Happy Friday the Thirteenth, everyone. It's actually a fitting day for this column, which I'll explain in a bit.
Because before we get to that, we simply must begin our column the way we do every week here, which is to call for the abolition of the Pentagon. Yes, as we've done consistently for the past 133 weeks, we demand that the Defense Department's budget be zeroed out entirely. Oh, and also that we immediately adopt a Canadian-style health care system. Can't forget that, as we've been railing about it for ever since Friday Talking Points, Volume One. And lest we forget, President Obama is nothing more than George W. Bush's third term. As I said, none of this will come as any surprise to faithful readers, since we've been saying this sort of thing all along, ever since we were massively disappointed that Dennis Kucinich didn't win the presidency.
Now, you'll have to excuse us, as we're late for our drug test.
What's that? This column has never said any of that, you say? Well, if that's true, it must be news to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who took the entire "professional left" to task this week for doing exactly that. He later narrowed this down to folks on "cable news," so I guess the Lefty Blogosphere is off the hook. Since, as fellow Huffington Post blogger Matt Osborne is fond of saying, "I'm still waiting for my first check from George Soros," I would likely only qualify for the "semi-pro left" or perhaps "triple-A minor league left" anyway, so I guess I'm not even included in Gibbs' sentiments. Whew!
Seriously, this was such a stupid thing to do less than three months from the election, that it must have been intentionally planned -- which is the truly scary thing about the entire fracas. Picture Obama and his top advisors sitting around the Oval Office last week, scratching their heads over why Democratic voters don't seem very enthused to go out and vote this year (as opposed to Republican voters who are positively chomping at the bit to cast their midterm votes). "Why are the president's approval ratings so low?" the advisors wonder. "What can we do to make it better?"
And then some bright spark decides that what Obama really needs is to woo independents and centrists back. And the easy way to do this is to pick up a two-by-four and beat the Left over the head, once again. Yeah, sure, that's the ticket!
As I wrote Wednesday, "With Friends Like These...."
Which brings us back to Friday the Thirteenth. Why is thirteen a "bad luck" number, and why is Friday particularly bad luck? Why are American buildings (many of them, at any rate) constructed with no thirteenth floor, instead jumping from "12" to "14" on the elevator buttons? Why are there traditionally thirteen steps to the gallows?
Two words: Judas Iscariot.
You see, Jesus Christ had a band of followers. There were twelve of them. Together with Jesus, this made thirteen -- which, quite obviously, turned out to be a bad luck number for him.
In other words, one of Jesus' loyal followers betrayed him, leading to his downfall.
I leave it as an exercise for the reader to draw analogies with this week's situation between the president and the Left (professional, semi-pro, and amateur). Before anyone complains, I'm not saying Barack Obama is the equivalent to Jesus Christ in any way, just to be clear. It's just a cheap journalistic trick to tie in today's date to what's going on in Washington, that's all.
Which leads into the rest of our weekly column, here, where we ceaselessly advocate eliminating the Pentagon, a Canadian health system, and Dennis Kucinich to be named president-for-life.
Oh, wait... in Gibbs' own words... "that's not reality."
There were slim pickings on the ground this week under the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week category, sad to say.
Partly, this was due to the fact that Congress is out on the hustings, instead of in Washington doing the nation's business. Oh, but wait! Both houses actually came back and voted on some things! Will wonders never cease?
The House returned to pass a woefully small bill for the purpose of sparing hundreds of thousands of teachers, police, and firemen from joining the ranks of the unemployed. Of course, since the Republicans are all about being "tough on crime," they all voted for it.
[Pause to allow readers to roll about the floor, laughing hysterically.]
No, of course, it passed on pretty much a party-line vote, with Democrats standing up for first responders and the education of the next generation of Americans, and Republicans standing firmly against saving jobs.
Over on the other side of the Capitol, the Senate briefly reconvened during their traditional August month-long vacation so that they could pass a sop to the "Seal the borders!" crowd. Rather than trying to tackle comprehensive immigration reform (as President Obama promised he'd do his first year in office... oh, wait, I see Robert Gibbs coming with a big stick, better move on quickly...), instead Democrats are trying to pre-empt Republicans in being "tough on illegal immigration." The whole thing was, as said previously, a sop, since the money allocated was less than a billion dollars -- which doesn't even qualify as pocket change in D.C.
But, reluctantly, we'll at least give an Honorable Mention to both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid for getting everyone back to Washington during August -- which happens about as often as pigs flying, we hasten to point out.
