understandable; after all, such peril was nearly unimaginable to everyone just a year ago. The results of the 2008 election had been so decisive, the condition of the post-Bush Republican party so parlous, and the double wound to the Right caused by the difficulties of the Iraq war and the financial meltdown so infected that Obama and his party appeared to have an all but free hand.

Indeed, the combined effects of a war gone sour and the capitalist system’s apparent self-immolation seemed to Obama and his team to have brought a decisive end to one ideological era and inaugurated a new period in which the American people were now consciously and explicitly seeking liberal activism from their politicians.

It was by no means an unreasonable presumption. The 2008 election, with its 53-46 margin in favor of Obama, and Democratic Senate victories in the unlikely states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana followed on the 2006 midterms, in which Democrats crushed Republicans and regained control of both chambers for the first time in 12 years. Both elections were cast as, and indeed seemed to be, referenda on the failures of the Right—not just standard political failures, but failures on a grand scale that invalidated the modern conservative governing project.

Those failures were considered moral ones, expressed in the political and personal corruption in which Republican politicians had engaged and around which much of the 2006 elections seemed to revolve. They were seen as economic, with Republicans shouldering the blame for the economic meltdown of 2008. And they were thought managerial, in the decision to go to war partly on the basis of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and then the failure to do what was necessary to win that war. Liberals and leftists were tireless in arguing that these failures were not coincidental but linked, that they shared a common root—the essential heartlessness and soullessness of the Republican party and the conservative movement. And the electorate appeared to respond exactly as they had hoped it would.

It therefore seemed only logical that the thoroughgoing rejection of the Right was pretty much the same thing as an endorsement of the ideas and policies of the anti-Right. After all, liberals had had to concede as much when things had gone against them, hadn’t they? For years following the 1994 congressional election, a common presumption in political circles was that the United States had proved itself to be a “Center-Right nation,” at least as far as the voting public was concerned. Leftist thinkers like Thomas Frank found themselves compelled to devise a theory to explain why Americans chose to vote in ways injurious to their own supposed best interests. “The matter with Kansas,” Frank said in his bestselling 2004 analysis, was that its people had been conditioned to respond to hot-button cultural stimuli on matters like abortion rather than to support redistributionist economic policies designed to improve their own well-being. The same line of argument had been offered a decade earlier about Southern and urban ethnic voters by the reporters Thomas and Mary Edsall in their 1992 book, Chain Reaction—only in that case, the Edsalls said, the stimuli had been primarily racial.

It had further become axiomatic in liberal circles from the 1970s onward that the Right had secured the superior political posture on matters of security, regarding both crime at home and America’s position abroad, by ginning up (knowingly in a state of cynicism, or desperately due to personal neurosis, or innocently as a result of stupidity) a state of peril in relation to supposed threats that were little or no threat at all—Cuba, Nicaragua, the Soviet Union. The terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 came as an almost undisguised blessing for the Right, according to one version of this theory popularized in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11; they became a means of generating new security fears, most especially fear of Iraq, which made possible the engagement in an unnecessary war whose purpose was to rally people ’round the flag and the Republican president—until things went horribly wrong.

Bombarded by these various catalysts, the argument ran, the American people had entered into a period of unreason in which they reacted to averse changes in their lives and communities by embracing symbols of power and authority rather than insisting on concrete and specific political changes that would make their lives better and easier. The most telling statement of this theme came from Barack Obama during his run for the Democratic nomination in early 2008, when he said of rural voters that

our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

These words were revealing not only in the condescension he displayed toward the very people he insisted his campaign was designed to help but also in the way they expressed Obama’s—and, by extension, the specific Left-liberal attitude he both embodies and exemplifies—distrust of and contempt for politics itself.

I am using the word politics to describe the arena of public policy, in which matters involving the direction of the United States are hashed out. Players in the arena range in size and import from the president to an individual voter, from the Senate majority leader to a school-board member in his home state of Nevada, from Charles Krauthammer to a commenter on a blog or a caller to a radio show. The arena is host to conflicts over matters large (weapons systems) and small (the food pyramid), bitterly disputed (abortion) and barely discussed (depreciation schedules), of historical import (war) and entirely evanescent (a la carte cable pricing). But conflicts are what they are, and politics is how they are adjudicated.

The great military strategist Clausewitz once said that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” but the opposite is true as well. In a stable republic like the United States, in the 145 years since the end of the Civil War, Americans have managed not to war with each other because we have come to accept implicitly that we handle our disagreements in the arena of politics.

And that has led to another implicit acceptance, which is that the system cannot afford to have us arguing, as Henry Kissinger described North Vietnamese negotiating tactics, over the shape of the table. So with very few exceptions, we operate by consensus on the legitimacy of the essential architecture of the government. And because time is finite and there are limits even to the natural human drive to disagree, our politics actually function with a great deal of overall consensus, a consensus driven by the overall stability of the body politic. Among elected politicians, even the pacifistically inclined find it necessary to vote for increases in the defense budget, while those inclined toward libertarianism will support Social Security increases and extensions of unemployment insurance. That may not be their inclination, but they are compelled to it by the logic of a stable political system.

