Though torture supposedly ended, we still endured an excruciating, six-month health marathon that resulted in bad ideas driving out good. Last week, this political torture mercifully ended with a whimper, not a bang, enabling health insurers while disempowering people. But as this is the season of hope, let us count unintended blessings, as in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Painfully-won foresight at least clarifies the past, present and future:
1) the House stands as the only functional government body, not by much;
2) the Senate now cements the status quo with every backward constipation, laboriously passed. Its extra-constitutional 60-vote obsession, played expertly by well-paid drummer boys, neatly trumps majority rule;
3) our convivial caretaker president glorifies process over leadership and, while strong overseas with speeches and surges, seems not in charge, going along to get along.
A Ring with Four Sides
Behold what makes low-drama Obama a “devout non-ideologue,” willing to absorb multiple blows with forbearance, from both idiotic Tea Partiers and crushed supporters. Look not to past politicians for role models – like FDR eager to battle entrenched powers; or JFK, whose superior brain trust valued ideas, occasionally liberal ones. Not Reagan, two Bushes, nor Clinton in a pear tree, for huge differences overwhelm glancing similarities. Cross off champion for justice, Martin Luther King, or the transcendent Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent triumphs disown Peace Prize defenses of the odious Bush Doctrine.
For this basketball-playing president, think sports, namely boxing and precisely, Mohammad Ali’s famed rope-a-dope gambit – the defensive, seemingly losing tactic to stay against the ropes, absorbing multiple blows round after round to exhaust opponents, then win with surgical counterstrikes. Excluding the absent finale, does not rope-a-dope capture Obama, quick on his feet and verbally agile, yet aloof from hard bargaining or daring battles, besieged or not? Certainly, not executing the killer uppercut does undermine my rope-a-dope theory, but my task is description, not justification. The game isn’t over and politics is more complicated than boxing.
A One-Trick Pony?
The big problem, especially for shocked supporters, are twelve months of far more pain than gain. No wonder the left is dispirited – having to justify all sorts of Bushthink band-aids for banking, credit cards or health insurance, plus like-mindedness on wars, bailouts and anti-terrorism. What’s creepy is how grateful is this White House for relative crumbs, in denial its own liberal-swing vote coalition has gotten repeatedly whacked by Senate dinosaurs. Promised more health care control, many have less, especially those indentured to buy mandatory, inevitably mediocre insurance or get fined. In the real world, that’s pain without much gain, the wobbly triumph of gesture over advance.
Even creepier is the prevalence of administration rope-a-dope. Voodoo Bush economies put Obama against the ropes, but today’s lender-in-chief is still taking the same punches from the same Wall Street bullies (add now Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). Stranger still, this White House is bewildered why pained millions are calling for blood, or an ounce of flesh from bankers riding tax money to big bonuses. Rope-a-dope only works by exhausting opponents, not revitalizing failed bankers or failed auto makers, along with fat cat lobbyists and Senate allies.
Are insurgents tiring, or the GOP?
Likewise, against the ropes in two failed wars, Obama had the option of new approaches, thus deflecting blows not just from diverse, foreign freedom fighters” but unhappy liberals bereft of their peace president. In fact, the Afghan surge offers another rope-a-dope play, putting our sitting duck soldiers at high risk – plus stagnation in Iraq. The dire (and false) dread of losing keeps Obama on the ropes, yet now he’s playing at best for a tie, and exhaustion from insurgents, al Qaeda or Iran is invisible.
Nor is Obama’s rope-a-dope wearing out domestic rightwing terrorists, undeterred from fabricating lies and waving absurd signs. Is there massive fatigue in the Party of No, bereft of ideas but not rancor or sham outrage? Republicans, by turning costly health “breakthroughs” into spendthrift waste, appear neither exhausted nor disheartened, instead anticipating House gains, perhaps a new majority.
Apparently, Democrats can’t help losing for winning, not exactly Ali’s championship results. The risk with botched rope-a-dope is a double whammy: you take abuse and get only pains for the effort; without effective counterattacks, demoralization sets in, as Drew Westen depicts:
I don’t honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn’t figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he’s not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he’s going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they’re seeing right now is “liberalism,” and they don’t like what they see. I don’t, either.
What’s they’re seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That’s a recipe for going nowhere fast.
To paraphrase another wag, does President Obama’s seeming mania not to offend anyone end up offending everyone? Now majoring in mediocrity, our dysfunctional government is marching backwards from solutions, and the world is watching: military prowess aside, where is our strength, and how does shying away from our worsening problems regain global leadership?
Failure No Success at all
Talk nowadays about our “broken government” is misleading, implying manageable fixes are in the wings. But by letting irrelevant distractions like abortion funding trump health reform, we’re not even having the right debate. The U.S. Senate is not “out of order,” but off the tracks, lost in the wilderness, and thus more problem than solution. No leadership here, dooming Obama’s rope-a-dope default to Congress, all too reminiscent of the gullible behind the Pied Piper.
Rope-a-dope works in a 15 round boxing fight by trading time limits, and blows received, against energy depletion by foes. In politics, refusing to identify the opposition, or mobilizing the public, or openly doing battle all benefit the powers-that-be, expert shadow boxers able to decoy away from critical reform. Unless rope-a-dope gambits exhaust foes, they fail. Time to reboot, Mr. President, before losing too many battles costs you more than one war.