Thursday, February 2, 2012

What we can learn from the Romney/Gingrich slugfest

For all of you Obamabots out there - remember how sick and tired we got of hearing complaints from the left about how President Obama needed to throw more punches at the teapartier Republicans? The thinking behind this kind of thing has been that a verbal punch in the face is more effective than out-maneuvering them. In other words, braun beats brains.

I couldn't help but think about that as I read Al Giordno's take on what just happened in Florida.

But the costs of this victory to Romney go far beyond the $17 million in attack ads he and his Super PACs deployed to stop – now for the second time in a young campaign – the rise of rival Newt Gingrich. Hell hath no wrath like a Gingrich scorched. The former House Speaker is the Keith Richards of US politics: no matter what debauchery he passes through he never dies. Newt is the zombie candidate. Burn him, bomb him, poison him, hack him into a thousand pieces and he quickly reassembles and gets back up again, madder than before and coming right back at ya'.

This is what sociologists call backlash and its something our macho-infused culture seems to not understand at all. How does Gingrich (representing the tea partiers at this point) respond to the nose punches Romney dished out in Iowa and Florida? Does he simply wither and go away? I think not! He comes back with an even more deadly scorched-earth approach. Its what Gandhi was referring to when he said that "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind"...everyone loses.

David Frum gets it and that's why he worries about a Romney win in the primaries coupled with a loss in the general election - it will lead to a tea party backlash.

For non-tea party Republicans, this second outcome opens all kinds of ugly, ominous possibilities. If candidate Romney loses, tea party Republicans will claim that the GOP lost because it failed to nominate a "true conservative." That claim may fly in the face of political math (how would a more extreme candidate win more votes?), but it will pack a lot of emotional punch. Intense partisans are always ready to believe that the way to win is to be more intense and more partisan.

There ARE alternatives to the tit-for-tat nose-punching that feeds backlash. In perhaps the most macho arena of all, Mohammed Ali showed us that "float like a butterfly - sting like a bee" can be successful against braun any day. What it takes is the endurance to engage the "long game" rather than going for the immediate knock-out and the smarts to know just the right moment for the bee sting (my gawd, where was Michael Moore and his talk about "tutu's" when Ali was referencing butterflies and bees in the boxing ring?)

Remind you of anyone?

16 comments:

  1. As one of those "just hit back, damnit" types, I have to admit Obama seems to know what he's doing. Who knew a Chicago Pol would know how to move people???

    Actually, I sincerely believe that Obama's background of community organizing lead him to act (not be, but act) somewhat naive vs the senate R's.

    In the community, no man is an island. You can put pressure on a recalcitrant person/ employer/business person/etc from the locals who support you. You can force the other side to become involved, talk and see the other side or risk becoming an excluded pariah.

    In the Senate, you are talking to people who cannot be forced to associate because the associations that put them there are many and varied and often have nothing to do with population of the state they "represent". On top of the reality that most states are a menage of many associations, Many senators represent interests that are totally divorced from the geographic area they are associated with.

    The available levers are just not there. Once Obama got over the trap of thinking that almost everyone can be moved a little, he began to take steps to contain the damage. He began to play the cards such that even if he got nothing real, the perception of reality favored him. That this happened as the bulk of the people in the US were waking up to the recalcitrant reality of the Senate R's is not happenstance.

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    1. I see a very different strategy employed by Obama when he was dealing mostly with moderate Dems in the first Congress to tea party Republicans in the second. Whether the initial moves were a result of naivete or simply not wanting to alienate allies is a good question.

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  2. Best not to confuse Obama's management objectives with his political ones. More precisely, we should distinguish between the desired objects/outcomes of POTUS' strategies, and other possible consequences attendant to those strategies.

    It's become my view, after looking at BHO's background and professional history, that his inclusive approach to government and conciliatory attitude toward partisan negotiation are simply and honestly representative of his preferred decision making methodology and leadership style.

    When Obama highlights the expressed higher ideals of his opposition earnestly and unironically, when he deals on an equal basis without overtly exerting positional or popular advantage, when he concedes to rhetorical demands as a starting point for discussion it's because these things tend to remove obstacles and promote pathways toward consensus action in a fractious team environment. The *aim* is to produce real political actions which deal in a generally positive way with the target issues he's identified as Chief Executive. The *benefits*, which I am absolutely confident Mr. Obama works conscientiously to his advantage, include the sort of heightened visibility of bad-faith actors that a more partisan or confrontational approach would not deliver.

