Morning Report, August 21: Obamapproval, More Reverend Obama, the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, ACLU champions of civil rights, heartbreak Ridge, Time Travel, and Stupid Middle Americans?

Morning Report, August 21: Obamapproval, More Reverend Obama, the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, ACLU champions of civil rights, heartbreak Ridge, Time Travel, and Stupid Middle Americans? August 21, 2009

1.  Obama’s approval rating, in Zogby, is now down to 45%, compared to a 50% disapproval rate.  In a poll that has tended to be on the high side for Obama, only 49% trust Obama to make the right decisions for the country’s future–down from 60% a few months ago.  In general, it looks like Obama’s numbers have dropped roughly 15% since April, and 20-25% since the Inauguration.  Let there be no pussyfooting here: this is a steep drop.  I can’t imagine that it will drop much further in the coming months.  But Peggy Noonan may be right that Obama would be best-served, politically, to draw back from health care reform and admit that he has made mistakes.  Then he should roll out some popular measures that have a real possibility of bringing both sides of the aisle together.  Another major measure costing this much capital could lead him into approval numbers in the 30s.

As reported yesterday, Obama turned to religious leaders on Wednesday in the hope that they would convince their congregations that Obama’s policies are the only logical expressions of their “core ethical and moral obligations.”  Thus far the process is not responding kindly to this religious turn.  David Harsanyi writes in the Denver Post:

As CBS News recently reported, Obama has thrown around the name of God even more often than George W. Bush did. Then again, no group couches policy as a moral obligation more than the left. On nearly every question of legislation, there is a pious strawman tugging at the shirtsleeves of the wicked.

What isn’t a moral imperative these days? As if they were chiseling commandments into stone tablets, Democrats refer to budgets as “moral documents.” Thou shalt compost or climate change will descend upon the lands and smite the wicked and innocent alike. Extend alms to the downtrodden moneylenders and carmakers for it is just and the president commandeth thee.

If the apostate argues that dependency programs keep poor people poor, or that progressive environmental policies are ineffective and create poverty, or that free will is more important than free stuff; they will be dealt with like the Amorites. And you know what happened to that swine.

I confess I had higher hopes for Obama when it came to ‘process’ issues like political dialogue.

2.  On the Michael Smerconish (a center-right) radio talk show, Barack Obama blamed Republican opposition not on principle or justified concern, but on a conspiracy to cut him down to size and win back the majority in Congress.  Now, no one on the Right should deny that political calculations are made, on both sides, all the time.  (I noticed that when Obama was recently describing the many times when “fear” was set over against “hope” in the ongoing battle for social equality in the United States, he mentioned Truman and JFK and their efforts to bring fundamental change to our health care system; he neglected to mention President Nixon, whose effort was opposed by Democrats who feared that he would get credit and assumed that they would be able to pass reform when they next rose to power.)  Presumably the majority of politicians cast their votes with at least one eye on how it will affect their prospects (and their prospects are always tied up with those of their party) in the next election.  Still there are a few points to be made:

First, if any Republican sincerely feels that this health care reform is in the best interests of the nation, regardless of its consequences for him and the party he serves, he should vote for the reform.  We elect representatives to serve the interests of the nation, not of the party to which they belong.  Second, I have seen no evidence that Republicans have made any decision, collectively, to bring down Obama’s Presidency by standing against health care reform.  Republicans, and conservatives more generally (as shown by the reticence of the Blue Dogs), have abundant reason to oppose this health care reform without need to appeal to electoral calculations.  Third, even if Obamacare (I use that term neutrally, for the sake of convenience) goes down in flames, Obama will have at least three years remaining in office, and at least 1 year with supermajorities in the House and Senate, to rebuild momentum.  Obama may lose his reputation of being constantly in control and constantly victorious–but he would have lost that reputation sooner or later anyway.

Fourth, we should make a distinction between proximate and ultimate goals.  Republicans by and large share Obama’s ultimate goals, but not his proximate goals.  Obama wants the United States to flourish, for the economy to grow, and for all people to have access to quality and affordable health care.  No one disagrees on these ultimate goals.  Yet conservatives believe that Obama’s proximate goals will lead to the opposite of the ultimate goals they share.  So Obama proposes Changes A, B and C in order to lead to the ultimate condition UC.  Republicans (this is why they are Republicans, after all) believe that A, B and C will lead to not-UC; in fact, A, B and C are worse than doing nothing because they lead us in the opposite of the desired direction.  Thus by obstructing A, B and C they are actually serving the interests of UC.

