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Historically, the country of Poland has always been assigned the same role in the theater of international politics.
Its kinda like the unnamed actor in the red shirt who beams down to the planet with Kirk and Scotty and the rest of the regular gang. He’s only there for one (fleeting) reason. You know he’s gonna get zapped by the local evil alien.
If you’re Poland, you’re expected to do two things. One is to get smashed by one or perhaps even several of your vastly more powerful neighbors. The other is to then be occupied, or perhaps even simply swallowed up wholesale.
Over time, the Poles even got good at this themselves, sometimes assisting in their own annihilation with techniques like the liberum veto, an innovation which allowed any (and every) member of parliament to unilaterally bring the legislative session to a close and vacate all legislation already passed to that point. Sort of like the veto-driven ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council on steroids.
Except for one difference. When the UN gets it wrong, there’s little chance that someone will sail up the East River, invade mid-Manhattan, and occupy Turtle Bay. Poland, on the other hand…
With a record like, what I’m wondering is, why does the Democratic Party feel compelled to be Poland every four years (and often in-between, as well)? What’s up with nominating one wholly cerebral, completely unflappable, painfully careful, mind-numbingly deliberative, thermostatically-controlled, cool-customer candidate after another, eh? Yo! Hey! Memo to the DNC: We’ve done the Mondale/Dukakis/Gore/Kerry thing, okay? We’ve covered that particular motif. We’ve seen that movie and all the cash cow sequels too. We know what it looks like, and we know how it turns out. Enough with the stiffies, okay? Could you possibly send something else out of central casting, just once per half century? Even just for the novelty of it?
I tell ya, right now it’s a good goddam thing that I can’t reach into my television set and throttle Barack Freakin’ Milquetoast Obama. Sometimes I don’t know who sickens me more: Sarah Palin, the smug lying hypocrite whom I’m afraid is going to occupy the rest of my future on this planet (which may be very short, after all, if that is indeed to be the case), or Barack Obama, who can’t seem to get a single sentence past his lips without fourteen caveats and thirty-seven um’s, ah’s and uh’s, and who wouldn’t know a killer sound bite if it hit him upside-the-haid. And, by the way, there are a whole bunch (more) of those nasty things headed in exactly that direction as we speak.
What’s with this clown? And please don’t tell me any more about the brilliance of the people running his campaign. The campaign chooses when to make statements and field questions from reporters. Has no one on the bus ever thought to arm him with a killer line or two before exits to face the press gaggle? Has no speech coach ever taught him how to make a definitive statement, without hesitations or parentheticals, that drives home strength and conviction in like about six to eight forceful words? Look, I support the guy. I wanna see him win. But what does it mean when a supporter like me is watching him supposedly parrying the body blows and mocking taunts the GOP are sending his direction, and falls asleep somewhere between the verb and the object in any given sentence?
Could somebody please show him the gut-wrenching tape of Dukakis responding to the horrifying rape question he was asked in one of the 1988 debates?!?! Memo to Barack: robots don’t win! Even in 2008. Nor should they. You know, if you can’t even muster a little indignation when someone is out there lying about you and kicking you around with condescending smugness, I wouldn’t even want you for my dad, let alone my president. (And don’t ever forget, by the way, it doesn’t take a PhD in political psychology to know how much voters see presidents as daddy figures.)
Here’s Obama the other day, um and ahs deleted, reacting in deadpan monotone to the freak show of the GOP convention: “They spent a lot of time trying to run me down and not necessarily telling the truth, but what they didn’t talk about is you – what you’re going through in your lives, what your friends and neighbors are going through.”
Excuse me?? “Trying to run me down”?? “Trying to”?? “Not necessarily telling the truth”?? “Not necessarily”?? Are you freakin’ kidding me, Jack? What, are you trying to carefully avoid a slander lawsuit here, or something? What would happen if they called you a pedophile or a genocidal maniac? Would they graduate to being “arguably conceivably disengenuous” in your estimation? Or would that be a little too emotionally uncontrolled?
Obama goes on to say “This is not about personalities”, that it’s about issues. Oh boy. I wish he had just uttered drivel like that in the primaries, so I could have stuffed my nose with cotton and wrapped duct tape around my head forty or fifty times, then voted for Hillary. Now he brings out the fool routine? Can this guy who wowed everyone at Harvard Law really be so incredibly naive? Does he really imagine that the McCain camp is going to fight on his turf? That was a lot friendlier ground for them four years ago and the same people running this campaign didn’t do it then. Instead, they took a genuine war hero and a guy whose daddy got him a free ride state-side (for which he then didn’t even bother to show up), and managed to switch the two in the public mind. By election day, people thought Kerry’s war record was dubious and Bush – the guy on the aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit – was a hero. Hey, Barack, do you think magicians like this are going to take on an inexperienced, sorta anti-war, supposedly liberal, flip-flopping wimpy black Democrat with a Muslim name on the field of policy issues, when they look idiotic on every single one? Dude, they’re not Democrats, okay? They don’t give a shit about anything but the money, and therefore, also about winning.
Here’s what Obama should have said, instead: “What we saw last week is a Republican Party desperate to find any way possible to regain your trust long enough to win the presidency for four more years, even if they have to lie in order to do it. What we saw, in speaker after speaker, were in fact lies which are an insult to your intelligence. They hid Bush and Cheney in the basement, hoping you wouldn’t realize that they are the ones who, with the help of John McCain, have brought you the last eight years of disaster. They skipped the traditional tribute video, where their president would be adoringly lauded for keeping us prosperous with lots of jobs and a strong economy, for being a wise commander-in-chief, for fighting and winning our wars quickly and skillfully, for careful diplomacy and building America’s regard in the world, for protecting us during national disaster and for balancing the budget.”
