There’s a hallowed homespun admonition known to many across the American landscape, that cautions against ever buying anything from a man who’s out of breath.
In these final hours before the election, as the candidates’ words gush forth in gasping, 11th-hour paroxysms of beseeching and vituperation, we can finally pause and take stock of the extent to which these past 18 months measure up on the ledger of political repulsiveness.
And where in fact do we find ourselves? Well, we’ve clearly witnessed the spectacle of two of the biggest chameleons in the history of U.S. presidential politics. Both of whom are unsurpassed at turning on a dime on matters of principle, and who exhibit, as well, an uncanny ability to marinate in total denial about it.
In short, what we’ve witnessed in highest focus resolution is the ludicrous pageant of a pair of Rockefeller/Javits/Hatfield/Bill Scranton Republicans strenuously avoiding being tagged with that label.
The abysmal Mitt Romney’s rightward trek has of course had the effect of giving rank expediency a bad name, and his shift back to the center has likely come too late to save the day. I suspect that his handlers at some point realized the efficacy of the old political maxim, In a race between two Republicans, vote for the real Republican. Had Romney subtly eased into that moderate posture a little earlier, with a willingness to trumpet his gubernatorial vitae, most of the perceived discrepancies between his and Obama’s policies would have been rendered moot, and possibly to Romney’s advantage, as their first debate suggests.
Alternately, the sad spectacle of Obama trying to keep intact his base has had him attempting to rejigger the bountiful notions of “change” he formerly proffered to his adoring flock in the days before they began shaking their heads in mass dismay, or went off to the Occupy sites, shamed by the manner in which they’d been taken in and played. The degree to which those kids now despise him is impossible to miss in the frenzied whirl of Obama’s countdown campaigning, and the campaign slogan “Forward” looks like a reflection of that concern. It feels as if it was tacked on late at night when no one was around, and forward was just another word for nothing left to lose.
Bill Clinton’s riding to Obama’s rescue should come as no surprise. There’s an obligatory continuum to their relationship, born of Clinton’s ego, his titular leadership of the Democratic Party, his squiring of Hillary’s 2016 presidential prospects, and his recognition that Obama is the second link in the chain of the Clintonian methodology. However much their pitched squabbling in the past might still have Clinton believing that Obama is a mere acolyte by comparison, it matters little at crunch time.
Writing about the 2008 campaign on the eve of that election, I was certain that the basic thrust of Obama’s governing style would be a rehash of Clinton’s. And that, along with the impression I got years earlier that Obama bore a welter of familial personal conflicts he had yet to remedy, defined him for me.
My sense of him was immediate. I also once worked as a community organizer in the inner city, and perhaps that has afforded me some added perspective. I glimpsed a mix of things in Obama: a carefully constructed public persona, a marked hint of dilettantishness, the incipient signals of a grifter, an unsettling aura of vindictiveness, and an ongoing undercurrent of smugness and dismissiveness. He struck me as a bright, driven young man who over the years had become quite adept at manipulating white liberals, and who well knew how consummately good he was at it.
My unease about Obama was pronounced. Indeed, I’d not felt as much trepidation about any other presidential candidate, and I had seen them all, stretching back to the 1950s. Those others were either predictably forthright, or yielded reliable-enough clues as to who they were, and even in the instances when any of them chose to utilize the “run to the left in the campaign, then govern from the center” approach, the process was nuanced and detectable. In Obama’s case, his campaign took its prompts from his fabled 2004 Democratic Convention speech and never stopped building upon it.
The overheated rhetoric was obviously the foundation of his candidacy. At turns gauzy, condemnatory, trite (“the road is long, the climb is steep”), soaringly histrionic and inconceivably promissory, it proceeded to massively woo enraptured, weepy, often delirious youthful adulation that would roll into Iowa, overwhelm the caucus primary and be the key to Obama securing the nomination.
I found it all incredibly chilling. My take on Obama’s speechifying was that it resembled an endless valedictorian address, and as the crowds grew and became even more transported, to watch Obama summarily double-down on the gait, the bounce, the patter and the repertoire of an arena-rock celebrity, was to behold a willful puppetry that was scarifying in its implications.
