Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Political Projection

Much of the reaction to President Obama by his supporters (in some cases, former supporters) reminded me of the Perot campaign. Seriously. Ross Perot ran on a platform of change - the Reform Party - and a substantial number of voters rallied behind him even though, beyond a few stated policy positions, it wasn't particularly clear what he stood for. His personality-based campaign proved vulnerable to personality-based attacks, and some shrewd manipulation caused him to display a level of paranoia that made him appear less than suitable as a President, but large numbers of people voted for him anyway. Sure, some percentage of the vote was a protest vote, anticipating that he would lose, but it seems reasonable to infer that the majority of his voters the first time around (18.9% of the popular vote) and a significant majority the second time around (8% of the popular vote) wanted him to serve as President.

Barack Obama was a more serious, credible candidate than Ross Perot, but he benefited from a similar ambiguity. People weren't sure what he stood for, and were eager to project their own political wants and needs onto him. Even when he made clear statements of policy, many of his followers seemed happy to either ignore the statement or rationalize how he was "just saying that to get elected". Yet as we've since seen, for the most part, when you look at a clear policy statement from Candidate Obama, nine times out of ten it's what he's done as President. The stuff that's less clear? That, I believe, was a savvy response to his followers. He understood the psychological phenomenon at issue, and was happy to have it work to his benefit. The Republicans attempted to take him down with character attacks, but those resonated mostly with voters who were predisposed to believe them (i.e., Republicans).

There's another side to this coin, and that's to build a candidate who fits a paradigm. The Republican Party did this to a degree with Ronald Reagan, and made it an art form with G.W. Bush. Take an unknown man with an empty résumé who has the proper political pedigree, and manufacture a public image that just happens to correlate to what opinion polls say voters want from a President. Lots of props and costumes. Push the image hard during the run-up to the nomination process, make sure the nomination process is more of a coronation - you don't want dirt on the crown - and you end up with a viable candidate. With image being as important as it is in a modern political campaign, who can be surprised that G.W.'s carefully manufactured, managed and marketed image prevailed over Al Gore's?

But you can't build a real movement on projection. Consider, for example, Ross Perot's "Reform Party". When you put Perot's supporters together in a room and told them to find their commonalities and create a platform, it just wasn't going to happen. They were united in their concern about the economy and to some degree in big picture solutions, and they all wanted change from the status quo, but that's where the commonalities ended. It was a movement that could not support a party. President Obama built his movement from within the party but, despite the expectation of many of his followers that it would happen, the party is not part of his movement. President Obama is having a hard enough time getting his own party to advance his stated agenda, and never had a chance of implementing the type of radical change that many of his supporters want. Obama can be faulted for allowing people to believe he was "that powerful", but if you look at either the history of the Presidency or Obama's prior legislative history, there was no reason to believe that radical change would or could occur.

When Harold Meyerson complains that Obama is not tapping into his progressive supporters in order to effect more significant change, I think he's overlooking a couple of things: first, how much progressive change was incorporated into the House healthcare reform bill, and second, that no amount of progressive pressure was going to make Joe Lieberman an honest man. (And it wasn't just Joe Lieberman.) Moreover, the progressives who "could have been" mobilized for Obama have different priorities - they may feel neglected, but that's probably better than offending them by insisting that they accept a legislative agenda that they may not share, even as their own pet causes are left behind. It's less that Obama needs to rally his progressive supporters, and more that they need to coalesce, demonstrate themselves as a serious, coherent political movement, and pressure him.

At the cartoonish end of this is Richard Cohen, who informs us that President Obama "is a lean man of ideological clay who has let others mold his image", with a bottom line that's "forever on the move". He complains that Obama "lacks both an ideology and the pipes" to get past the "ideological yellers". But the reality is, if you've been willing to look, there's never been a big mystery as to who Obama is, and if you've been willing to listen there's never been a big mystery as to what he stands for. He's actually done a respectable job advancing his agenda, far better than most Presidents in their first year, and it isn't at all clear what Cohen thinks he could have accomplished by yelling louder.

One suspects that Cohen falls into the camp of people who is disappointed that Obama's reality does not match his own projection; but for somebody who's supposedly politically attuned to the point that he has a Washington Post column, the fault for that has to be placed squarely with Cohen. Cohen can't muster consistency, quoting Yeats to inform us that "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity", right after stating that Obama should be louder and more passionate and implying that Obama's sole motivation is vanity.

In many ways, the oddest recent editorial touching on this subject is from David Brooks. Taking a perspective even less clueful than Cohen's, Brooks describes "tea partiers" as being largely a reaction against the educated class, and comes perilously close to describing its members as angry, bitter and clinging to their guns. (Dan Larison has responded to Brooks' poll-based arguments, and you can find more details about the poll here).
Over the course of this year, the tea party movement will probably be transformed. Right now, it is an amateurish movement with mediocre leadership. But several bright and polished politicians, like Marco Rubio of Florida and Gary Johnson of New Mexico, are unofficially competing to become its de facto leader. If they succeed, their movement is likely to outgrow its crude beginnings and become a major force in American politics. After all, it represents arguments that are deeply rooted in American history.
And I would not be surprised if Sarah Palin manages to become the leader of the movement and the first Presidential candidate of the "Tea Party Party". But with due respect to Brooks and his talk about how unnamed candidates in hypothetical contests line up against each other, this is the Reform Party, take whatever. The tea party movement can't be taken seriously until it coalesces, yet any effort to cause it to rally around a full political platform or a specific political leader is likely to cause it to shatter.

Brooks compares the tea party movement to the hippies of the 1960's, the feminists of the 1970's, the Christian Conservatives of the 1980's - all of whom did affect the political culture, but not as political parties. Despite the fact that the tea party movement is viewed more positively than either political party, it's future lies in either allying with the Republican Party (a party that is actively trying to coopt its energy and ideas) or by running to the right of the Republican Party - something that's likely to precipitate a plunge in both its membership and its poll numbers.

The biggest problem for those who want to hitch their political stars to the "tea party movement" is that it may have peaked too soon. After three more years of defining themselves by what their against, and failing to articulate anything that they're for, I'm not sure how much energy will be left in the movement. Teaming up with politicians who are too weak, too polarizing, or too unpopular to succeed within the Republican Party, also, doesn't seem like much of a recipe for success. History is full of movements and parties that had momentary political success, and even had significant influence on the dominant political parties, yet quickly faded into oblivion. President Obama won't be running for reelection as an enigma, as his record will be plain enough for even Richard Cohen to understand. Similarly, the tea party won't succeed if it fails to to coalesce around a set of ideas and principles (a platform), and history suggests that it won't survive that process.

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