This goes both ways.  Democrats were largely obstructionistic when they were in the minority and Bush was President, and they thought this was not only the best way to serve their political interests but also the best way to serve their ideals.  In the same way, there are Republicans now who hope that this is Obama’s “Waterloo,” and hope that this weakens Obama’s ability to transform the United States–precisely because they believe those transformations are not in the nation’s interest.  The weaker Obama becomes, in their eyes, the less damage he can do.  I suspect that most Republicans are sufficiently motivated on principle to oppose Obamacare, just as they were to oppose the stimulus and the cap-and-trade bill, because these are quite liberal proposals that run straight against the grain of core Republican and conservative values.  But I also suspect that they hope that a defeat on health care reform would diminish Obama’s ability to make other transformations he envisions (and they dread).  It may feel personal to Obama, and it may feel as though this is unprecedented, but in fact it is neither.

Bill Kristol may have been correct in his much-derided comment that Republicans should not try to appear reasonable or responsible for should “go for the kill.”  He was not referring to Obama; he was referring to what he considers an atrocious bill.  His point (the quotation usually ends there) was that Republicans will be attacked by Democrats whether they are “conciliatory or confrontational,” and the best way to make meaningful change is to scrap this abortive effort and start over.  Thus, he says, “highlight every problem, every terrible provision…throw the kitchen sink at the legislation now on the table” and start over.  “We’re not giving up on health reform. Far from it. But the only way to pass health reform is first to get rid of the misbegotten efforts now before Congress. The only way to pass health reform is to start over in the fall.”

Where possible, Republicans should continue to work with the White House to craft legislation that is better than it would have been otherwise.  And Republicans should continue to support Obama where, as in his Afghanistan policy, they find themselves in agreement with his proposals.  I also think that Republicans must do a better job of developing and publicizing (because they have developed some) their ideas for change.  Yet it is false to suggest that this is some sort of conspiracy, as though Republicans are opposing him only in order to defeat him and not because their principles require it.  No conspiracy is necessary when people are acting as they would naturally act already.

3.  The ACLU is under investigation for taking photos of clandestine CIA agents and showing the pictures to terrorists.  Hard to believe, but true.  Presumably the ACLU would respond that this was the only way they might help their clients (Gitmo detainees) to identify the CIA officers who, they claim, abused them.  Yet this clearly contravenes national security laws, is a major breach of trust between the ACLU and the military, and the point should not be to identify particular CIA officers so much as to condemn the system and exonerate their clients.  Taking pictures of CIA officers at their homes, and feeding those pictures to their clients in the hope that it will strengthen their testimony, is illegal and reckless; many of the lawyers who have taken up the call to defend Gitmo detainees, especially on the ACLU side (these are often-complicated legal teams), do so out of scorn for the American military and national intelligence system.

More broadly, however, I have to agree with those who say that this shows once again the foolishness of giving unlawful enemy combatants in wartime the rights and processes of the United States criminal justice system.  Yet this does not even meet the standards of criminal justice.  Were these pictures arranged into a picture line-up, the “array” of pictures that prevents defendants from pointing the finger at the first picture they see.  The lawyers seem to be assuming from the beginning that they are being told the truth, yet photo arrays are designed to test the validity of their claims.  It’s easy to level claims of abuse, and we know that the terrorists are trained to do so.  Now they’ll have physical descriptions they can use, whether or not their claims are true.

4.  Promotional material for a forthcoming book from Tom Ridge, formerly the director of Homeland Security, suggests that he was pressured for political reasons to raise the threat level in the lead-up to the 2004 election.  If it were true that the Bush White House manipulated threat levels in order to win the 2004 election, it would be a damning fact–damning, at least, of those who were involved in the push.  Yet we have seen this before, where sensational charges are raised in promotional material that turn out, once the book is released, to be much tamer and more nuanced.  As the New York Times reports, Ridge has no evidence that he was pressured; just one point where, he now claims, wondered whether some favored raising the threat level because of electoral concerns.  This is pretty thin gruel.  Leaders of the former administration profess bafflement and insist that safeguards were put in place to prevent just such a thing.  And as Michelle Malkin notes, Ridge explicitly denied that he was ever politically pressured in an interview with Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times, in 2008, three years after he had left office–but when he did not have a book to sell.

The blogosphere on the Left will be all atwitter over this, and understandably so.  If it only comes down to a disagreement in the Fall of 2004 over whether bin Laden’s recent videotape justified a raised threat level, and Ridge wondering at the motivation of those who disagreed with him, it’s not only unconvincing, it’s actually rather irresponsible for Ridge to air such an allegation publicly and without proof.  We will just have to wait and see.

5.  The wife and I saw The Time Traveler’s Wife last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I have been a fan of Rachel McAdams for some time now (ahem), and we both like Eric Bana (critics notwithstanding), and both were excellent.  Again, however, the absence of any faith dimension is striking.  These people face life and death issues, and never once think about God?  In this case, there was not even an offhand reference to some generic sort of afterlife.  Why is Hollywood so determined to show us individuals who live their entire lives, and go through major events and challenges and trials, without even once speaking about faith?  Inevitably, the only transcendent element in movies like this is love itself, and the vague sense that your loved ones are always with you.  Is that it?  Is there nothing more?