Instead, just because we are still mightily annoyed with Robert Gibbs, we're going to give this week's MIDOTW to none other than Representative Alan Grayson, for his response to Gibbs, in which he referred to the press secretary as "Bozo the Spokesman." That alone would likely have won Grayson the Golden Backbone this week, but he then continued on in the same vein:
I don't think [Bozo the Spokesman] should resign, I think he should be fired. He's done a miserable job. He's so far in over his head he'd have to reach up to touch his shoes. I'd like to see Gibbs show some frustration over 15 million unemployed Americans. I'd like to see him show some frustration over 40 million people who can't see a doctor when they need to. I'd like to see him show some frustration over the Republicans, who have blocked the president's plans and his programs ... They're the opponents for him, not the liberals.
Hoo boy, tell us how you really feel, Representative Grayson!
For putting into words the frustration of millions, who watched the president's leading voice absolutely take for granted the very people who got Obama elected -- again, less than three months before an election -- Alan Grayson is this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.
Hint to the White House: this is not the way to fix your "enthusiasm gap" problem, unless you're talking about Grayson's enthusiasm. Just a thought.
[Congratulate Representative Alan Grayson on his House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
Unlike the MIDOTW, we have an embarrassment of riches in the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week category. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it is what it is.
First, of course, there is Robert Gibbs. But I can't honestly give him the award, since I firmly believe that he wasn't acting as some sort of "loose cannon," but instead expressing frustration he was instructed to express. How high up this decision was made is unclear, but Gibbs' refusal to back down in his next public appearance told the whole story -- he had support for what he said, and was not being taken to any sort of metaphorical woodshed for doing so.
Next up, we have Representative Charlie Rangel, under an ethical cloud, who just threw himself a birthday party. This has already provided fodder for political attack ads against Democrats who attended his party, it is worth mentioning. But that's not the reason Charlie was in the running for MDDOTW -- instead, it was for the sheer political chutzpah of holding a birthday party two months after Rangel's actual birthday. What's up with that, Charlie? Was every single rentable hall in New York City booked solid for those two months? Sheesh.
Down in South Carolina, the Democratic nominee for the Senate race just got indicted by a grand jury for showing pornography to a college student and suggesting they go up to her room to discuss it further. Alvin Greene is the gift that just keeps on giving... to Republicans running for office this year, that is.
Narrowly escaping this week's MDDOTW ignominy was New Hampshire Democrat Timothy Horrigan, who thought it'd be funny, after hearing of the plane crash that killed former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens this week, to post on his Facebook page:
Just for the record, I don't wish Sarah Palin dead... but not merely for compassionate reasons. I also want her to live because a living Sarah Palin is less dangerous than a dead one. Her rise to the status of Head Tea Partier had nothing to do with anything she ever said, did or accomplished--- but as long as she lives she might be able to say or do things which could serve as a moderating influence. And she also might commit a gaffe bad enough to shock her followers, though that is unlikely. Unless of course she endorses Obama for President in 2012.
This is despicable. Now, we are no fans of Stevens or Palin, around here. In fact, we think they're two of the worst things ever to come from the state of Alaska. But, seriously, there is a line of propriety in politics, and that line is labeled: "Don't joke about the deaths of politicians, past or future." Horrigan crossed that line. The only thing saving him from the MDDOTW award this week was the fact that he promptly resigned his state House seat, and withdrew from the upcoming election. At least he recognized the magnitude of his error, in other words.
But, after handing out (Dis-)Honorable Mention awards to Horrigan, Greene, Rangel, and Gibbs this week, we have to bestow a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award to a second New Hampshire Democrat (insert: "something in the water?" joke here) who jumped on the "Die, Sarah, Die!" bandwagon upon hearing of the Stevens plane crash. Keith Halloran, who is running for a seat in the New Hampshire House, posted to Facebook something even more offensive than what Horrigan posted:
Just wish Sarah and Levy [sic] were on board.
Now, without getting into what, exactly, he's got against Levi Johnston (father of Sarah Palin's grandchild), this sort of thing is just beyond comprehension, as well as beyond the pale. You are an adult politician -- and not some teenager cracking inappropriate jokes. Facebook is not a private communications forum, your words are going to be noticed by the media. When will these people learn?
Halloran has yet to announce he's ending his candidacy, unlike Horrigan, who (to his credit) immediately did the right thing and ended his political career voluntarily. For not realizing the depth of his own stupidity, Halloran is awarded one of our two Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards. For shame, Keith, for shame.
Our other winner of the MDDOTW award is one of those things that almost flew below our radar here. But, as the Salon.com "War Room" column helpfully points out, the Obama administration is convening a gathering of knowledgeable folks to figure out a plan to deal with the housing crisis in America. They've invited lots of people interested in such things, but somehow Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner forgot to invite people who actually know what the heck they're talking about from any perspective other than that of the big banks. From the Salon article (well worth reading in full):
The Obama administration will prove that they have a plan to do something about the housing crisis by holding a housing conference next week, in DC. The event, called the "Conference on the Future of Housing Finance," has been organized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Treasury Department. Panelists include... well, a bunch of economists, finance industry representatives, bank officials, think tankers, and an academic or two. Not included: Any actual consumer advocates or community group representatives.
