Mitt Romney’s meltdown has Democrats in a celebratory mood. They are so accustomed to living on thin political rations that their enthusiasm waxes whenever fortune smiles upon them. This sudden brightening of prospects in the Presidential election may have nothing to do with the intrinsic appeal or skillful politicking of their own candidate. But they suppress that uncomfortable thought lest it cloud the sunshine brought into their otherwise bleak lives by the hapless Mr. Romney.
Still, comfort can be a killer – especially if you think beyond a second Obama inaugural party. It is by no means clear that there will be a lasting shift in the terms of the national political discourse about the fundamental issues of our times. Nor are there signs that Romney’s imploding campaign will redress the balance in Congress. A replay of the dispiriting game between arrogant Republican reactionaries and a White House ever ready to concede ground for the sake of a semblance of consensus seems most likely. There is nothing in that prospect to elicit good cheer among progressives.
The true stakes in this election are historic. Does the United States regain the path of enlightened socio-economic thinking that marked the nation’s progress from the introduction of the progressive tax income through the New Deal and the civil rights revolution to responsible environmental practices? Or does it regress and move backwards toward the beckoning darkness of the robber baron era? Is government the problem or do we as citizens act with a mature sense of the collective interest that it represents and advances? We no longer can evade the harsh terms of the contest. Romney’s crude yet deeply felt evocation of Social Darwinism as the only true American creed should remove the blinders that the media and so many Democrats have worn.
Barack Obama, for his part, refuses to face the challenge squarely. In his typical low-key way, he has limited himself to a few remarks stressing that presidents should feel responsible for all the American people while rejecting Romney’s use of words like self declared ‘victims’ and chronic dependents. Even those tepid comments were made impromptu at election events or the Letterman Show.
Obama’s penchant for spending his time chatting with talk show hosts about rappers, sports or – occasionally Romney – evidently conforms to some sort of not readily discernible strategy. However, it misses the opportunity for a resonant declaration of principle that matches the stakes. The epic ideological battle cannot be won just be letting the other guy commit pratfalls.
Praised for his high minded attitude juxtaposed to Romney’s arrogant snobbery, Obama’s main impression was made at the level of public persona. He did the minimum to confront the radical message of Romney’s dogmatic doctrine. This at a time when the relentless prosecution of the Republican reactionaries’ campaign in all spheres has left Democrats besieged after having lost the Judiciary, lost the House and in danger of losing the Senate, having had regulatory agencies coopted at every governmental level, and having seen the ultras achieve total domination of the public discourse.
This historic encounter finds 20th century liberalism without a champion able and willing to articulate forcefully ideas and principles that most Americans still accept when enunciated clearly and in terms of their practical meaning. Instead, Barack Obama’s calm and diffident manner suggests an English country vicar who, on the eve of Armageddon, tells his congregants that it would be a jolly good thing if the side of virtue won.
How do we explain Obama’s lack of passion? One reason is that he is capable of only one approach to dealing with political conflict – at any level, whatever the stakes. He avoids confrontation by taking refuge in a compulsive promotion of conciliation, consensus and compromise. He thereby distinguishes his sense of ethical superiority from those crass politicians, of either party, who think only in terms of partisan advantage.
A second, complementary reason is that Obama is consumed by his own personal ambition to extend his residency in the White House. It squeezes out everything else. There is no doubt that he has convinced himself that his electoral success is tantamount to success for the country. All politicians, of course, feel that way. He is exceptional in the divorce of his occupying high office from any definite views as to what concrete achievements he should strive for or whose interests are a priority. From that vantage point, the terms of victory mean relatively little, as does who controls the Congress. He said exactly that in his long interview with Ron Susskind just after the 2010 debacle.
These dispositions are cemented by a political philosophy that sees much that is right in the so-called ‘conservative’ doctrine. Moreover, he has indicated on multiple occasions his belief that the locus of political sentiment in the country is closer to the Tea Party than it is to liberal Democrats. Obama is leery of federal programs as the answer to the country’s problems. Let’s remember Bill Clinton’s ringing declaration that “the era of big government is over” – a judgment that Obama has given his nod.
Obama does not deem Social Security and Medicare as currently constituted to be foundation stones of a socially responsible America. If he did, he never would have stacked his extraordinary National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with staunch advocates of cutting them back drastically; nor would he have placed them on the sacrificial altar at the height of the fraught crisis with Congress last summer over raising the debt ceiling. Just this past week, he told AARP that he might reconsider – promised and abandoned in 2008 – raising the salary ceiling for Medicare withholding to $250,000; BUT still “welcomes ideas from the Republican side.”
Obama after all has volunteered on more than one occasion that his role model as president is Ronald Reagan. Yes, he may have leadership style foremost in mind. But surely no Democrat who is devoted to the party’s great legacy of progressive programs would set as his model a man whose entire public career was dedicated to dismantling them – every bit as much as it is Romney’s abiding ambition.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.