    I disagree then that the idea that "everyone can be moved a little" is a trap that Obama failed to anticipate. I think he's been quite aware of the recalcitrant parties from the start but refuses to spend his time defining and deepening partisan entrenchments. "Moving" people & things is the core of an executive's job, and Barack Obama is in the WH to do that job to the best of his ability. The change in tactics after the Tea Party invasion of 2010 reflect the darker political context rather than any deeper awareness on Obama's part. And note that he's responded to the GOP's deeper entrenchment by trying to flank them through executive action rather than cheerleading any trench digging on the Democratic side.

    I think President Obama's commitment to being the adult in the room is definitely the major part of his political strategy, but more importantly it's the heart of his managerial long game. It's the box in which all of his executive tools are kept, and the platform from which he chooses to operate as an agent of change.

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    1. Wow! If you ever write that in a post, please let me know. I'd love to cross-post it here or at least link to it.

      More than any other, this is the message I keep trying to get out there in one way or another. When we begin to understand the president's style, so much of what he does makes sense.

      I write pretty regularly about "conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy" and you captured that perfectly here:

      When Obama highlights the expressed higher ideals of his opposition earnestly and unironically, when he deals on an equal basis without overtly exerting positional or popular advantage, when he concedes to rhetorical demands as a starting point for discussion it's because these things tend to remove obstacles and promote pathways toward consensus action in a fractious team environment. The *aim* is to produce real political actions which deal in a generally positive way with the target issues he's identified as Chief Executive. The *benefits*, which I am absolutely confident Mr. Obama works conscientiously to his advantage, include the sort of heightened visibility of bad-faith actors that a more partisan or confrontational approach would not deliver.

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    2. I'm reading Alinsky for the first time finally after so many references to Obama's "Alinsky style radicalism" from the conservative commentariat (and some recent sniping from Left Blogistan bemoaning a lack of perceived Alinskitude in the president). It seems to me there's a clear influence community organizer Saul had on community organizer Barack, but there's also some clear distinctions to be made, both functionally (activist agitator vs. elected officer) and dispositionally. I have in mind an essay that makes some of the same points I made in the comment above; I'd be delighted if you find it worthy of a link (assuming I make time to post it).


      Off topic - I thoroughly enjoy the clarity, honesty and fairness you exhibit in your comments here. Thank you for your contribution to progressive sanity over the years!

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    3. I feels to me that you are not correct, but your arguments are too coherent, self-explanatory, and to damn sensible to argue without some pretty intense study on my part.

      If I understand correctly, you put forth the position that POTUS managerial style requires the balancing of pragmatics with principle. Further, that pragmatics cause the parsing of principle in the interest of keeping one issue from holding hostage many others. A difficult balancing act, to be sure.

      Thus DADT was aggressively pursued as a principle of equality because it was felt that it was possible to win absolutely and with little or not chance of reversal. DOMA, on the other hand, is the same principle of equality, but with far less chance of a successful outcome, and the surety of an absolute firestorm.

      I don't know. Sounds like pretty coldblooded, realpolitik triangulation to me. But then, I always have like my liberals of the self-immolation variety. 46 years south of the Mason-Dixon line will do that to ya.

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    4. My argument is simply that Obama chooses to run his administration according to the context within which it operates. This means that any application by the President of his own principles must coordinate with, amplify or at least support the principles enunciated in our nation's charter documents, asserted in the various political party platforms, explicated by legislatures and jurists and implied in the ballot boxes by the electorate.

      By acknowledging and validating the different points of view in active play within the country and the Federal government, the President hopes to build on the points of agreement between partisans, and he's said on many occasions that he believes these far outweigh the disagreements.

      That's the theme of this "post-partisan" presidency, I think. By focusing on those shared moral values, I think he truly believes (as do I) that a progressive shift will occur. (Facts may have a well known liberal bias, but truth and justice tend to subtly skew that way as well.)

      Now, I've based this impression purely on a face-value acceptance of Obama's speeches and public actions. That goes against my native cynicism but so far I haven't seen any cause to doubt his sincerity, or to see nth-dimensional chess moves hidden within the remarkable consistency he's shown in word and deed.

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    5. Nth Dimensional chess moves? I love it when you talk dirty.

