By Bob Cesca: I hate to beat this to death, but the more I think about Clint Eastwood's convention performance art, the more I'm convinced he's a satirical genius. The idea of attacking a a nonexistent (or invisible) Barack Obama is perhaps one of the most popular activities in American politics, and Eastwood might have accidentally stumbled onto this previously nameless past-time. It's everywhere -- and not just the purview of doddering old men.
Yesterday, I engaged in a very brief Twitter exchange with John Heilemann, cohort to Mark Halperin and co-author of Game Change. I noticed an article in which Heilemann asserted that President Obama not only "hates" (my word) people but he also "hates" (also my word) politics. I blurted something about it on Sulia.com, and Heilemann responded via Twitter.
Heilemann's right, of course. He never said the word "hates." He merely said the president "doesn't like" people and politics, unlike Bill Clinton who has an unquenchable zeal for both.
That said, there's really not much of a semantic difference between "hates" and "doesn't like," especially since a dictionary synonym for "hate" is "dislike." Regardless, I would rather have seen Heilemann respond to my post itself because it's inconceivable to me that anyone could reach the station of President of the United States while possessing a dislike of politics. That'd be like an astronaut who doesn't like flying, but loves bounding around on the moon. Furthermore, there's a chasmic gap between Bill Clinton's unrivaled enthusiasm for politics/people on one side and disliking politics/people on the other. President Obama, like almost everyone to hold the office of the presidency, resides somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. They'd have to. Politics and the presidency are inextricably linked if not synonymous, but very few if any presidents loved the game as much as Clinton.
Elsewhere, Bob Woodward is getting ready to release a new book which details last summer's remarkably insane debt ceiling negotiation between the White House and the congressional Republicans (freshly infused with midterm tea party radicals). Woodward appears to be pushing a point of view that President Obama bungled his way through the proceedings.
He points to an event that occurred at the 11th hour when John Boehner refused to accept the president's proposal for tax increases as an additional savings in the debt reduction package, even though the president had agreed to politically-damaging entitlement cuts. The talks collapsed and Woodward, echoing a Harry Reid staffer, blasts the White House for not having a "Plan B." I'm not exactly sure what a "Plan B" might look like considering a Republican House that vowed to not only vote against everything the president has wanted, no matter how many concessions he makes, but to also bring down his presidency by sabotaging the economy.
The only two options beyond fair, reasonable, adult negotiation were 1) letting the default occur, or 2) letting the childish and destructive tea party have their way. The former is inconceivable to any responsible leader. In fact, it was the radical tea party Republicans who pushed the issue in the first place even though precedent throughout recent history was to pass the debt ceiling increase without fanfare or political brinksmanship. Woodward wrote: "Although running things is a joint venture between the president and Congress, a president has to dominate Congress — or at least be seen as dominating Congress." A president used to be able to negotiate with -- or "dominate" Congress before the Obama years when Republicans decided that lawmaking was secondary to obstructing the president. Consequently, we're in a time of record filibusters in the Senate and viscerally lockstep anti-Obama votes in the House.
Woodward told ABC News, "President Clinton, President Reagan. And if you look at them, you can criticize them for lots of things. They by and large worked their will. On this, President Obama did not. Now, some people are going to say he was fighting a brick wall, the Republicans in the House and the Republicans in Congress. Others will say it's the president's job to figure out how to tear down that brick wall. In this case, he did not."
I think Woodward has either lost his marbles or he simply doesn't understand Republican politics, 2009-2012. No, the president hasn't been pitch perfect during legislative negotiations, but what the hell can anyone expect to achieve against a group of apoplectic thugs who would've actually scored points with their myopic supporters by allowing the United States to default on its debt (they would've blamed Obama for the default, of course)? Yet Woodward seems to think the president was imbued with some kind of superhuman formula for busting through this impenetrable tea party wall. (By the way, for all of his political intuition and love of the game, Bill Clinton couldn't stop a significantly less-radical Republican Party from embarrassing him on healthcare and ultimately impeaching him.)
