If only I could draw, I would whip out a cartoon of Barack Obama in evening dress, complete with top hat — and umbrella.
And the caption? “Compromise in Our Time” would say everything.
The Chamberlain tag has always been tempting to lay on anyone reluctant to rush into confrontation. To sympathetic historians, though, Neville Chamberlain was a wise man who saw no percentage in his country getting embroiled in a Continental war. Such a philosophy is not alien to America; it is, in fact, the very prescription that George Washington left with his successors as he departed the presidency.
For all that, it is the caricature of Neville Chamberlain that endures. This is the man who thinks good graces and comely manners are the ultimate solution to every problem. No matter what disaster may strike, he goes about with a smile as though everything is happening for the best.
Then there’s that other English metaphor that seems tailor-made for today. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the Democrats’ debt ceiling capitulation began on election night 2000. More diligent students may trace it all the way back to the Reagan era.
Offering concessions before taking a stand is a sign not of good grace but stupidity. Al Gore’s troubles began when he rushed to congratulate George W. Bush 15 minutes after some network awarded Florida to the Republicans. During the entire imbroglio following he remained in catch-up mode for that one single reason. A man who has already conceded is forever stuck in explanations. He was for conceding before he was against it .
It is an endemic Democratic problem. Al Gore, like his successors, conceded something he had no business giving away, in this instance the integrity of the electoral process. The Republicans, while sabotaging every effort to count the votes, kept up the propaganda that the Democrats wanted to keep on recounting. The lie was never nailed with the force and clarity it deserved. When the Supreme Court announced its specious decision, Gore, playing the gentleman to the bitter end, exited stage right with a beatific smile.
Post-9/11, this faux graciousness became institutionalized. Bipartisanship became a convenient hijab for Democratic leaders to hide behind and avoid the sacred duties of advocacy and articulation. No surprise that the era has been one long saga of battles graciously left unfought. It is one thing to give everything to one’s cause and still lose. The tragedy of our age is redoubt after redoubt abandoned without even a skirmish.
In 2004 the Kerry campaign lost any credibility once it became clear that he had no essential disagreement with the concept of the United States launching an unprovoked war, just some quibbles with the un-smart way it was being fought.
2008 brought Barack Obama, whose lone claim for consideration was a one time speech criticizing the Iraq war. A population so fed up of Bush’s trail of dissembling and disaster invested this straw figure with all its dreams and propelled him all the way into the White House. They thought change was in the air. But the new incumbent, channeling a famous quote from Old Europe, decided that he would “astonish the world with his ingratitude”.
Instead of making a difference, he began bleating that all differences were bad. Any hopes of righting the many wrongs to country and Constitution were put paid to in a matter of days. This new prophet was for conciliation in not just politics but everywhere: Not a single banker or Wall Street thug was hastened into prison. What to speak of pursuing George W. Bush, Richard Cheney or Alberto Gonzales for their crimes inside and outside the country, Barack Obama proved incapable of even articulating the monumental damage they had wrought! Bipartisanship became the daily shibboleth. “I refuse to be impartial between the fire and the fire brigade”, said Winston Churchill; Barack Obama seemed the kind who would show up at the White House press room to welcome the spirit of compromise if it burned down five buildings instead of ten.
In a milieu such as this, politicians are apt to fall back on empty nostrums. “No one would run their household the way the government runs the country” is a prince among these. Aside from being factually false, witness the mortgage crisis and burgeoning credit card debt, it is also philosophically idiotic. There is a huge difference between an individual’s role and responsibility and that of one holding an office of public trust. I may in a fit of generosity donate my car to charity. For a president to place Social Security or Medicare on the table to placate a political critic is hardly the same thing.
Making the argument, whether or not it gains the day, at least earns it a space in the public mind where it can grow to make an impact at a later date. To fold without even trying to fight is to lose now and make it easier to lose in the future. Patrick Buchanan makes a valid point, “There are no liberals anymore. They have changed their name. They are all ‘progressives’ now. When the right was in ill repute in post-Goldwater days, never did it abandon its birth name, ‘conservatives.’ ”
And the other side?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”, wrote Margaret Mead. Joke about the ‘thoughtful’ here if you wish, but there is no questioning the commitment of the Tea Party brigades in Congress. Another believer in this dictum was VI Lenin, who did not think that being in the minority need equate to irrelevance.
Then there are those who will tell you of their helplessness, even though they may have a majority.
Somewhere, someplace, Lenin must be smiling at his unlikely inheritors.
Niranjan Ramakrishnan lives on the West Coast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.