You may get sick of reading this from me, but one of the main reasons progressives are always on the outside looking in is because we don’t seem to know anything about how politics works. I will repeat it until it's no longer the case. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of waiting for a large portion of the progressive movement to get their heads out of each other's asses, and start doing things that benefit the poor, working and middle classes, instead of whining about shit that simply doesn't matter.
Yesterday presented us with a prime example, when President Obama penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Toward a 21st-Century Regulatory System."
The liberal blogosphere went batshit. First, they lamented the fact that he would pen a column for The Wall Street Journal in the first place. How DARE he put some of his writing in the newspaper of record of the enemy? I'm waiting for the pissing and moaning that awaits when they find out Obama's being interviewed by Bill O'Reilly during Super Bowl coverage.
But what really struck me was the incredible vitriol and misunderstanding that surrounded the content of the article, in which President Obama announced that he had penned an executive order that creates a mission among federal agencies . The mandate “orders a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”
I'm sorry, but why is this not a good idea?
As I read the liberal blogs’ response to this, I was struck by the incredible reverence that was expressed toward regulation in the abstract. It was as if, because a lack of regulation in the financial services sector led to the economic meltdown we’re all still experiencing, the mere concept of cutting regulations of any kind was a sign that Obama was “caving” to the far right once again. (Dontcha love that word, “caving”?)
The screaming reached an apex last night, when Keith Olbermann, accompanied by the increasingly screechy and irritating Arianna Huffington, decried the very idea that Barack Obama would embrace an idea long championed by far right Republicans. Rachel Maddow followed suit on her program, although thankfully, she was accompanied by the more logical Eugene Robinson, who politely informed Rachel she was kind of screaming for no reason.
Now, I love Keith and Rachel, and the passion with which they report the news of the day. But they – and a lot of media liberals -- don’t seem to understand basic politics very well. Basic politics requires that you appropriate issues before your opponents do. (Note the word "opponents" and not "enemies," folks.)
I agree that we need a lot more regulation in some areas, especially when it comes to the consumer and financial arenas. But let's be blunt here; with a Republican House, we're not going to get much of that. So, you have two alternatives; you can propose a bunch of useless legislation that won't go anywhere, or you can take the issue of "too much regulation" away from the Republicans, and make it your own. Guess which Obama chose? If you want to propose "common sense regulation" in the future, Democrats have to win back the majority, and they can't do that if they're portrayed as being in favor of "big government."
See, this is where the disconnect comes in when it comes to many liberals; they don't really understand how the average person thinks of the government, and especially government regulation. Anyone who’s ever run or managed a workplace that has had to deal with what the federal government refers to as “hazardous chemicals” (did you know your Sharpie pen is “hazardous,” for example?) or with OSHA regulations before the Clinton Administration reformed them to a significant degree, knows that there are a LOT of useless regulations on the books. (To her credit, Rachel Maddow did note this toward the end of her report, albeit as a throwaway line, and followed by a huge “but.”)
Look, folks, I don’t know how to tell you this, but if we’re ever going to be successful, politically, we’re going to have to re-frame the debate on a lot of issues. But we can’t re-frame a debate by avoiding a subject altogether. Not only that, but if we come out in favor of more and more regulations, as liberals seem to want to do, we’re going to piss off a lot of people.
Is it really lost on most progressives that the majority of the population hates regulations, at least in the abstract? I know I do. If you claim you don’t, you’re probably lying. All those packets of silica gel that say “Do not eat” don't crack you up? How many of you have purposely removed that tag from your mattress, just to feel empowered? Is there anyone in this country that doesn’t understand the danger of plastic bags to babies? And yet, there’s the warning on the plastic cover over my dry cleaning, warning me to keep it away from the crib. We are surrounded by silly or seemingly pointless regulations.
We've all heard stories from government workers and contractors about some of the ridiculous rules they've had to follow over the years. For example, my father used to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and one time in the late 70s, he needed a tool. I think it was a hammer, but I’m not sure. In any case, it was a tool that he could have purchased at any hardware store or discount store, but there were actually regulations on the books that specified the size, shape and type of tool he had to buy, and tools with those specifications could only be ordered from a specific vendor at roughly 3-4 times the price of the local chain store.
THIS is what people think of when they hear politicians talk about "regulation." They don’t think about the regulations that keep their money safe. They don’t think about the regulations that keep the food supply relatively poison-free. They hear the constant bitching from someone they know who owns a small business, who swears up and down that the government requires too much from him, and complying with government “red tape" is costing him an arm and a leg. Come on, you all know people with small businesses who say such things. Well, a lot of people believe them.
Republican right wingers get this. This is why they are always on about “cutting” the size of the federal government. The average American is under the impression that the reason the government is so ineffective is because it’s become bloated and unwieldy, not because neocons have been running it into the ground. This is why they’re always on about the deficit, at least when they’re not in charge; their entire ideology revolves around “starving the beast” and reducing the federal government’s function to something like “military-only.” They have spent the last thirty years cutting regulations on the wrong things, and we’ve been standing on the sidelines whining about it.
Why do so many progressives not get this? Supposedly, we’re all about helping working people, and those who are struggling; why do we not understand what they’re about? Why do we not seem to understand what actually concerns the average American?
One of the problems is that too many progressives, typified by those in the blogosphere, are so busy examining everything every politician does, and declaring doom and gloom over every little move that a politician makes, that they don’t have time to consider what the people affected actually think.
If you don’t understand what President Obama was doing with his op-ed yesterday, then you’re politically tone-deaf, period.