Many of us to the left of Obama had no problem assigning cult status to his campaign. And that opinion was confirmed in June of 2008 when Obama suddenly and blatantly veered rightward on a dozen of his positions without any significant protestations from his followers or any attempt at accountability from the candidate himself. At that point the real Obama was on view for anyone who cared to look.
To be sure, the Republican right wing, for one, happened to be looking. And they saw the same thing the left did: Scratch a neoliberal Democrat and you get a Republican moderate. Having essentially dispensed with its moderates in a putsch that began with eliminating the mid-1970s Nixon détente mindset, the Republican right realized they had Obama over a barrel and they knew they could squeeze him. Sure, they all concurred, Obama could impersonate a lefty on the hustings, but he don’t fool us. Obama could now only maneuver further to the right. And they could gradually pull him in that direction and chortle as his befuddled base of liberal faithful, ever-laden with the fulsome remnants of their hero’s pretty verbiage, began to awaken to reality.
There’s been much made of the “Chicago style” of the Obama White House, in particular the hog-butchering power-politics mode of a Rahm Emanuel. I would presume that the Republicans actually had another aspect of the city’s style in mind in appraising Obama: specifically the stuffed envelope slid deftly across a tabletop. It’s known as The Combine in Chicago, a thoroughly bipartisan arrangement the city’s political machine uses to ensure the utmost municipal efficiency. Appropriately, Republican opposition research surely delved into Obama’s connections with people like slumlord Tony Rezko in order to gain a more textured portrait of the new president. So, evidently, I’ve not been mistaken in recent years in thinking I’ve been hearing a tiny, squeaky undertone emanating from Obama: “C’mon, fellas, why so difficult? Can’t you see how much alike we are?” Obama, in short, has long been groomed to deal.
Apparently we’ve come quite a ways since Newt Gingrich evaluated Bill Clinton’s brand of triangulating with the succinct statement, “Let’s allow him to take the credit for advancing our agenda.” Such civility has yet to be extended to Obama, as the Republicans continue to enjoy toying with him, but that could soon change. The post-election grand bargain that Obama has already offered to negotiate appears to be imminent. In jeopardy are the foundational basics of the social safety net. The consensus on the left is that once that deal occurs Obama will jettison any remaining opposition within his ranks. Anyone who has carefully looked at Obama’s track record can’t help but conclude that he has always regarded people as useful up until the point that they are no longer of any use.
The rancor between respective wings of the permanent government borders on the absurd. Dick Cheney periodically reaffirms his belief that Obama is keeping George W. Bush’s legacy intact. Others among the right wing’s coterie have no qualms with Obama’s drones blowing apart children as they sleep in their beds. Nor is the right fazed by the multiple ways in which constitutional guarantees are undergoing evisceration. One might readily surmise that Obama’s “opponents” would find great solace in Obama’s having abandoned or reneged on two-thirds of his promises (including all of the major planks in the 2008 Democratic platform), thus helping to erode the blind faith the party’s Obambots retain for what may evolve into a politically-isolated presidency. Similarly, Obama’s silence on climate change (that will be changing post-Andrew, you’re convinced?), his backing down on a host of other environmental issues, his mania for corporatizing education, and his undercutting of organized labor at every turn, are seemingly the sort of things that dreams are made of for those situated across the political aisle.
Assuming an Obama victory, were the Republicans to finally reciprocate with a circa-1995 Gingrich-like welcoming overture to Obama, where does that leave those who place themselves outside duopoly politics? Progressive policies have been set back decades by Obama, and the specter and certainty of him tutored and governing via retro Clintonian dialectics affords us no choice but to step outside the system irrevocably. Five percent of the vote certifies third parties for future federal matching funds, so there’s no reason a ballot should not be cast accordingly, and in swing states as well. We’re perilously close to that precipice in America that Gore Vidal described, only half-jokingly, as a one-party state with two right wings. There’s simply no longer any “lesser” in the considerations of the “lesser evil” that marked our past electoral choices.