See now, this is what "the professional left" is upset about, Mister Gibbs. This is exactly the heart of the entire freakin' problem -- the Left isn't asking for everything on their agenda to be done yesterday, all they're asking for is a damn seat at the table. Which, consistently, they are denied by the Obama administration. Which is why they're so annoyed with you -- because, to be blunt, this is not the "change" they could believe in, and voted for.
Seriously, if the Obama White House can't understand the simple concept of "we don't want a veto, we just want a seat at the table," then how can they be expected not to get frustrated when "the professional left" pushes back against such blatant disregard? We should all just tout their successes instead, right? Come to think of it, we should probably just do away with the entire concept of the MDDOTW award for good, right? Well, maybe not.
For their monumental insensitivity and their complete lack of interest in hearing from anyone other than (as "War Room" puts it): "PIMCO, Wells Fargo, the goddamn American Enterprise Institute, the MacArthur Foundation, Moody's, and Bank of America" on the subject of housing, we hereby award Secretaries Tim Geithner and Shaun Donovan their own Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards. Way to fight for the consumer, guys! Way to stand up for the little guy!
Well, no. Because, once again quoting Gibbs, "that's not reality."
[Keith Halloran is a candidate for office, and we do not provide campaign sites here, so you'll have to search for his contact info yourself, sorry. Since the White House is really the one to complain to about Executive Branch foolishness, here is their official contact page to let them know what you think of their cabinet secretaries' actions.]
Volume 134 (8/13/10)
Perhaps you're thinking that I'm taking this whole Gibbs thing too personally. I hasten to assure everyone I'm not. I really don't think I was included in the "professional left" Gibbs referred to (especially after he clarified it to "cable news," on which I've never appeared). But my annoyance is borne not out of personal pique, but rather out of my own frustration with the job that Robert Gibbs and his boss Barack Obama are doing on the communications front.
They're understandably annoyed. I get that. They think that they've got a long list of legislative achievements (far longer, and more sweeping, than virtually any president at this point in his term), and that they're simply not getting enough credit for these achievements from the segment of the press that should be lauding them to the skies. No wonder they're confused, when all they seem to see on television is annoyance from the Left (not to mention what the Right is saying, which is far worse, of course).
But this is, bluntly, largely their fault. Not completely their fault, mind you, but the buck famously does stop in the Oval Office. They just have not been making their own case effectively, and then they wonder why nobody's out there making it for them. It's like hiring a bandwagon, but forgetting to hire a band -- and then wondering why nobody's jumping on it (or even noticing it as it silently glides through town).
As I said, though, this isn't entirely their fault. Other Democratic politicians, as well as the "professional Left" media also have a role to play, which they mostly fall down on.
I speak of the inability to frame things. The inability to use messaging. The inability to develop a political theme (or "meme," for our younger readers). The inability to reinforce each other.
To fully explain this, I'm going to pre-empt the usual discrete talking points this week, and instead give an example of how the Republicans do this sort of thing, and how Democrats have been falling short. We'll take it one step at a time. Picture a Republican in the White House, a Republican House, and a Republican Senate (if that's not too horrifying to imagine, this close to an election).
The Republican president, during a press conference, answers a question by giving it a brush-off, joking type of answer:
"Well, you know, it'd be just as easy to say that all of America's problems can be traced to left-handed people, since everyone knows that everything left is bad."
Before we get into the rest of it, please note the "during a press conference" part of that sentence. For those of you who have forgotten what the term means, a "press conference" is where the president stands at a podium and takes questions from members of the media. Then the president answers these questions, making his own case and showing America how he thinks about issues of the day.
OK, that preceding paragraph was a little snarky, I'll admit. But considering the fact that President Obama has given exactly (somebody correct me if I'm wrong, here) one primetime press conference in about the last year, you can see that I've got a valid point to make. The Obama White House complains that their message isn't getting out? Well, I don't know, how about trying to get your own damn message out by using the biggest damn media platform in the country a little more than once a damn year or so, guys?
This stuff ain't rocket science. If you want to put your spin on things, then you've got to step up, face the cameras, and make your own case. Refusing to do so, and then complaining that others aren't doing it for you is just pathetic.
OK, it's time to move on to Phase Two. Within hours (at the most, a day), every single Republican politician who appears on television is using some version of the following:
"You know what? The president's right. When he said 'all of America's problems can be traced to left-handed people,' he was just giving voice to the vast majority of American citizens who write with their right hands. America is a center-right country, and we think it is abhorrent that some people don't recognize that and continue to favor their left hands. Lefties are the root of what is wrong with America, whether you're talking about their politics or what hand they choose to write with."
