Friday, December 25, 2009

NYT's Adam Nagourney Peddles New White House Attacks on Progressives

Adam Nagourney has written an article that purports to analyze ideological divisions in the Democratic Party. But the "article," which reads more like an op-ed, narrowly and incorrectly frames Democratic Party divisions in the same flawed terms as the White House has done: Obama, the pragmatist, is dueling with unrealistic and impractical leftist ideologues.

Nagourney repeatedly portrays Obama's progressive critics as political "outsiders," which supposedly makes them naive about politics and intolerant of compromise:
It is not just that the left wing of the party thinks that its centrists hold too much sway and are too quick to cave when faced with pressure from the right. It is also that this White House, stocked as it is with insiders, people whose view of politics is shaped by the compromises inherent in legislating, is confronting a liberal base made up largely of outsiders to the lawmaking process who are asking why they should accept politics as usual (boldface added).
Nagourney's portrayal of Obama's critics, however, is highly simplistic and deceptive. The growing list of progressives who have criticized Obama includes veteran lawmakers such as John Conyers, Maxine Waters, Russ Feingold, and Louise M. Slaughter. And while some of the more passionate critiques have come from independent journalists and writers, who are not professional politicians, that does not make these individuals ignorant of the political process or unreceptive to compromise. Instead, it simply demonstrates that they are either more liberal or freer to speak honestly, without worrying about maintaining access to the White House -- something Nagourney must consider when he writes his own articles.

Nagourney, however, chooses to rest his entire article on a simplistic dichotomy. To Nagourney, Obama is a results-oriented pragmatist, while his critics, especially Howard Dean, are ideologues:
As much as Mr. Obama presented himself as an outsider during his campaign, a lesson of this battle is that this is a president who would rather work within the system than seek to upend it. He is not the ideologue ready to stage a symbolic fight that could end in defeat; he is a former senator comfortable in dealing with the arcane rules of the Senate and prepared to accept compromise in search of a larger goal. For the most part, Democrats on Capitol Hill have stuck with him.

By contrast, Mr. Dean, the former Democratic Party chairman who has long had strained relations with this administration, said the White House was slow to fight and quick to make concessions — particularly on creating a public insurance plan — and demanded that Democrats kill the Senate version of the health care bill.
To build upon this theme, Nagourney uncritically quotes Senior White House adviser David Axelrod:
"The president wasn’t after a Pyrrhic victory — he wasn’t into symbolism. . . .The president is after solving a problem that has bedeviled a country and countless families for generations."
Earlier this month, Axelrod called liberal opponents of the Senate bill "insane."

Last week, I wrote an essay that criticizes the Obama-as-pragmatist rhetoric, which has flourished in response to liberal critiques of the Senate healthcare bill. Nagourney cannot resist employing this flawed script. The pragmatism rhetoric rests on a false understanding of political change. Historically, liberal change has been incremental. It has involved compromise. And it has involved dealing with setbacks from successful countermovements. But liberal change has never occurred in the absence of open and vocal criticism of politicians from progressives. Participants in abolition, suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, feminism and GLBT rights have all employed criticism (as well as compromise) to effectuate change.

The White House and Nagourney, however, continue to approach politics from an ahistorical perspective. Broad social change has only resulted from and can only occur with political pressure. Indeed, even the passage of the watered-down Senate bill occurred as a result of decades of activism on the issue of healthcare reform and from the political activism that secured Obama's election victory and Democratic majorities in Congress. The White House and Nagourney, however, portray the healthcare victory exclusively as the product of pragmatic politicians making deals.

Nagourney also accepts the White House's belief that liberal opposition will be irrelevant in November 2010. According to Nagourney, if progressives could not persuade one Senate Democrat to vote against the healthcare bill, then they cannot impact midterm elections. This is a simplistic understanding of politics from someone who believes he is educating his audience about the complexity of politics. Politics involves short-term defeats and victories. The passage of the Senate bill does not guarantee that the Democrats will not be vulnerable in 2010 (or 2012) to forces on the left or right. Senators undoubtedly supported the legislation for numerous reasons (party unity, etc). Their interests, however, do not determine the outcome of elections. Voters do.

Final Take: Nagourney's article falls far short from useful political analysis. Instead, it sounds like White House talking points designed to marginalize progressive critics.

Update: NYT's writer Ross Douthat continues the Obama-as-pragmatist rhetoric. His opinion essay, however, is far more intelligent and complicated than Nagourney's piece. Douthat considers the downsides of pragmatism and cutting deals, including the reality that: "sometimes what gets done isn’t worth doing. The assumption that a compromised victory is better than no victory at all can produce phony achievements — like last week’s 'global agreement' on climate change — and bloated, ugly legislation" (boldface added). I concur.

