Monday, September 5, 2011

The Jobs Speech and the Bi-Partisan Failure of Leadership

The prelude to President Obama’s forthcoming address to a joint session of Congress has probably already generated more buzz than the speech itself will. Let’s face it, Obama’s speeches are more heavily weighted to the ornamental than the pragmatic, and the GOP will bellow in full-throated opposition regardless of what he says, even if he adopts the policy they themselves wanted twenty minutes ago.

The people who got Mr. Obama elected—progressives and labor—will be temporarily buoyed by the soaring rhetoric only to be profoundly disappointed a few days later when he trades away anything of substance in what are euphemistically referred to as “negotiations”: John Boehner or Mitch McConnell or whatever other corporate flunky happens to be in the room will demand something so outrageous that no rational being could even ask for it with a straight face, and Obama will give them about 98% of it. (To pick a number at somewhat less than random.) The corporate media will give equal credit for compromise to both sides, even though all the Republicans gave up was their initial insistence that Mr. Obama drop to one knee and sing “Mammy” at Eric Cantor’s nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.

So there’s a very real sense in which the speech itself will carry only a ceremonial function, if that. Still, a presidential address to a joint session of Congress to talk about what everyone says they believe is the number one issue facing the country ought to be a pretty big deal. Of course, it’s difficult to believe that either side, especially the GOP, really believes its own rhetoric. This Congress has been in place for several months now, and we’ve had legislation to restrict abortions, eviscerate the EPA, eliminate NPR, PBS and the CPB, etc. The party that claimed in the most recent election and its aftermath that its priorities were “jobs, jobs, jobs” has yet to propose a jobs bill. Funny thing, that.

The Democrats haven’t been much better, but at least they recognize that the GOP’s new-found interest in balanced budgets after years of profligacy cannot manifest itself solely through budget cuts without having a lot of people lose their jobs. Curiously enough, the Dems seems to think that cops and teachers and secretaries for government agencies are actually contributing members of society and of the workforce.

So… Obama decides he wants to talk about jobs, and although he apparently intends to circumvent Congress with a sizeable chunk of his plan, he wants to give a speech to them rather than to the rest of us. OK, whatever. But, of course, oh-so-coincidentally, he wanted to do this little exercise in pontification on Wednesday night. Let’s see… is there something else happening that evening? Oh, yeah, the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library, the GOP’s opportunity to worship yet again at the shrine of the man they all naïvely, ignorantly, and/or disingenuously purport to revere. I knew there was something.

In one of the most egregious fits of childishness of an administration that, not without reason, fancies itself the grown-ups in the room, Obama and his minions forged ahead. Apparently, John Boehner initially seemed amenable, but then a staffer probably reminded him that professionalism and civility were specifically outlawed by the creed of the new GOP. So Boehner, good soldier that he is, obeyed the marching orders of whatever corporate master called his private number first and became righteously indignant. Except… not really (see below).

The kerfuffle serves as an effective Rorschach test for all observers. The right-wing media were, needless to say, outraged at the maneuver: they call it “petty, hyper-partisan political gamesmanship,” “a silly request,” and “an unbelievable example of chutzpah.” They are in unanimous agreement that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was lying in his protestations that the proposed scheduling of the speech was not designed specifically to trump the GOP debate. And they’re right.

The left-leaning press, meanwhile, are outraged at the “unprecedented” rejection of President Obama’s proposed time. They noted that the debate organizers agreed to delay the debate by an hour to accommodate the Presidential address. They point out that this is the second of twenty (count ‘em, twenty) Republican debates, that no one is really paying any attention yet: front-runners four years ago at this time, after all, were Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. They cite the fact that Speaker Boehner didn’t watch the first debate, that it’s carried by only one television channel (MSNBC… let’s face it, there’s a healthy subset of Republicans who think they’d be possessed by demon spirits if their sets stayed tuned to that channel for an hour), that if, as both parties claim, jobs are the central issue facing lawmakers and the President alike, then having a Presidential speech on the subject immediately on Congress’s return from hiatus seems like the reasonable thing to do. They’re right, too.

It is certainly true, as James Taranto points out, that it’s really “supporters of both parties,” rather than Messrs. Obama and Boehner themselves, “that are squabbling.” I’m reminded of the closing scenes in one of the most under-appreciated plays of the 20th century. In La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (literally The Trojan War Won’t Happen, but translated—for reasons beyond my feeble ken—most often as Tiger at the Gates), Jean Giraudoux shows the heroes Achilles and Hector finalizing negotiations of a peaceful settlement even as their belligerent underlings are in fact starting a conflict that, once initiated, cannot but engulf both the Greek and Trojan civilizations. And, of course, we know that the war lasted a decade and resulted in the deaths of thousands, not least Achilles and Hector themselves. That Giraudoux was writing as much about current events (the play was written in 1935, when the prospect of a World War was still a spectre rather than a reality) is undeniable. But his portrayal of the systematic undermining of leadership by a cadre of bomb-throwers resonates all too well today.

