As I have watched the national dialogue on health care over the past several months, there is a consistent theme on the left (where I see myself) that deeply troubles me. The trope is that the movement for national health care reform is “under attack” and this violence requires “a fighter.” Obama is accused of being “weak” and abandoning his principles because he remains intent on listening and responding with flexibility and openness to the forces opposing his agenda. The narrative continues that it’s time to get tough and use raw political power (after all, the left outguns the right at this time of war through their majorities in both houses). Many highly regarded thinkers have criticized the President in this manner. Here is one very recent example from Bill Moyer that captures the tone of many commentators:
Poor Obama. He came to town preaching the religion of nice. But every time he bows politely, the harder the Republicans kick him. No one’s ever conquered Washington politics by constantly saying “pretty please” to the guys trying to cut your throat…. We need a fighter.
Well, I guess since the Republicans are kicking Obama as he bows and also trying to slit his throat, we should get out our AK-47s and teach them a lesson. If you try to cut my throat it’ll be the last thing you ever do!
This is so disappointing! In his recent national speech on healthcare policy, Obama responded to Moyer, in my view, by refusing to take the bait. Rather than out-toughing his opponents, he continued to express his openness to their ideas, notwithstanding that, as a result of the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority, their votes are not needed to enact reform:
Well the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care.
Obama advanced a plan that “incorporates ideas from Senators and Congressmen; from Democrats and Republicans – and yes, from some of my opponents in both the primary and general election.” And after explaining specific elements of the plan incorporated from the ideas of his opponents, including, for example, ideas related to tort reform, he expressed his commitment to “continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead.” Most importantly he concluded by stressing his commitment to civil dialogue, premised on an important truth:
[When] we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter… at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
I felt very proud of Obama in that moment. Why? Because in the face of irrational taunts, scare tactics, lies, and even public insults, Obama insisted on behaving like an adult and keeping the focus on serious, substantive discourse about what matters. He courageously (yes, that’s the real courage) refused to get in the mud.
Of course, the newspaper and cable TV pundits hate this practice of actually listening, reflecting, responding substantively, and thinking, because the narrative about the supposed rise and fall of the FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT in a fight to the death with EVIL RIGHT WING CONSERVATIVES reads more like a Hollywood movie script. They want the drama that draws eyeballs to screens and columns. That is why they keep trying to reframe the story so that the focus is on whether Barack Obama is standing up or wimping out. Is Obama-man a hero or did his opponents use their kryptonite on him? They would like us to check the score every twenty-four hours to see how team Obama is doing. And boy, wouldn’t it be more exciting if team Obama would scream back and say sharp, mean, unfair things to counteract the word bombs tossed their way. They are telling us that what matters is whether Obama wins or loses (in the words of Moyer, does he “conquer” or do they cut his metaphorical throat?) Frank Rich at the New York Times actually went so far as to complain that Obama’s refusal to respond to antics is a ploy to get more media attention(!), slowly raising the stakes until he responds in the end. But that’s risky, said Rich, because we’re deprived of all the wrangling along the way that would have been so entertaining and would have kept those evil Republicans from going to extremes:
When trouble lurks, No Drama Obama stays calm as everyone around him goes ballistic. Then he waits – and waits – for that superdramatic moment when he can ride to his own rescue with what the press reliably hypes as The Do-or-Die Speech of His Career. Cable networks slap a countdown clock on the corner of the screen and pump up the suspense. Finally, Mighty Obama steps up to the plate and, lo and behold, confounds all the doubting bloviators yet again by (as they are wont to say) hitting it out of the park…. [Obama's] White House has a duty to push back against the 24-hour news cycle, every 24 hours if necessary, when it threatens to derail his agenda, the nation’s business, or both. The 24-hour news cycle abhors a vacuum, and the liars and crazies filled it while Obama waited for his deus ex machina descent onto center stage. That he let the hard-core base of a leaderless minority party drive the debate only diminished his stature. That’s why his poll numbers on “leadership” declined.
You see, in the end, politics is a game. Policy doesn’t matter. What matters is who wins. What matters is Obama’s poll numbers. Tune in at 11 to find out what happens next in the Obama drama.
Obama’s refusal to allow the public option to become a focal point of “winning” is right-on because it exposes the nonsense underlying the media wish for a win-or-lose narrative. What matters to the public is not who wins or loses but whether we actually achieve policy changes that make sense and that represent an improvement over what we have now. Of course those defending the status quo, and those focused on “winning,” would like to write a different story. They want to say that you can’t have any progress unless you have absolute progress. According to them, if Obama doesn’t get 100% of his agenda, then he will have “lost,” and then, by definition (it’s a zero-sum game, of course), the other team will have “won.”
Well, this is literally childish, meaning it approximates the way that poorly behaved children think about life, with a narcissistic focus on whether they feel personally satisfied and are receiving sufficient attention. It also defies common sense. It’s just not true that if you don’t get everything, then you get nothing. It is like saying to a starving man, you shouldn’t eat unless you can have a four-course meal. Progress doesn’t have to be 100% to be meaningful. If you make the system slightly better, that matters. And if you can get what you want while your opponents share the credit, who cares? That’s real wisdom. So here’s my advice to Bill Moyers: stop using metaphors that focus on violence, pride, winning, and fighting. Barack Obama is wiser than you. He doesn’t need your lectures. He is teaching the entire dysfunctional political culture a lesson in real leadership. Indeed, he is teaching us a lesson in what I would like to call political nonviolence. That’s real courage. Jesus said it: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Gandhi said it: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” King said it: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”