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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gulliver Among the Lilliputians

Reading Peggy Noonan is emotionally difficult for me. For one thing, she was the first of a breed that I find inherently obnoxious: the Celebrity Speechwriter. Perhaps it’s just envy, since I happened to have labored at that craft in total obscurity for decades. But there’s something, well, unseemly, about a ghost that is so all-pervasively visible, and so willing to take credit for the golden words uttered by employers who, after all, were actually elected to public office and bear responsibility for their deeds as well as their words.
But more importantly, ever since she obtained her own bylines and television gigs, Noonan has steadily “grown” into one of those imperious columnists who express exasperation at the idiocy and small-mindedness of politicians, particularly those who happen to harbor policy views at variance with her own. And that’s especially annoying when, as in her snarky take on the State of the Union Address for the Wall Street Journal, she is offering dubious and partisan “advice” to Barack Obama, designed to attack what he is doing while professing sympathy for his challenges.
There are no less than three such toxic bits of “advice” in the column in question. First, Noonan mocks President Obama for allowing Congress to push him around, unlike, of course, her first Big Boss, Ronald Reagan:

James Baker, that shrewd and knowing man, never, as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, allowed his president to muck about with congressmen, including those of his own party. A president has stature and must be held apart from Congress critters. He can meet with them privately, in the Oval Office. There, once, a Republican senator who’d announced opposition to a bill important to the president tried to claim his overall loyalty: “Mr. President, you know I’d jump out of a plane for you if you asked, but—”
“Jump,” said Reagan. The senator, caught, gave in.
That’s how you treat them. You don’t let them blur your picture and make you more common. You don’t let them call the big shots.

Aside from reflecting the eternal Cult of Reagan, these words certainly distort the actual relationship of the 40th president with Congress. Nothing was more central to the Reagan presidency than his initial budget and tax proposals. His budget director, David Stockman, wrote an entire book on how these proposals were mangled into a fiscal abomination by Members of Congress from both parties. It was entitled, revealingly, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed.
Quite likely Barack Obama erred during his first year by deferring too much to congressional committee barons on health care reform, and on the composition of appropriations bills. But that was a matter of degree, not some fundamental failure to pursue a Fuhrerprinzip that separates the Big Men from the small. Obama’s immediate predecessor was arguably a small man in genuine leadership capacity, but no one since Nixon has demanded more imperial powers. America can do without more of that.
Second, Noonan stipulates that Obama’s anti-Washington rhetoric is laughably in contradiction with his policy agenda:

The central fact of the speech was the contradiction at its heart. It repeatedly asserted that Washington is the answer to everything. At the same time it painted a picture of Washington as a sick and broken place. It was a speech that argued against itself: You need us to heal you. Don’t trust us, we think of no one but ourselves.

Now you don’t have to think too deeply about this to understand that Noonan is saying that “Washington” is “liberalism.” So “anti-Washington” sentiment is conservatism. Thus, presumably, for Obama to redeem the “change Washington” rhetoric of his presidential campaign, he needs to become conservative! What a brilliant idea!
This is all pretty ludicrous, of course, since recent conservative administrations (particularly those following Noonan’s exalted notions of presidential leadership) have been avid to use federal power to wage undeclared wars, usurp civil liberties, and preempt state regulations of corporations. Moreover, you can be angry at “Washington” not just for trying to do too much, but for trying to do too little, or for doing what it does poorly or corruptly. “Change” can be in any sort of direction, not just Peggy Noonan’s direction.
Third, Noonan extends an especially devious back-handed compliment to Obama (employing the hoary device of an anonymous “friendly critic” who seems to resemble Noonan herself) of suggesting that he’s “too honest” to undertake the obvious route of “moving to the center,” by which she means “moving to the right:”

“I don’t think he can do a Bill Clinton pivot, because he’s not a pragmatist, he’s an ideologue. He’s a community organizer. He mixes the discrimination he felt as a young man with the hardship so many feel in this country, and he wants to change it and the way to change that is government programs and not opportunity.”
The great issue, this friendly critic added, is debt. The public knows this; Congress and the White House do not. “To me the Republicans are as rotten as the Democrats” in terms of spending. “Almost.”
“I hope we have big changes in 2010,” the friend said. Only significant loss will force the president to focus on spending. “To heal our country we need to get the arrogance out of the White House and the elitists out of the Congress. We need tough love. We need a real adult in the White House because we don’t have adults in the Congress.”

So Obama can only be saved by a Republican victory in 2010 (the only “big changes” on tap), which will enable him to act as an “adult” on “debt,” which the people–and Peggy Noonan and Obama’s “friend”–understand as “the great issue.” (Never mind that it didn’t seem to be a “great issue” when George W. Bush was running up most of the debt we now face).
What’s really going on in Noonan’s column, beyond a remarkable display both of arrogance and of disjointed, illogical writing, is a theme we will hear a lot of between now and November. Republicans understand that for all his struggles, Barack Obama remains more popular and trusted than they are. Heavy-handed right-wing attacks on the president as some sort of treasonous monster can backfire, and also don’t comport well with the sort of well-bred sophistication that conservatives like Noonan cultivate. So Obama is Gulliver among the Lilliputians, held back from his better impulses by the petty spendthrifts of Congress and the hobgoblins of his own ideological and “community organizer” background.
If and when Republicans make big gains this November and succeed in completely thwarting Obama’s efforts to act as president, “friends” like Noonan will sadly conclude that he couldn’t overcome his shortcomings, and begin calling for a “real adult”–Mitt Romney, anyone?–in 2012. Bet on it.

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