See also:

Criticizing President Obama Is Pragmatic

Rahm Emanuel Tells Liberals To Kiss His Arse

Liberals Battle White House Over Healthcare Reform

White House Shows Its True Colors on Healthcare Reform

Irrational Robert Gibbs Says Howard Dean Is Irrational

Salon's Glenn Greenwald Says: Blame Obama, Rather Than Lieberman

Why Is Obama Still Protecting Lieberman?

House Democrat Louise M. Slaughter: Scrap Senate Healthcare Bill

Obama Falsely Claims that the Senate Healthcare Bill Matches His Campaign Promises

Ezra Klein's "Pink=Blue=Colors" Logic Regarding Healthcare Reform


eric said...

The narrative that Nagourney and others have adopted to disarm/dismiss left critics of the health care bill derives from the same mindset that C. Wright Mills long ago diagnosed as "crackpot realism". That same mindset was likewise behind the narrative aimed against critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during the Bush administration, and is now being retold against critics of Obama's continuation of those wars. There is only small irony, and no real surprise, in the fact that some of those now spreading the narrative were, until a year ago, among it's most fervent critics. Mills -- who identified "crackpot realism" as an integral ideology of the power elite that dominates both parties -- wouldn't be in the least surprised.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Eric: Thanks a lot for your analysis. The crackpot realism label seems to work here.

Anonymous said...

Eric, this is pretty much exactly my thought (save the "crackpot realism" term itself, which is new to me).

The political weather at the moment feels like a deja vu from the early 2003, when we were bombarded by the most excellent and unassailable reasons to invade Iraq, and any dissent was squashed and/or ridiculed (and/or labeled traitorous). A very similar, if not exactly the same dynamic is playing out now with the so-called health "care" reform.

The vehemence of the White House attacks on the progressives who criticize it should itself be the reason to pause and reasses the situation, since such compulsive haste and vitriol, so clearly reminiscent of the pre-Iraq manipulation of the public opinion, cannot possibly reflect a sound judgment and policy. (And they don't. It's just that we are on to Obama's own "Mission Accomplished" moment soon -- and that's the whole point: to score a deceptively cheap political victory on the backs of American people. How sad and disturbing.)

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Elizabeth: "Sad and disturbing" -- sums up the situation nicely.

Anonymous said...

Darren, I couldn't bring myself to read Nagourney's article till today, and -- whoa...

You've gotta wonder what these guys in DC are drinking (maybe we all should get some of it).

N says,

And Mr. Obama never exhibited the left’s passion for establishing a public insurance option as part of an overhaul of health care. He rarely talked about it during scores of debates, speeches and interviews during the campaign; instead he focused on expanding coverage, lowering costs and ending health insurance abuses.

Alright, let the revisionism begin. True, Obama never had or exhibited "passion" for PO, but he promised, several times, that it would be part of any reform efforts endorsed by him and went as far as to say that he would not sign any bill without it (in July this year). But that was when he was already the president and not during the campaign, so apparently it does not count? Either that, or semantic tricks help revisionism.

As to Axelrod, I wonder if he's pining for The Most Deluded Presidential Adviser award. How does he imagine that people will be favorably impressed by the (questionable) benefits of this bill, which kick in 2014, to vote for Democrats in the 2010 and 2012 elections? That's some serious, um, optimism we're talking about.

I'm no overpaid political strategist, but it seems fairly obvious to me that if you want to get voters on your side, you should do something good and concrete for them NOW, before the elections. But what do I know.

Anonymous said...

BTW, did you notice that Nagourney's article is accompanied by the Dean's photo showing his now infamous Yeah! moment in 2004?

Subtle, huh, especially when juxtaposed with the picture of Obama looking somber and presidential.

The media did a quite job on Dean in 2004, finishing his chances for the presidency by focusing on the irrelevant and blowing it out of proportion. But that's neither new, nor surprising when it comes to candidates who are too progressive for the establishment's tastes. In Dean's case (but of course not only his), the toxic narrative continues seemingly unchallenged.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Elizabeth: The revision of Obama's record on the public plan has been startling. I have said this before, but I'll say it again. I can take compromise, but I cannot take dishonesty. IF, we needed to compromise on the public plan, then say that and move on. Instead, they are saying he didn't compromise at all. But, contradictorily, they are saying the Left doesn't know how to compromise.

I didn't notice the Dean Scream picture, but that is so typical of the NYT. The media concocted the scream, because for once in ages, we had a likeable, electable progressive. I did not become excited about the Democrats after that until Hillary Clinton. The Dean thing is still something that I should not discuss because it is such a great example of a media conspiracy to shift an election. Well, they did it with Obama versus Clinton too.

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