Monday, October 20, 2008

November 5th comes early:
Newsweek’s conservative cover story tries to make winners out of losers, and vice-versa

It is paragraphs like this one that make it hard to get all dewy-eyed over the predicted death of the dead-tree media:

So are we a centrist country, or a right-of-center one? I think the latter, because the mean to which most Americans revert tends to be more conservative than liberal. According to the NEWSWEEK Poll, nearly twice as many people call themselves conservatives as liberals (40 percent to 20 percent), and Republicans have dominated presidential politics—in many ways the most personal, visceral vote we cast—for 40 years. Since 1968, Democrats have won only three of 10 general elections (1976, 1992 and 1996), and in those years they were led by Southern Baptist nominees who ran away from the liberal label. "Is this a center-right country? Yes, compared to Europe or Canada it's obviously much more conservative," says Adrian Wooldridge, coauthor of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" and Washington bureau chief of the London-based Economist. "There's a much higher tolerance for inequality, much greater cultural conservatism, a higher incarceration rate, legalized handguns and greater distrust of the state."

Writing the cover story for the October 27th issue of Newsweek, Jon Meacham wastes his magazine’s ink and its readers’ time arguing that the United States is (and always has been) a right-of-center country, and will continue to be, no matter what happens two weeks from Tuesday. Should Obama attempt to govern otherwise, Meacham opines, there will be hell to pay—most notably by the new President himself.

It is, firstly, an editorial masquerading as news—and that alone should earn Newsweek’s editors a harsh reproach—but the sheer number of factual and logical errors in Meacham’s screed, compounded by the dialectic straw men, sins of omission, and an over-reliance on conservative columnists and frustrated, fading DLC-ers for the framing of his argument, should make the news weekly’s entire subscriber base wonder if there aren’t cheaper ways to line a birdcage.

Let’s start with the paragraph above (though many others would prove my point equally as well). Twice as many people might “call themselves conservatives as liberals,” but when a self-described conservative can just as easily be a Wall Street CEO pocketing his bailout billions as he can be “Joe the Plumber” simultaneously relishing and ruing his fifteen minutes, I’m not sure what lesson we are supposed to learn from such a “fact.” (Further, as is mentioned in the piece, Rick Perlstein notes that after a generation of equating “liberal” with “all that is distasteful and alarming,” that side of the ID equation is messed up, as well.)

The real truth, as it has been for some time now in poll after poll, is that on the issues, American voters are what we used to call “liberal,” or “left-of-center,” or now might call “progressive.” Be it on the role of government, on minimum wage, on tax equity, the environment, universal healthcare, or stem cell research, the population of America is allied with the Democrats—and not so-called conservative or centrist Democrats, but progressive Democrats. On the supposedly more difficult and divisive issues like equal rights and pay for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals, the upholding of Roe v. Wade, and licensing requirements for guns, the preponderance of evidence again says that Americans are, in reality, liberal, whether they call themselves such or not.

That the United States does not elect presidents by popular vote should give anyone pause before declaring that the Oval Office is an accurate bellwether of our collective political proclivity; that fewer than half that could vote do vote should render it a non sequitur. In addition, it is hard to argue on the one hand that the Democrats that won the White House did so because they did not attach themselves to core Democratic ideals, but then contend on the other that their defeats and failures were rebukes of the Democratic Party.

I can’t dispute that parties on the European left are a measure further to that end of the spectrum than the US Democrats are as a party, but as many of the poll numbers alluded to above will show, the American people might be much closer to their European brethren than Meacham’s lot would care to believe. And, to Meacham’s use of Adrian Wooldridge, since when is “a much higher tolerance for inequality, much greater cultural conservatism, a higher incarceration rate, legalized handguns and greater distrust of the state”—even if true—an admirable space for a people to inhabit?

Almost every paragraph in the article is worthy of this multipoint takedown. For the sake of argument, let’s sample one more:

Like the apostles of Jesus who expected their Messiah to return in triumph before they themselves died, many liberals are almost certain to be disappointed in a President Obama. "I think right now people are in a pragmatic mood, not an ideological mood," says David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist. Perhaps, but on the off chance that ideology is on the mind of a voter or two, Axelrod's candidate has taken care to avoid the L word. Obama opposes gay marriage; talks about tax cuts, God and veterans' benefits; and is spending money to try to remain competitive in traditionally Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina and even West Virginia, where Hillary Clinton trounced him earlier this year. "I think he will govern a little right of center," says Harold Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman and chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. "He is not an ideologue."