6.  The Libyan who delivered the bomb that exploded on a Pan Am flight over Scotland (killing 270 people, 189 of them American) was released on “humanitarian” grounds due to terminal prostate cancer.  Presumably the release was guided by British law or custom, which (I’m speculating here, but I think I must be on solid ground) releases those who are imprisoned for life, if they no longer pose a threat, so that they can die at home.  It’s not an unreasonable policy.  This case may have warranted an exception; in my mind, in fact, it did.  But those who were even slightly irritated by the release of a person largely and maliciously responsible for the death of 270 people are going to be more than irritated by the sight of Libyans greeting him at the airport as a returning hero (see the video here).

7.  Much fuss has been made of the way in which MSNBC, it appears, cropped the video of a gun-toting protester in Phoenix in order to obscure the fact that he was African-American–and then Contessa Brewer, the MSNBC host, argued that these people were bringing guns to the protests because as “white people” they were racist and agitated against President Obama.  MSNBC responds that they were merely making a general point about the protesters.  This doesn’t explain the cropping of the video, unless her point is that it was justified in the service of a higher truth.

A “conservative” radio host (a supporter of Ron Paul) arranged the interview, enlisting fellow Paulites.  This is needlessly provocative, and does not serve the interests of second-amendment activists.  Bloggers on the Left are correct that the radio host should not have done so.  Yet the radio host did so in a manner that shows clearly that racism was not the motivation.  He arranged the matter in advance with the Phoenix police department, and told them he would be carrying his gun as a demonstration of his second amendment rights.  As for MSNBC, whether this is just “sloppy” work or deliberately misleading in order to support the opposition-to-Obama-is-racism meme is unclear.  It is true that the original video was cropped in such a way that viewers could not see that the protester was black, but who was responsible for that editing should be investigated.  If it is a deliberate deception, then Americans for Limited Government is correct that those involved should be fired.

8.  Finally, a brief reflection.  Bill Maher recently made news for saying that “America is stupid” and “too dumb to be governed.”  Asked whether he agreed, Michael Moore pointed to a chapter of one of his books entitled “Idiot Nation.”  “I think that says it all.  Sad, sad, sad.”  There is nothing surprising in these statements, given the sources, but both illustrate the sneering condescension that the intellectual and entertainment/media elite have for “middle America.”  Hollywood starlet Megan Fox recently said that if an alien robot invaded earth and sought to destroy the world, she would “make a deal with him…instead of the entire planet, can you just take out all of the white trash, hillbilly, anti-gay, super-bible-beating people in Middle America?”

It’s hard to know what to say to such comments.  The hypocrisies are many.  These beacons of tolerance are indulging in the kind of stereotyping that, if the target were less politically correct, would be universally condemned.  They would never dare speak in such a way about African or Hispanic Americans, regardless of their class, but they feel qualified, as upper-class whites, to ridicule lower class whites (Moore’s book was entitled Stupid White Men) who have not had the opportunities and breaks that they have.  Maher and Fox can take their vacations in the world’s most exclusive resorts, can drive the most expensive cars and live in the most fantastic locales, can sip their drinks and let out all their bile toward their own countrymen.  Moore in particular poses as a populist, representing the little guy against powerful corporate interests–and yet he clearly thinks that the little guy is an idiot, especially if he did not vote for Barack Obama.  The Democratic party seems to have the same problem.  It has a laudable history of identifying with the little guy, the downtrodden, the blue-collar working classes.  Yet its leaders today drip with disdain for the working classes–if they are white, and especially if they’re evangelical, Mormon or conservative Catholic.

Having spent the past seven years at Harvard, I can say that the same attitude is rampant in the upper circles of academe.  Middle American whites, if they do not vote Democratic, are irrational and largely ill-intentioned.  Their decisions cannot be explained according to reason and persuasion, so instead they have to be explained according to neurosis and psychosis, delusion and deception.  When I helped with a course on religion and politics, What’s the Matter with Kansas? was regarded with something approaching veneration, because it explained why Middle Americans were casting all reason aside and voting Republican–and the reason had much to do with religious manipulation.

I heard many foretell that Barack Obama could not possibly win the election because the country is too racist.  I told them I thought he would win, and they thought I was dangerously deluded about the prevalence (or lack of prevalence, in my opinion) of racism in America.  Of course, Obama won, and won handily.  You would think people would be happy to learn that their country is not as racist as they had supposed.  They were not.  They were too firmly ensconced in their scorn for middle America, especially the South.  All the election confirmed for them was that 46% of the country was racist.

In the church in which I was raised, many of the congregants would have to be characterized as blue collar whites.  Many, I’m sure, were Republican.  Some did not have college degrees.  Some thought that a Carnival cruise was a high-class overseas vacation.  Yet I always had respect for them.  Common sense goes a long way.  And all too often, advanced degrees come with their own kinds of pretensions and self-deceptions.

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