When a stable political system finds itself in imbalance, however, something more complicated and unpredictable begins to happen. Principled differences will tend to crystallize every now and then around one or two events or issues or pieces of proposed legislation. The crystallization almost always occurs when one party or ideological tendency attempts, or is thought by the other party or ideological tendency to be attempting, to extend the bounds of the consensus in such a way that it shifts into something else. Once the conflict crystallizes, all bets are off, and the games in the arena begin.

This is what politics is at its core. Now, elections are the primary vehicle for the conduct of politics, because they are adjudicated at a given time and place and feature a winner and a loser. The methods used to win elections and defeat rivals are always in low odor in a democracy, because they are confrontational and impolite and lack nuance. But those methods work, and so they are used. The odd part is that the people who use them successfully, politicians and their staffs and consultants, often want to limit these methods exclusively to election seasons; they want to believe that there is a time to run for office and a time to govern, and the time for governing ought to function under different rules. According to this way of thinking, “politics” is something low, while governing is something high; you engage in politics because you have to in order to secure the power to engage in governing, which is your sworn and devoted duty.

Thus it was that Barack Obama could invite his 2008 rival, John McCain, to a health-care summit in February 2010 and greet McCain’s criticisms of the president’s health-care bill by saying, “Let me just make this point, John. Because we’re not campaigning anymore. The election is over. We can spend the remainder of the time with our respective talking points going back and forth. We were supposed to be talking about insurance.”

McCain wanted to discuss the particulars of the health-care legislation passed by the House and Senate. The purpose of the health-care event was to create some form of momentum that would help Obama and his vision for health-care reform carry the day. Nonetheless, Obama had determined that the conversation at that point was to be about “insurance.” He was annoyed at McCain’s effort to introduce political considerations into the discussion. Such a thing was lowering, the stuff of campaigning. “The election is over,” said the president. Two weeks later, speaking heatedly before a crowd in Pennsylvania, he insisted that “the time for talk is over.”
Talk is politics. Governing is action.

By saying “the time for talk is over,” Obama was echoing his own words a year earlier about the $787 billion economic-stimulus proposal he was then trying to work through the legislative process: “The time for talk is over, the time for action is now.” At every step of the way in the course of pushing his relentlessly ambitious domestic agenda, Obama has invoked this duality: His opponents want to fight; he wants to do. They are playing politics; he is above politics.

The obvious objection to my argument here is that Obama doesn’t mean this; in belittling his opponents and their propensity to talk, he is playing politics himself, attempting to throw them on the defensive. But the habitual nature of his response, and the response of those who support him, to the populist uprisings against his agenda over the past year suggests he is not the least bit disingenuous.

Obama really does seem to believe that the opposition to his core policies—the creeping nationalization of health care, the effective nationalization of the American automotive industry, the imposition of onerous regulations on energy production, and the expiry of tax cuts that will lead to gigantic effective increases—is not principled. Rather, such opposition deserves to be dismissed as bad faith—the efforts of the status quo, big business, and the politicians in their pockets. Or it is to be explained away as evidence of psychological or spiritual impairment created by the wounds inflicted upon sorry and ignorant souls who are being manipulated by forces beyond their control.

How is it that Obama can fail to see that changes of the magnitude he is seeking would compel those who believe that those changes are dangerous—who honestly believe that they are bad for the country and whose belief is grounded in powerful ideas about how society should be ordered—to marshal their forces to do whatever is in their power to prevent them from taking place? And that it would be wise not to dismiss or belittle the energy and resolve of the opposition, but rather to take their full measure and plan accordingly?

Obama’s failure may reside in his contempt for politics. For the national counter-assault against Obama is a manifestation of democratic politics as they ought to work. A rather vague promise of change during his presidential campaign morphed afterward into an agenda of astonishing size with an astonishing price tag. The passage of a $700 billion bank bailout supported by Obama before the election was followed by his $787 billion stimulus package. No sooner had that $1.5 trillion been committed than the president began advocating cap-and-trade legislation that would cost $800 billion through the election in 2012. And then came health care, with a cost of, at the barest minimum, $900 billion over 10 years, and very likely double that or more.

Americans did not take this grandiose and ruinously destructive plan on faith, nor should they have. A majority of them may have voted for change, but that change was change from something, from George W. Bush primarily, and not necessarily change toward something, toward a wholesale revision of the relation between the state and the economy. In response to Obama’s call for an end to talk and a time for action, an engaged and concerned citizenry used whatever political means were at hand—from spontaneous rallies following a financial consultant’s call on a little-watched cable-TV show for a revival of the Boston Tea Party, to a Senate victory in Massachusetts for a candidate promising to be the 41st vote to block health care.

In using politics to slow down and thwart him, Obama’s rivals are not simply talking. They are acting as citizens in a democratic republic. When challenged by their president, they, too, decided that the time for talk was over and the time for action had begun.

About the Author

John Podhoretz is editor of COMMENTARY.

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