      Unfortunately for the overinflated sense of my rightness in everything, what you say makes sense. I don't think my original idea was wrong, it just wasn't right. So what else is new?

      Occam's razor is on your side. Those screeching sounds are the gears in my head readjusting.

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    6. That's actually pretty impressive on your part, DerFarm. Most mental gears don't adjust without a bigger wrench than I just provided. Good on ya.

      For the record, I don't think I'm entirely correct, and I know you're not entirely wrong. I just think Obama's political calculus for any given issue, regardless of pragmatism or expediency, includes application of the general principles he claims.

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    7. Great discussion here!!! Thanks to both of you.

      Ryan Lizza wrote an interesting article in 2007 about Obama the organizer. There's this tidbit about where he parts ways with Alinsky:

      But, although he was a first-class student of Alinsky's method, Obama also saw its limits. It appealed to his head but not his heart. For instance, Alinsky relished baiting politicians or low-level bureaucrats into public meetings where they would be humiliated. Obama found these "accountability sessions" unsettling, even cruel.

      If anyone is interested, Allan at "The Angry Black Lady Chronicles" (on my blogroll to the left) is leading a book group chat (on Saturdays I believe) on Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals."

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    8. Oops, meant to include the url for the Lizza article:

      http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/Articles/bobamasunlikelypoliticaledu.html

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    9. Great article, Smartypants! Thanks for the link.

      Lizza touches on one of the essential things about Obama that I haven't seen so far in Alinksy (not done reading Rules for Radicals quite yet, though); Obama draws a much bigger circle around the "community" being organized. He's not after solutions that don't recognize the interests of all parties. It's part of his appreciation for "the world as it is" that he never treats the powerful unfairly or belittles their interests - because he wants more from them than short term concessions or abdications of power, he needs their strengths as well for the long term changes to succeed. It's interesting to look at what he's done regarding Wall Street in light of that sort of power analysis.

      Lots of food for thought here...

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  3. My poor head is swimming, although my mental gears didn't need a lot of adjusting having already been oiled by SP's 'conciliatory rhetoric & ruthless strategy' arguments. Despite the swimming head I did manage to notice Botelho voicing something I believe strongly, and that I express as 'PBO is a man of his word.' This aspect of the president's political character and MO greatly affects me because I've never before noticed it practised so consistently in politics. So, I too have

    " ...a face-value acceptance of Obama's speeches and public actions.... so far I haven't seen any cause to doubt his sincerity, or to see nth-dimensional chess moves hidden within the REMARKABLE CONSISTENCY HE'S SHOWN IN WORD AND DEED."

    Thank you all for straining my frequently under-used brain. ;-)

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  4. Strained my poor brain to the point of breaking. I got totally lost.

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  5. I absolutely love this discussion, Smarty! And I am in agreement with as much of what Botelho says as I can understand. I have felt particularly put-off by claims that President Obama has finally learned from his battering not to be so naive. I don't think you get to where he has gotten by being naive, and certainly not by what the president today called "phony religiosity." He seriously believes that viewing the full humanity of his opponents benefits the whole community and his ultimate goals in the long run. His faith is nurtured by reason, and his reason by his faith. They are not disjunctive but rather complimentary. This commitment to fairness, equality is not a sham but an integration that indeed makes him the adult in the room. One can't play-act that, which is why the pitiful Romney cannot muster it; he lacks the essential values that vivify the president at his core.

    As Botelho says:

    He's not after solutions that don't recognize the interests of all parties. It's part of his appreciation for "the world as it is" that he never treats the powerful unfairly or belittles their interests - because he wants more from them than short term concessions or abdications of power, he needs their strengths as well for the long term changes to succeed.

    And so it seems to me that Botelho has hit the nail on the head when he/she says:

    I disagree then that the idea that "everyone can be moved a little" is a trap that Obama failed to anticipate. I think he's been quite aware of the recalcitrant parties from the start but refuses to spend his time defining and deepening partisan entrenchments....The change in tactics after the Tea Party invasion of 2010 reflect the darker political context rather than any deeper awareness on Obama's part. And note that he's responded to the GOP's deeper entrenchment by trying to flank them through executive action rather than cheerleading any trench digging on the Democratic side.

    I truly appreciate what Botelho has done here. And I always appreciate what you do here, Ms Smarty.

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    1. "His faith is nurtured by reason, and his reason by his faith." Wonderfully put!

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