Some number of liberals might, after a certain amount of time, indeed find themselves disappointed or frustrated with a President Obama should he fail to realize and take advantage of his political moment—but if they are, they will have a lot of company. If the electorate is left wanting—if Obama is stymied by obstructionist blocs in Congress, or just fails on his own to push hard enough for the change he seems to promise—then they might show less enthusiasm come the 2010 midterms. But that will not be because Obama was too much the liberal Democrat—it will be because he was not able to deliver the progressive policies that the majority want and perhaps will soon expect.

In that regard, Obama could be the next Clinton (though I hope that this will not be the case). However, keep in mind that when I make this comparison, I am seeing Clinton as a failure not because he was too liberal, but because his first two years failed to make real the liberal benefits he promised during his 1992 campaign.

As for avoiding the “L” word, if Meacham were to be taken at face value, if Americans are not keen to call themselves “liberals,” then why on earth would a smart candidate use that word? And that is doubly so when you understand that the term is as meaningless as it is problematic.

Let’s use Meacham’s own metric: Sure, Obama is on record as a opposing “gay marriage,” but he is, as are a majority of Americans, pro civil unions, and Obama is also staunchly opposed to the federal “defense of marriage” act. Legally defining marriage as solely the union between one man and one woman is the conservative position; Obama is opposed to that position—and America is, too.

Obama talks about tax cuts. . . for the middle class—a segment that has been squeezed by the conservative approach to tax policy. Obama is also just as open about advocating a return to pre-Bush tax rates on those making over $250,000, or the top few percent of the entire country. It is the conservatives—for lack of a better word—that want to extend the inequitable, failed, and unpopular Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest among us.

As for God and veterans’ benefits—since when are either of those the province of conservatives? In fact, in the case of the veterans, it has been the Democrats who have pushed for more and better equipment in the field, and more and better care at home. It has been the conservative Republicans who have opposed these efforts every step of the way, up to and including the new GI bill.

That Obama is now spending money and making campaign stops in “Virginia, North Carolina, and even West Virginia” (especially when he doesn’t necessarily need these states to win) doesn’t mean that he is acting less like a liberal—it means that voters in those states are noticeably turning away from Republican conservatives. That this bit of “analysis” made it into the final version of this article is only slightly more astounding than the idea that Jon Meacham, after submitting it, still has a job.

Meacham’s quoting Harold Ford Jr., a man desperately trying to stay relevant (and if he has to undermine his nominally fellow Democrats, so be it) is hardly worth mentioning. But it is worth mentioning what almost no one in the establishment media ever does: that conservative Democrat Ford was the only Democratic candidate for Senate in 2006 to lose his contest.

This is all but a sample of the inanity that is supposed to sell copies of Newsweek this week, but it would be too easy to just point at it—and its author—and roll on the floor laughing our asses off. Meacham, Ford, Ronald Brownstein, and David Brooks, and even those conservatives like Christopher Buckley that have more openly embraced Obama, are scrambling to remake the next president in something akin to their own image, even before he is elected. It’s a rough job—trying to both claim that they played a part in Obama’s post-partisan success while pre-chastising him for refusing to embrace the failed ideology of the conservative movement—but establishment outlets like Newsweek, the New York Times, CNN, and the National Journal are all proving up to the task. Without a substantial pushback from the other side—the liberal side—claptrap like Meacham’s might become a policy trap for the Democrats.

Newsweek does offer an asymmetrical counterpoint to Meacham’s “news” story. In a shorter article, indeed labeled “counterpoint” (a dismissive appellation, I must note—Meacham gives us a “news” item, while this is mere “opinion”), Jonathan Alter argues that “We’re heading left once again.” Where Meacham grandstands for caution, Alter contends that if Obama pulls his punches, he can’t possibly win the fight to re-right and de-right the country.

Alter points to FDR, who used his first 100 days to push bold and sweeping government initiatives. The depression might have lasted another eight years, but Roosevelt showed that he had heard the voters, that he was on their side, and demonstrated just what an engaged government acting in the public interest could do for its people.

We are again at a place where a president could and should do what FDR did, much to the chagrin of Meacham and the movement conservative minority. That they are in fact an unpopular minority shouldn’t be in doubt—just look at’s lists of most viewed and most e-mailed stories. In both cases, Alter’s “The country is heading leftward” is number one; Meacham’s “We’re a conservative country” is number two.

Is there any doubt on which side the presidential winner should be?

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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