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The Big Idea in This Election

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Posted on Sep 11, 2012
AP/Carolyn Kaster

By Mark Heisler

Meanwhile, in the War of Ideas ...

Remember that national debate on the issues the selection of Paul Ryan was supposed to herald, sparing us further discussion of President Barack Obama’s alienation from Americans and Mitt Romney’s tax returns and mode of transporting his dog?

Boring as that would have been, it was no surprise that we turned, instead, to Rep. Todd Akin’s gaffe, Clint Eastwood’s skit and distorting Obama’s salute to mentors, infrastructure and “the unbelievable American system” into the anti-business manifesto known as “You didn’t build that.”

Amazingly, since you never hear about it, there really is a Big Idea in this election, the chance that this isn’t just a choice of philosophies, but the long-awaited showdown between post-FDR Democrats and post-Reagan Revolutionaries with consequences as far-reaching as the elections of 1932 and 1980.

Dominant political movements overreach themselves, by definition. In the 1960s, it was the Democrats, whose arrogance expanded George Kennan’s policy of containing the Soviet Union to the “domino theory” in far-off Southeast Asia, where, as in Iraq in 2003, a “light footprint” was supposed to suffice, while launching a grandiose War on Poverty, ruling with a coalition that had come to extend from Dixiecrats to Yippies.


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Fifty years later, Republicans are coming off their adventure in Iraq, which they regarded as a video game with lots of chimneys to launch video-transmitting smart bombs into, while cutting taxes to keep us shopping after 9/11 and turning a budget surplus into the deficit the GOP now decries.

The Democrats pulled back the curtain, but if it left Romney looking like the Wizard of Oz, it’s because the GOP had run out of ideas that work.

In its intellectual death throes, Republicans offer unspecified budget cuts to protect the high-end earners and the military with a nostalgic reimagining of the way we were four years ago, when mutinous House Republicans’ defeated the bank bailout drawn up by George W. Bush’s secretary of the Treasury, Hank Paulsen, prompting a 777-point drop in the Dow, which had already fallen 15 percent in four months and would plummet an additional 20 before Obama took office.

The convention in Tampa, Fla., was an idea-free, reality-averse exercise, blaming the slow recovery on Obama, ignoring the GOP’s participation, or lack thereof, that saw it withdraw from governing in the most adamant resistance in post-Civil War U.S. history.

In the House, where in 1935 Republicans voted 81-15 for the Social Security Act, the GOP went 152-30 against the auto bailout, 177-0 against the economic stimulus and 178-0 against Obamacare.

Of course, if Romney had to talk over the heads of the delegates in the hall, championing immigrants and job programs to appeal to disappointed Obama moderates, it may have been a sign the GOP has left the mainstream, or vice versa.

Not that it was the GOP that was most responsible for holding up Obama’s health care bill for a year, or making sure he couldn’t get $1 more of stimulus.

Obama was abandoned by the left and right wings of his own base, from the day he entered the White House, after reclaiming it for the party that had lost seven of the last 10 presidential elections. Ambitious liberal Democrats mocked him as a wimp. Blue Dogs, cowed by their re-election challenges in the nation the GOP had turned center-right, fled fights on anything controversial such as single-payer health care, or worse, voted against the president.

Liberal pundits such as Maureen Dowd and Richard Cohen called Obama aloof, mocking his failure to effect the “hope” and “change” he had campaigned on as if they were reasonable goals anyone, even in the face of withering opposition, could achieve. The left was tacitly allied with a GOP it had no use for, blaming Obama for being unable to get the obdurate Republicans to engage.

On the eve of the Democratic convention, Politico ran a story headlined, “Obama, party of one,” in which an unnamed congressman, said to represent the feelings of a half-dozen prominent Democrats, noted, “I’ve been on Air Force One twice—with George W. Bush.”

Imagine Obama’s delight at reaching Charlotte, N.C., where even Democrats knew enough to rally behind him as they hadn’t since ... their last convention in Denver!

If the GOP’s lame show teed it up for them, the Democrats regained a long-missing eloquence, glossing over four years of failing to stand by their man in something we hadn’t seen before, falling in love all over again with their own sitting president.

Of course, if you can’t sustain the excitement for six months to pass legislation—as they didn’t in 2009 with a filibuster-proof Congress—it may mean you’re less a party than a loose confederation of selfish interests.

Charlotte offered a clinic in modern political virtual reality as former President Bill Clinton—finally—punctured the GOP balloon that had hung over Democrats’ heads like the killer dirigible dropping onto the Super Bowl in author Thomas Harris’ “Black Sunday.”

“We left him a total mess and he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough,” quoth Bill, in his version of the GOP pitch, “so we should get back in power.”

As brilliant and substantive as Clinton was, his riposte through the heart of the Republican myth had been obvious for the four years the balance-seeking, moral-equivalency-granting press let the GOP get away with it.

The real question is, why did it take so long for the Democrats to respond?

The answer: That’s how long it took the audience to listen.

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