So one of Mitt Romney’s closing plays is that he’s the great conciliator. He released an ad several days ago and has been hitting the theme ever since, arguing that we need (as Romney said in the first debate, quoted in the ad) “leadership that … could not care less if it’s a Republican or a Democrat” that said leader is working with. With this, Romney makes the full leap into Orwell-land, but with signs that some folks actually buy or at the very least want very much to believe this, it’s important to point out to those voters the precise nature of this con game.
Presidential candidates always promise that they’re going to change the tone in Washington. They have to. The media demand it. Polls show them that independent and swing voters (two different things, really; the latter is a subset of the former) yearn for it. Their advisers tell them that’s how they win over the undecideds. Also, and crucially, they come equipped with egos that permit them to convince themselves that they are unique among men, and they can indeed change this “tone.”
Barack Obama ventured further than most down this boulevard of broken dreams. He had an analysis, you see: The right hated the Clintons because of certain things the Clintons represented about the ’60s because the Clintons were products of that generation. Since Obama wasn’t a product of that generation, it wouldn’t be so bad for him. He believed it. I believed it too. In a career sprinkled with its share of shoddy predictions, I think that one may have been my worst.
While Obama and I were believing—on Inauguration Day 2009, say—that things would be different, key Republicans were meeting in a restaurant not far from the very mall where the celebrations had taken place that day. They agreed, wrote Robert Draper in his book Do Not Ask What Good We Do, that very night to oppose Obama with all they had. Within the month, the Tea Party movement was born, and compromise with Obama became the moral equivalent of shaking hands with the devil.
The particulars of the ongoing opposition are well-known enough that I needn’t rehearse them all. Suffice it to say that the GOP of this Congress set records on Senate filibusters real and threatened, and en bloc (or almost en bloc) no votes. There’s never been a Congress like these past two, especially since the GOP took over the House.
Obama has tried from the start. The stimulus bill was about 38 percent tax cuts. You’d think Republicans might have gone for that. The individual mandate came from the Heritage Foundation. He cut payroll taxes (Republicans did end support for that, but only after the ludicrousness of their initial opposition to a tax cut became too much to endure). And more. But they said no every step of the way—even breaking from the precedent of Congress raising the debt limit more than 70 times since the 1940s. Now it was deemed acceptable to tie that increase to other matters and even, for the first time in history, to filibuster it.
No, no, no, no, no. And then, come 2012, they turn around and say, “See? Obama failed to unite this country.” They say it’s because he pursued a hard-left agenda, but that’s not true and they know it’s not true. What they know to be true is that most centrist voters will believe them, because the mood in Washington is still toxic and the president promised to fix that, by cracky.
All of that, we’ve known. But now comes the new twist. Now Romney gets to come in and say, “I will be a conciliator.” Perversely, there is a potential grain of truth to the claim, but only because Democrats in opposition don’t behave in the Leninist fashion that Republicans do. (I have demonstrated this numerically—41 percent of congressional Democrats supported George W. Bush on his four major legislative initiatives, while 6 percent of Republicans backed Obama on his top four). But bear in mind it’s going to be a very strange definition of “conciliation.” What Republicans generally mean by “working across the aisle” is terrifying just enough Democrats from red states and districts into supporting their initiatives and destroying them if they fail to, like the old ads from 2002 that impugned the patriotism of Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who left three limbs in Vietnam but opposed Bush’s war in Iraq.
And the final note that takes us into full surrealism. Republicans know very well that Obama can’t say any of this during election time because he’d sound “whiny” and will be admitting “failure” at the task of uniting the country. This is really the Ministry of Reality Suppression at work, and why I wish Mr. Orwell were around to see it.
He’d know it well, because it is, in fact, a very communist (small c) mindset, about which Orwell wrote in the Spanish context if not others: act obstreperously and disruptively, create conditions that make it impossible for the bourgeois or reformist party to succeed, and then turn around and blame the reformist party for the resulting failures. And then sit back and laugh if the reformists try to point this out and attack them as weak. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the ideological book, and it’s hostage-taking, basically, and our system of government—especially the rules of the Senate, where a minority of 40 has the power of a majority—permits it.
It must infuriate Obama that all this is true, and it must infuriate him further that, if he does win, he will still have to extend olive branches, because he will be the president and that is what people expect of the president. In the future, I hope no Democrat ever again promises to change the tone in Washington. “I’ll try,” Democrats should say. “But it takes two to tango on this.” Then at least the public might fix the blame for this problem where it so richly belongs.