Next up, Rand Paul tried to get away with the whopper lie that President Obama has significantly increased the government work force and, thus, the physical size of government. He tried to weasel this one onto television via This Week with George Stephanopoulos the other day -- with Paul Krugman sitting across the table no less.
Every bit of empirical and mathematical evidence shows Rand Paul is either lying or horribly mislead, and when Krugman told him that he was wrong and that there are far fewer government employees under President Obama than under President Bush, Rand Paul seemed noticeably shocked by the reality of the situation. Naturally, Rand Paul wants his people to believe in a fantastical chunk of hooey that goes like this: "Crazy Liberal Obama Is Building A Massive Communist Government and We Must Destroy Him." Not only are there 600,000 fewer government employees now than under Bush, but if Obama had grown the size of government at Bush's higher rate of growth and hiring, there would be more than and million Americans with public sector jobs right now.
And finally, Mitt Romney delivered yet another big lie yesterday that falls squarely in the Invisible Obama category.
ROMNEY: I believe it’s important to have a president and I will be a president, if elected, that honors that pledge and all the pledges that I made. [The Pledge of Allegiance] says that we are a nation under God…. If I become president of the United States, I will not take God out of my heart, I will not take God out of the public square and I will not take it out of the platform of my party.
First, the notion of Romney "honoring pledges" is hilarious. But he seems to imply here that President Obama removed "God" from the party platform. Fact: Obama did the exact opposite. The word wasn't in the platform in the first place and the president personally asked that it be shoved back in there. Everyone knows this. Furthermore, when the issue of the "personhood amendment" in the Republican platform came up, along with the correct observation that such an amendment without explicit exceptions would effectively criminalize abortion even cases of rape, the Romney campaign insisted that the party platform and the nominee were mutually exclusive -- that Romney simply couldn't do anything about the party of which he's the ostensible leader.
There are plenty of legitimate things to say about President Obama, both positive, negative and neutrally observational. Why make things up? Why fight an invisible Obama? The simplest answer is probably the best one here. It's easy. When it comes to the Republicans, it's not only easy but the base will believe anything negative about the president no matter how absurd. In terms of journalists like Woodward, Heilemann and others, it's all about an ongoing competition to come up with the best and most insightful nugget of conventional wisdom -- no matter how absurd.
Concurrently, there's been a perpetual and unreasonable heightening of expectations created for this president that bear very little resemblance to anything he promised to accomplish, both in terms of style and substance. Why didn't he immediately end the war in Afghanistan? Why hasn't he returned the economy back its 1999 glory days out of the depths of the worst recession in 80 years, or rolled back 10 years of deficits and debt? Why hasn't he crushed an intransigent tea party and its singular agenda of destroying his presidency? Why hasn't he provided every American with jetpacks made of fudge? It must be because he hates politics or he's a fumbly Washington dilettante or he's a waif-like nerd locked in his room with a stack of comics and Warcraft on his computer. We've heard these lines over and over again, minus the jetpacks thing, and there's not a realistic, fair or factually justifiable word in the litter.
We seem to have entered a post-reality era in politics when it's easier to scream at invisible enemies than to make the effort to dig for the truth. It's partly the consequence of the traditional press and its kneejerk mandate to present all sides as equally wrong -- and when everyone is wrong, nobody is. And it's partly due to an unhinged Republican Party that's uninterested in precedent, legislative tradition or basic compromise. Now that we're buried within this meta-narrative in which nonsense and gibberish are presented with equal validity as facts and reality, anything goes.
And yet everyone, Republican, Democrat and Pundit alike, collectively shouted, "WTF?" at loopy Clint Eastwood for criticizing an empty chair. Given the years of hooey and fiction tossed in the president's direction, Eastwood's meltdown might've been the least egregious display of arguing with a nonexistent Obama we've witnessed to date.