“I could go on and on, but you know better than I. They won’t talk about their past because it’s precisely the same as the future they’re offering, and they know you’d never buy it if they told the truth. These are the very same people – Karl Rove and his trainees – who ridiculed Al Gore and gave us George W. Bush. Who smeared the service record of John Kerry, and saddled us with another four years of Bush. Now they think they can fool us again, which is why they spent so much of their convention talking about me, and so much of that time lying.”
“If that’s what you want, you know where to go for four more years of the same. I’m not sure most of us can afford it, but we do have the option to continue on the path we’ve been on, with a new version of the same old president, a guy who voted for just about every bit of it. Or you can reject the fear, deceit and pandering they’re peddling, and vote for a genuine improvement in America, and a candidate who doesn’t laugh at you behind your back while he’s playing you for a fool. If you’re ready to take back this country from the liars and the thieves, I’m ready to work with you.”
Or something to that effect.
The list of mealy-mouthed Obama comments, uttered stutteringly, from which a punch line could only possibly be extracted with the assistance of an electron microscope to parse the wheat from the chaff, is legion. To which he is now adding stupid gaffes. He recently said, despite Palin’s lipstick line from her speech, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” How incredibly stupid was that? Look, the Rove playbook includes hammering and distorting everything the opponent says, constantly keeping them on the defensive, and his protégé, Steve “Bullet Head” Schmidt, is now handling it perfectly within the morality-free zone otherwise known as the McCain campaign. If you attack Palin’s record in any way, you’re sexist! If you point out she was mayor of a town of 8,000 people, you’re an elitist snob who looks down at good, god-fearing, Americans with small town values. And so on, and so on. Pretty soon you’re afraid to say anything, and you start looking like Mike Dukakis, so confused about what you stand for and who you are that you have to whip out your driver’s license every once in a while to remind yourself. “Oh yeah, it says here that my name is Barack Obama, so I guess that must be who I am.”
That’s certainly part of the drill, and there are three things you have to do to win in that environment. First, establish message discipline. Know what you want to say, know why, per your strategy, and say it, and only it, all day, perhaps all day every day. This is where the lipstick comment and most everything else that is coming out of Obama’s mouth these days is astonishing. Did anyone not figure that maybe talking about putting lipstick on a pig would be incredibly stupid, and be used in television ads to alienate women voters?!?! The second thing you do – and I can’t say that Democrats have ever tried any of these three, let alone all of them – is never relent when your carefully chosen message is attacked. Indeed, you should have gamed this out in advance, so that when that predicted and predictable attack comes, you’re prepared to double down, and fire back. Hard. Each time you yield ground, especially on your own turf, you yield credibility and you yield votes. Finally, for crissakes, here’s a concept: Go on offense!! McCain and Palin and Bush and the GOP are what the military would call ‘target-rich opportunities’. Go after these people and make them play defense.
Speaking of which, whatever happened to Joe What’s-His-Name, picked by Obama more than three weeks ago to be his running mate? Can anyone think of a single memorable line he’s uttered since then? Has anyone even seen this guy? Is he back in Delaware shoring up the campaign for his simultaneously-ballot-listed Senate seat, or what? Pretty much the one thing I liked about the Biden pick was the promise that Joe would go out there and take a few bites out of the GOP. Excuse me, sir, but is it too late to get a refund?
Speaking of which, I’m one of many people right now who are contemplating donating money and time to the Obama campaign. Here’s where I stand. If this guy gets elected, I doubt he’ll do much, and certainly little that he isn’t forced into by the tides of history. Like Clinton, my guess is he’ll spend four or eight years making nice speeches and ineffectively fighting the vast right-wing conspiracy, which – as it did for Bill as well – will begin harassing him from day one and never, ever, let up. Additionally, whatever promise Obama once offered as a progressive he has now pretty much eviscerated on the campaign trail. So, let’s just say that enthusiasm isn’t much part of the equation any more.
In the end, he gets my vote because he is not Bush and not McCain, and because if historical circumstances are powerful enough he probably has it within him to be bold, and therefore great, and therefore also to smother the scourge of regressive politics in its own stinking pool of pus for a generation or so. That ain’t a ringing endorsement, let me tell you. And I, along with many others of the same ilk I’m sure, have no intention of once again (thank you Mr. Kerry, thank you Mr. Dukakis) investing a single dollar or a single hour in a campaign when the guy at the top won’t bark, won’t bite, and won’t fight. Especially in 2008. Dukakis at least had the excuse of the true patriot, believing that in the America he loved a good and competent person like himself could never be defeated by a sick bastard like Lee Atwater, let alone based on lies about the pledge of allegiance and the ACLU, or by using overt symbols of racism. But Mr. Obama – Senator Barackis Dukakis – that was FIVE elections ago, okay?
I am despondent this week, I must say, as I survey the wreckage of American democracy. It’s not that I care so much about Obama winning. Whatever tenuous enthusiasm I once had for him has waned to near nothing. It has much more to do with the fact that a public that is demonstrably sick of the status quo could yet once again be fooled by the same old practitioners of the dark arts, employing the same old insulting techniques, into willfully voting for another four years of precisely the same folks who’ve made them miserable. It’s truly astonishing. Can these people really not figure out the ruse being applied to them? Are they, at long last, actually incapable of being insulted?
I give in already, okay? Yes, yes, Santayana was right! Y’all no longer need to prove to me that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. I accept the premise. Point taken.
Couldn’t we move on to another lesson, by now? How about that little ditty on Munich?
You know, the one were those who try to play nice with fascist thugs become their breakfast just a few months later.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.