In fact, it would offer some consolation to believe that Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner aren’t quite the irresponsible ignoramuses they appear to be in this exchange. After all, both official letters were professional and cordial. Obama’s calls for the need to “put aside politics and start making decisions based on what is best for our country and not what is best for each of our parties.” He says he intends to “lay out a series of bipartisan proposals… to rebuild the American economy by strengthening small businesses, helping Americans get back to work, and putting more money in the paychecks of the Middle Class and working Americans, while still reducing our deficit and getting our fiscal house in order.” He concludes by urging the Speaker (and the Senate Majority Leader) to “put country before party.”

Of course, he did so by demonstrating the precise opposite: the scheduling was perhaps the most stupidly partisan political gambit of his administration. We are presumably to believe that an administration already in re-election mode really thought there would be no public relations repercussions to such a ham-handed decision. (To be fair to Mr. Carney, the tape makes clear he never tried to pretend that the administration didn't know about the conflict, even though some right-wing commentators have accused him of doing so.) Our choices are that a). Obama’s people believed they really had an agreement, when any sentient adult would have waited to make a public announcement until the formal invitation was in hand, or b). they somehow thought there would be no political downside to acting like a playground bully. Not happy choices, these.

Mr. Boehner fares little better, despite the fact that whereas the overwhelming majority of left-leaning commentators are on record criticizing Mr. Obama, there are those on the right who think Boehner acted nobly. At first glance, he did. After all, his letter to the President, though slightly partisan (as was Obama’s), contains phrases like “thank you,” “I agree,” and “look forward to hearing your ideas.” It never mentions the debate at all. The stated reason for asking the President to compete with the opening game of the NFL season instead of with a debate that I can’t imagine more than 10% of the population would watch at gunpoint was logistical: the need to adopt a Concurrent Resolution on short notice and security issues. The Speaker suggests the following night, when there would be “no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks.” I mean, really, how accommodating could he be?

Except, of course, for the fact that everyone—left, right and center—knew damned well he was lying about the reason for the delay. I won’t claim to have read every article, watched every news clip, or scoured every blog on the topic, but I’ve certainly read a lot. I’ve yet to find anyone of any political stripe who believes that either a). Boehner’s letter was prompted by its stated rationale or b). it wasn’t intended to disrespect the President (there’s dispute over whether Obama deserved to be thus disrespected, but that’s another matter).

Luckily for Mr. Obama, the Speaker of the House is just as silly and politically tone-deaf as the President of the United States. (How jolly for the rest of us!) Even a twit like Charles Krauthammer gets this one right:
If he [Boehner] had just accepted this, the President would look small for stepping on the debate. Secondly, I think the Republicans could easily have moved the debate to 9:00 o’clock, and then had eight people on the stage gang up on Obama with essentially the biggest response to a Presidential speech ever done, rather than one person in a room with a camera… which never stands up to the majesty and the grandeur of a Presidential speech in Congress.
Krauthammer is thinking in purely political terms, but there are other reasons to believe that Boehner’s posturing is problematic.

For one thing, don’t you think it’s a little outré for the de facto leader of a major political party (at least until there’s a Presidential nominee) to be so… dare I say it… unpatriotic as to dis the POTUS? When the President of the United States asks for a moment of your time, you freaking give it. Period. Secondly, does the prevarication need to be quite so transparent? Finally, to the extent that Mr. Boehner is supposed to be the leader of the Republican majority in the House, isn’t it fair that he accept at least some of the responsibility for the even more irresponsible and juvenile antics of Joe Walsh (yes, the one who owes $100K+ in back child support), Todd Rokita and (of course) the reliably loathesome Eric Cantor and Jim DeMint?

But ultimately, the buck stops at the desk of the POTUS. A.B. Stoddard sums it up pretty well:
And they [the President and his team] absolutely knew, even if John Boehner said, “You’re welcome here on Wednesday, September 7, at 8:00 pm,” they knew that that long-scheduled debate was taking place. And this was the kind of thing that was going to come up regardless. It’s just too cute. And it’s not the type of thing that they should have done if they wanted the whole attention and the focus of independent voters, who can’t stand these kind of reindeer games, anyway, but might be shopping the Republican ticket eventually, or considering staying with President Obama, and wanting to also hear his jobs message, perhaps on another evening. It was just a bad call to begin with, no matter how silly the Republicans were in their response.
So it’s time to generate a final grade for both the principal players in this brouhaha, based on ethics, maturity, and political savvy:
Obama: F

Boehner: were I in a good mood, I could swing a D-. Do I seem to you like I’m in a good mood?

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