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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

It’s time to shine a light on the decentralized but reinforcing smear campaign against Barack Obama – a campaign that stretches from the extremist fringe to leading conservative political commentators

Note: this item by James Vega was originally published on March 10, 2009
To put this campaign into context, for a moment just imagine the following scenario. Suppose that John McCain had been elected president last November and by this point in time,

1. A minor Democratic presidential candidate had directly accused him of being a member of a secret Nazi organization. A second Democratic presidential candidate said Hitler and Mussolini would approve his policies.
2. A significant liberal journal of opinion had said that McCain was following Hitler’s political strategy and quoted Hitler to prove it.
3. The leading liberal commentators in the New York Times and Washington Post wrote commentaries about McCain’s program using political expressions with absolutely clear and unmistakable connotations of fascism (e.g. “Aryan superiority”, “racial purity”, “national culture” etc.),

If this had actually happened, not only would Fox News and company would go absolutely ballistic (justifiably, for a change), but many moderate voices would express sincere outrage and many Democrats themselves would be deeply – and vocally – disturbed.
But, guess what? This is what conservatives are doing to Barack Obama right now – and hardly anybody is raising a stink.

Here are the facts:
1. In an interview with a reporter from KHAS-TV, Former Republican Presidential candidate Alan Keyes said: “Obama is a radical communist, and I think it is becoming clear. That is what I told people in Illinois and now everybody realizes it’s true. He is going to destroy this country, and we are either going to stop him or the United States of America is going to cease to exist.” Mike Huckabee told the CPAC conference that “Lenin and Stalin would love” Obama’s policies.
2. Roger Kimball, co-editor of the respected conservative journal The New Criterion asks:

“Why would Obama inflict these destructive policies while the economy is collapsing? Simple. Each step strengthens the role of government in people’s lives…That’s exactly what Lenin sought to do. In a cheery volume called State and Revolution, for example, Lenin explains how:

The dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy….the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists.

Lenin, too, wished to “spread the wealth around.” And Obama, like Lenin, has been perfectly frank in recommending that we need to go beyond the “merely formal” rights enunciated in the Constitution in order to “bring about redistributive change” in society.

3. The leading conservative commentators in The New York Times and The Washington Post use buzzwords that any political science graduate or well-read person can recognize as directly rooted in classical Marxist and socialist theory.

Charles Krauthammer describes Obama’s “big bang agenda to federalize or socialize” the “commanding heights of the post industrial economy” and calls it the “most radical agenda of social transformation seen in our lifetime.”
Michael Gerson calls the budget “ideologically ambitious, politically ruthless and radical to its core…This is not merely the rejection of “trickle-down economics,” it is a weakening of the theoretical basis for capitalism — that free individuals are generally more rational and efficient in making investment decisions than are government planners
David Brooks (who has since stepped back from this approach) says America [is] “skeptical of top-down planning” and “has never been a society riven by class resentment.”Obama’s administration, on the other hand, is: “swept up in its own revolutionary fervor”, “caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it”, is “a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new”, “expands state intervention”, is “predicated on a class divide

Notice the roundabout way that this process works. On the one hand the columnists can argue with technical accuracy that they are not directly calling Obama a socialist or Marxist-Leninist — and from one point of view they are quite right. The quite evident purpose of their attacks are to not to smear Obama’s personal reputation but rather to demonize the basic ideas of progressive taxation and a robust public sector as policies that should be outside the pale of civilized discourse – ideas that can only be justified by un-American ideologies.
But at the same time, their comments unavoidably and unmistakably tend to imply and reinforce the more extreme accusations. With Rush Limbaugh bellowing that Obama is a “socialist” and Huckabee, Kimball and Keyes calling him a “Leninist” and a “communist”, it is simply impossible not to recognize that politically loaded terms of the kind the leading conservative columnists are using do seem to suggest some degree of sympathy for more extremist claims. The result is that the extremists feel a sense of partial “wink and a nudge” vindication while moderates and middle of the road voters perceive a kind of broad conservative consensus that Obama and his advisors actually are following a secret radical program to which they do not publically admit.
David Brooks realized that his column had contributed to this kind of unacceptable innuendo and, to his very real and substantial credit, the day after his initial column wrote a follow-up piece in which he carefully reformulated his position. As he said:

I had conversations with four senior members of the administration and in the interest of fairness, I thought I’d share their arguments with you today.
In the first place, they do not see themselves as a group of liberal crusaders. They see themselves as pragmatists who inherited a government and an economy that have been thrown out of whack. The budget, they continue, isn’t some grand transformation of America. It raises taxes on energy and offsets them with tax cuts for the middle class. It raises taxes on the rich to a level slightly above where they were in the Clinton years and then uses the money as a down payment on health care reform. That’s what the budget does. It’s not the Russian Revolution.
…I didn’t finish these conversations feeling chastened exactly. ..I’m still convinced the administration is trying to do too much too fast and that the hasty planning and execution of these complex policies will lead to untold problems down the road.
Nonetheless, the White House made a case that was sophisticated and fact-based. These people know how to lead a discussion and set a tone of friendly cooperation. I’m more optimistic that if Senate moderates can get their act together and come up with their own proactive plan, they can help shape a budget that allays their anxieties while meeting the president’s goals.

You should read the whole column. It distinguishes quite well between legitimate conservative disagreements over policy on the one hand and what is simply unjustified innuendo on the other.
Other conservative commentators like Krauthammer and Gerson don’t necessarily have to agree with Brooks’ quite dramatic re-evaluation of his position. But they owe it to their readers to display a basic level of personal intellectual honesty.
Here is the acid test: if they honestly think Barack Obama, along with Larry Summers and Obama’s other advisors are actually using Marxist or socialist doctrine to guide their thinking, they should say so, and provide support for their position. If they don’t really believe that this is true they should stop lending “a wink and a nudge” support to conservative extremists who make those accusations by using politically loaded terms that unavoidably suggest that they believe such accusations might have some element of truth.
That crosses the line from policy disagreement to character assassination and it doesn’t discredit Obama. It discredits them.
And, in addition, it’s bad for America.

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