In the Arena


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It takes a fair amount of amnesia for a political spinmeister like Pete Wehner–who spent six years spreading venom as Karl Rove’s designated hitter–to chastise various Obama capos for attempting to transform the GOP into the POL (Party of Limbaugh). It’s today installment of the OMG hysteria that has infected various Republican hacks as their ship sinks–OH MY GOD, Obama is going to sign a bill with earmarks! OH MY GOD, he wants national health insurance! OH MY GOD, the market is going down–must be Obama! OH MY GOD, another appointee with tax problems! He’s finished! He’s flailing about! (A Freudian would note a fair amount of projection here.)

There is, after all, a signficiant difference between the Bush and Obama Administrations when it comes to playing politics. Whether you like the policies or not–Wehner obviously doesn’t–the Obama Administration has laid an awful lot of substance on the table without political garnish, including some pretty difficult stuff, like tax increases, a cap-and-trade program and a stimulus plan that could prove to be too timid or philosophically misguided. Obama is taking a tremendous political risk in pushing for an alternative energy economy that might not prove robust enough to provide the basis for the new prosperity the President has promised. He is resolutely proceeding with a reasonable, realistic foreign policy that involves diplomacy as well as appropriate military action–the beef-up of forces in Afghanistan, the use of Predators and special ops in Pakistan. He has offered a daily flow of substantive events to promote these programs. 

In addition to all this substance, and in addition to a serious and continuing effort to involve Republicans in the formulation of policy, the Obama Administration has decided to fire some shots at those opponents who have done everything they can to distort important programs like the stimulus package and who, furthermore, have announced their patriotic hope that Obama fails at this moment of national crisis. That seems–pace, my colleagues–entirely within the realm of creative politics to me. 

Contrast this, if you will, with George W. Bush’s Administration: That President did have his principles and he was willing to expend political capital in their service–only a principled man would have dashed into the social security buzzsaw, as he did. I’m also sure Bush loved democracy and hated terrorists, even though his attempts to pursue both abroad were dreadful, blood-soaked failures. (Somehow Bush’s defenders never mention his principled insistence on Palestinian elections, even though the Israelis and moderate Palestinians opposed them in 2006–elections which brought us Hamas, which Bush–the democracy lover–then decided not to recognize.)

But even if you grant Bush his principles, his Administration–unlike Obama’s–politicized everything including foreign policy, which was both unseemly and unprecedented. Rove used the late, unlamented “War on Terrorism” as a cudgel to question the patriotism of those who disputed Bush’s prosecution of it. And, in an example close to Wehner’s born-again heart, Bush even politicized the office of faith-based and social policy–using it as tool to gin up the vote among the evangelical sheep, as David Kuo detailed in his excellent book, Tempting Faith.

I could go on, but why depress everyone with memories of the worst presidency of my lifetime? The point is, Obama playing politics is profoundly different in degree and kind than Bush playing politics. In any case, I’d be both amazed and rather worried if we had a President who didn’t play the game a bit.