You see, this reinforces the message from the top. Using exactly the same terminology, and repeating the soundbite endlessly cements the idea in the public's mind. The cable news "journalists" soon begin reinforcing this phrasing themselves, and start asking their questions using the "lefties are causing all America's problems" rhetoric themselves. This puts Democrats in the uncomfortable position of playing defense, pointing out things like "there have been famous Republicans who were left-handed" and that America's problems aren't quite so simplistic. Of course, nobody listens to them.
Instead, Republicans ratchet up the rhetoric. The whole thing takes on a life of its own (or, for our younger readers, "goes viral"). By the following week, GOP politicians are saying things like:
"We will be introducing a Constitutional Amendment soon which will outlaw writing with your left hand. It will also ban favoring your left hand when raising our nation's flag, throwing a baseball, firing a weapon, or making apple pie. This new law will also mandate that everyone begin wearing their wedding rings on their right hands as well. We want to, once and for all, stamp out the evil that is leftism in this great country of ours."
The Righty blogosphere, of course, will go along for the ride:
"OMG, you know what I just found out?!? The word 'sinister' means 'left'!!! I'm not kidding -- go look it up in the dictionary! ALL LEFTIES ARE SINISTER! Spread the word!"
Soon, though, a backlash develops. Not from Democrats (many of whom, by now, have timidly come out in support of forcing children born left-handed to learn to write with their right hands, as a "sensible compromise"), of course. Instead, from Major League Baseball, and from the hordes of women and men who haven't removed their wedding bands in twenty-eight years and who would require surgery to do so.
So the Republicans moderate their position slightly, and instead call for passage of the "Write Right Act," which forces kindergarten and first-grade teachers to teach everyone to write with their right hand. This passes in both houses of Congress (with a significant number of Democrats voting for it, by the way, who are terrified of the wrath of all their own right-handed voters).
OK, that may have been slightly over the top as an example, I will fully admit. But the process for building public opinion is no joke. The message has to start from the top. "Here is what we're going to do, and why it is a good thing for America." This should ideally come from the president himself, in one of his regular, monthly press conference appearances. At the very least, this is the sort of thing Robert Gibbs should be communicating on a daily basis. It then needs to be picked up and seconded by prominent Democrats everywhere. It needs to be the first thing out of their mouths whenever they're being interviewed, no matter what the question. This positive reinforcement is crucial and is often the weak link in the chain for Democrats.
Then -- and only then -- can the "professional left" pick up the ball and run with it. Oh, sure, there's bound to be disagreement around the edges on this aspect or that of whatever is proposed (being, after all, the Left), but the president and his press secretary will find that if Obama keeps banging the drum on the issue -- in multiple appearances before the media -- and if Democratic politicians are also on board with the basic concept, and speaking with one voice about the desirability of achieving it, then the "professional left" will indeed deliver for them. The Lefty media may not be quite as efficient an echo chamber as the Right (or "corporate") media, but when the message is a good one, the Left can eagerly get behind it, the president will find. If he starts the ball rolling, that is.
To be quite blunt, this is known as leadership.
And it -- not anything the "professional left" has been saying -- is what has been missing in the equation. When the president stops refusing to give press conferences, and when the president stops absolutely refusing to be interviewed by the "professional left" at any time or place, and when the president stops refusing to come out strongly for anything moving through Congress (other than in terms so vague and foggy you could swear you were in London) until sixteen minutes before it is about to pass, then and only then will I entertain the notion that the "professional left" isn't giving this White House and Barack Obama enough credit for their accomplishments.
Because, jokes about zeroing out the Pentagon budget aside, this is what this column has been saying all along, for 134 weeks and counting -- Democrats need to bang their own drum. Democrats need to toot their own horn. Democrats need to get in front of the people and make the case for what they're trying to achieve, and what they have managed to achieve.
While everyone along this chain has shown their faults (such as Democratic politicians' seemingly-inherent inability to stay on message, or the "professional left" always pooh-poohing "the good" in favor of "the perfect"), faults indeed exist at the top of this chain as well. I said it in my initial reaction to Gibbs' statement, and I will say it again: who would have thought that, once in office, Barack Obama's biggest problem was going to be a failure of communication?
Maybe he'll address it at his next press conference... next February, or maybe July. But until then, Gibbs and the rest of the White House need to do some self-examination before reflexively bashing the Left with a two-by-four. Because it is just not the best way to fix the Democrats' "enthusiasm gap" right before an election. And that, Mister Gibbs, is reality for you.
-- Chris Weigant