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.To build upon this theme, Nagourney uncritically quotes Senior White House adviser David Axelrod:
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.
"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.
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