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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Need Fries With That Nothingburger?

Perhaps it’s just a product of the late-August silly season, but I gotta say, the “Speechgate” furor of the last twenty-four hours is one of the emptiest headline-grabbing controversies in living memory. Sure, you can expect conservatives to rant and froth over every single thing the president does or doesn’t do. But is this really the proper topic for an angry intra-progressive debate?
Yes, it is entirely reasonable to wonder why the White House chose to pick and then lose so inconsequential a fight.
Beyond that, the micro-saga seems to have become yet another excuse for Obama’s progressive and/or centrist detractors and defenders to whale on each other.
This note at Salon from a detractor, Cenk Uygur, really caught my eye, because it did summarize the perpetual debate over Obama’s strategy and tactics, even as it prejudged its outcome:

[T]his leads to the eternal question of whether Obama is just weak or if he is a brilliant strategist who has been playing rope-a-dope all along. I am so silly that I still had hope. My hope this morning was that Obama was laying a trap for the Republicans. He picks a day for his speech that is the same as the GOP debate. Then if Boehner says he won’t let him give the speech on that day, he seems so petty and harsh.
That way, either the president gives his big speech on jobs and bigfoots the Republican contenders or the Republicans look disrespectful and petulant for turning down the president. Well, if you’re playing rope-a-dope, that’s not a bad maneuver. But it turns out that’s not what he was doing at all. He just stumbled into this problem and then stumbled out when he let Boehner dictate when he could and could not have his speech. That looks so sad.
You see, if you’re playing rope-a-dope, at some point you have to actually swing. When your opponent has worn himself out knocking you around the ring, you counter-attack. But that counter-attack is never coming. We’re holding our collective breaths in vain.

Putting aside Uygur’s prediction of what lies ahead, this analysis is exactly right in interpreting “Speechgate” as just another tiny brushstroke in the picture that will ultimately emerge of the White House’s strategy for dealing with an obdurate GOP that is obstructing action on a terrible economy. If Obama winds up looking like a feeble timeserver who has sacrificed the active support of his political base while failing to convince persuadable voters of the stark choice they face in November of 2012, then perhaps “Speechgate” is another small step down the road to perdition. If he ultimately gets re-elected while discrediting and dividing the GOP for years to come, “Speechgate” could turn out to be a little nudge in the direction of making Boehner’s House look like Gingrich’s.
As a thing in itself, though, it’s really the epitome of a nothingburger. It’s not like the president could propose anything in a “jobs” speech, whenever or wherever it is delivered, that could actually be enacted while actually making a major difference in the economy. As Jonathan Chait acutely explained earlier this week, it’s all about political positioning now. We all have our opinions about how that positioning should be executed, and how much responsibility the president and his advisers bear for bringing the country and the Democratic Party to this juncture. But it would be a good idea to refrain from pretending that every small maneuver in the political wars is an epochal event that proves the president’s fatal weakness or Machiavellian wisdom. Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, a soon-to-be-forgotte series of Beltway jabs and feints is sometimes nothing more than a late-summer diversion.

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