First, he placed it in the Wall Street Journal because that’s where it’s most likely to be read by those who need to know it. Hell; everyone with a business reads The Wall Street Journal; if you want to put the message out there that you intend to create a more business-friendly climate, there is no better place to do so.
Second, perhaps you’ve heard, but companies are making record profits these days, but they’re not hiring workers. One of the reasons they’ve been citing is because they’re concerned about the Obama Administration’s “anti-business” tenor, and their tendency toward excessive regulation. Well, guess what; he just took the wind out of their sails. He's reaching out to businesspeople, and promising to remove their claimed burden, and making their complaints more likely to fall on deaf ears. In one simple op-ed, he probably created thousands of jobs.
Third, for two solid years, since before he took office, Republicans have been branding him as a “socialist,” out to destroy small businesses. Small business owners are among those most critical of President Obama, despite the fact that their tax burden has actually been greatly reduced under his watch. When federal agencies announce a serious reduction in regulations, it’ll be difficult for anyone to attack Obama for being anti-business.
President Clinton did this same sort of thing, by the way. In fact, in the last forty years, the only two presidents who have overseen an overall reduction in the size of the federal government were Carter and Clinton. If you’ll remember, Al Gore oversaw the “Reinventing Government" initiative,” that greatly reduced the size of the federal regulatory morass, and turned most agencies to a more “mission-based” framework.
A leaner, more responsive government is not a bad thing. And a declaration that you plan to cut outdated regulations, and regulations that supposedly stifle job creation is certainly no reason to have a cow, people. It’s basic politics; if you stake out the ground first, your opponents have a much harder time appropriating the issue. YOU get to frame the debate. One of the reasons we never get to frame the debate is because we spend too much time whining about "them," whomever "they" are.
While I’m on this subject, can we please stop examining every goddamn appointment Obama makes, and then becoming indignant because he’s not appointing a Chomsky-like figure to the post? For Chrissakes, to hear the liberal bloggers tell it, you’d think Bill Daley was a Bircher or something.
Here’s a clue, folks; Barack Obama is a progressive president; he’s just not a far leftist. He’s been a moderate all along. If you didn’t know this during the last campaign, you weren’t paying attention. One of the biggest problems far left progressives seem to have is a tendency to project their belief system on a candidate they like, and then be disappointed when what they perceived him to be wasn’t who he or she actually was.
Politics is about compromise. That means “the middle.” Successful politicians are almost never going to be from the far right or the far left; they are always going to be from somewhere in the center. Ronald Reagan’s first election was a fluke, and he realized it early on; it wasn’t until he moderated somewhat that he picked up steam and won reelection. There is a reason a Dennis Kucinich will never become president; the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t see things the way he does.
President Obama has to run for reelection in two years, and much of what he will do in that time will be to that effect. Now, I happen to think he’s got it made; the only two Republicans who could possibly beat him are unlikely to win the party’s nomination; Romney and Huckabee. But you know what? I’ve been wrong before, and every once in a while, something unexpected comes along. Think back four years, when Hillary Clinton was considered the presumptive nominee in the Democratic Party. President Obama knows this, so what he’s going to do is attempt to take away many of the Republicans’ issues and reframe several debates. His embracing of the concept of "smaller government" and "fewer useless regulations" will likely be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
And what he's doing is working like a charm already. If you doubt that, consider the sea change on health insurance reform repeal. The Republicans have already moderated on it, and their sails have almost no wind on them.
Of course, even on that non-issue, some liberals are obsessed over the fact that 13-15 Democrats might vote with Republicans on “repeal,” and they have “targeted” them for defeat in 2012 already. (Can I use the term “target”? It is metaphorical, after all.) I really hate to break it to you folks, but some Democrats represent some very conservative districts, and if they want to be able to vote for things that really matter, they have to be able to point to a vote like this, which is never going to matter. Health insurance reform cannot be repealed, in anyone’s wildest dreams.
Our side has to stop being politically tone deaf.
As another example, progressives here in Maryland announced a couple of days ago an initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. Really? At a time when unemployment is persistently high, businesspeople are openly bitching about their costs, and a lot of people are openly fearful of being able to keep the job they have? This is the time you choose to bring up moving the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2013? You can't wait a year, and see how the economy is then? Even though we all know that such a thing would actually be economically stimulative, this could very well be the worst time to bring up such a thing.
Here’s some advice for lefty bloggers out there; take you head out of the news once in a while. Get away from the what you envision to be the nuts and bolts of politics (you might as well, because from what I see, you don't get it, anyway), and get out and talk to actual people who are actually struggling. Find out what matters to the average person, and learn how to discuss issues in a way that will get people on our side.
This may come as a shock to many of you, but most people don’t like progressives very much, and part of the reason is that we’re always so negative. Instead of obsessing over every bowel movement Obama makes, how about trusting him and supporting him a bit, and looking at the results. When he said he wanted us to put his feet to the fire and make sure he accomplishes his goals, he didn’t mean he wanted us to crawl up his ass and make camp. Step back a little, trust and support him, and in 2012, make an assessment of his accomplishments. Don't worry, I'll be listing them all here when the election gets closer; I think most of you will be shocked by the number of changes he's made. Hiring Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner was only a bad move if it led to more coddling of the financial services system, and it didn’t. Therefore, all of that angst was wasted. We have more meaningful regulation of the financial services sector than we've had in more than 20 years, and we could have had more, but Republicans now run the House.
President Obama is the most progressive president we’ve had since Roosevelt. If you doubt that statement, look at the results. After all, isn’t that what politics is supposed to be about? The results?
Why do we spend so much time obsessing over the methods that we fail to see or acknowledge the result? Why are we so politically tone-deaf?