When I was working for a political consulting – slash – polling boutique in the late eighties a pre-maturing graybeard named Ed Reilly took me out to dinner. The gesture was a sign of thanks for ceding my personal life to the firm and forbearance for the blank checks yet to underwrite battles yet to be waged. (A personal life would claim me before I spent away a career in politics). The son of a Boston firefighter Reilly managed to straddle the line between a rip-snorting unionist and a pedigree kingmaker, spoiling for both fights and the spoils from winning them. Like so many pre-Aaron Sorkin era politicos, Reilly would ride the painstaking obscurity of his polling outfit to fabulous wealth through the Gucci-laced corridors of K Street.
As I remember the dinner was not about feasting on the vanity and self-importance of trade associations but about the eternal flame that draws all young operatives to the heart of the Beltway, world capital of the influence industry. By then Reilly had little appetite for progressive platforms or blue sky agendas. Most of his client-candidates were moderate or split-the-middle Democrats who appealed more to independents than liberals.
It was late ’88 and Ed was still smarting over the Lee Atwater-architected trouncing of sensible Michael Dukakis by pumped-up Poppy Bush 41. “Our party just doesn’t get it,” fumed Riley. “We invite the press into the backs of our campaign planes and buses because we care what they think and say. Then they go hunting for stories that don’t exist.” The Republicans care about one thing and that’s controlling the message: “They don’t give a rat’s ass what the media thinks — no invites, no complications.”
I’m reliving Reilly’s frustration at the insinuation by Newt of the “Grandiose Old Party” that the non-Fox news media are apologists for Obama’s failings. The fact the charge packs as much punch now says what?
* That our discourse has barely evolved — even backslid over the last generation of elections
* That Gingrich is hot, callous, and ravenous — three helpings that land far and wide of Obama’s plate
* That the messengers are shot down before they can squeeze off their debating points
I’ll be wondering about the messenger piece as Obama enters through the Congressional Chamber doors for his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. He will be staring openly into the very real perception of playing the co-star on the national political stage. However, in terms of his efforts to yank the spotlight most of those energies will be channeled on his path to the podium. It may seem like the sideshow lies in the fist-bumps, flesh-presses, and cordial waves ‘n winks as Obama makes his way to the center of the hall. But actually, most of his energies will be channeled towards that tightrope walk through the superficial entanglements of the pageantry. The fact he’ll arrive nearly depleted once he reaches the podium is not the story here.
The address itself will be a slam-dunk. He’ll nail the talk down. No flaps in these gusty political headwinds. Even the melody of his speech will be encoded automatically. Energy-wise Obama will give this address in his sleep and even his fiercest adversaries will know he’s in prescient control: the commander in speech. In fact he won’t just float over the hall — he’ll have his batteries recharging at the same time. But will that electrify his base anywhere as much as his tentative hold on power unifies the opposition? Obama may be a conciliator-pragmatist-moderate. But in his heart of hearts there is a fierce and uncritical belief that his detractors will do the right thing for the country in spite of their hostilities. That unyielding and romantic calculation has cost the country more than the benefit of a second Obama term.
Raising the Debt Ceiling on Inner Drive
In the book The Obamas we confirm the credible assertion that Barack lives in the same town as Michelle and the girls. And even though he can’t take the dog for walks he can share the same dinner table at least 5 out of every 7 evenings (baring crises and mid-terms). But the aspiration of family man is one with the sincerity of Barack the soloist:
* The guy whose much more comfortable debating the merits of Constitutional Law than the glad-hander
* The guy more tuned to schools of thought than to the schools that his adversaries’ kids just got into
* The guy oblivious to whose dates on what calendar were coming up when the time’s ripe to cash in on minting his next round of political capital
We were told by author Jodi Kantor of former Super Bowl parties where guests were invited to crunch pretzels and brewskies. We were told that Barack sat in his assigned chair for the game and never let the affairs of his super bowl party state interfere with the play-by-play or the halftime updates. The President of the United States was on the periphery of a room that he did not work and the evidence is this:
People who would otherwise stab him in the back are now entering through the front. There is no echoing chamber. Even in his own conflict averse party there are no minions, lieutenants, or defenders of the faith. Want to get Joe Biden to shuddup? Make him your veep and you shan’t hear a peep. We’ve gone from the Priceline-like bid-ups on the Lincoln bedroom during the Clinton occupancy to the mothballing of the mattresses and couches. Such is where strange bedfellows come to make exceptions to their unyielding public stances.
Gridlock We Can Count On
If the firework could be choreographed on the percentages then we’d have some positive correlation between unemployment numbers and favorability ratings. Then we’d have an Obama-Romney crash test that the operatives can rationalize. Gingrich is not waiting in the wings. He is fanning the flames of a sunburst as clarifying as a biker weekend tailgating down on a Federal Reserve meeting. See what the 99% elites think of that! What the right-skewing public seeks is the bloodbath that vanquishes the calculation and cleanses the resentments of a white America whose time is past — except perhaps when it comes to settling American elections.
Obama’s been called as many names as he’s learned to ignore since the bully-bigots of Indonesia threw rocks at him on his way to school. But the one name he can’t ignore is the scorched path between entrance and podium that gets gussied up as Big Gov versus Big Biz. Little Guy versus Small Biz. Taxes on the rich versus sacrifice for all. So long as Obama answers to the name of introvert we’re stuck in false choices. It’s sealing a deal he never signed up for and is no more prepared to make now than as a school boy in the streets of Jakarta.
So in the end how does Obama justify his second term? America can’t forgive temptation neutral technocrats. He could reprise his dress-down of Chief Justice Roberts over Citizen v. United in 2010: The single biggest reason for the side-show status of this season’s State of the Union. But as any populist-turned aristocrat like Reilly will tell you: We voters warm even less to knew-all-alongs than know-it-alls.
If the status quo was in friendlier territory, Obama could defend healthcare as a right with the same zeal that Bush 41 got elected attacking abortion and flag-burning. So why does one approach sound like a hail Mary with no time on the clock while the other runs the same clock out by sitting on the same ball? Picking a fight with George Stephanopoulas might keep the drive going. But the best way in is to beat the messenger to the punch of a quiz show called “medical bill in the mail.” The answer for us in Massachusetts is that we can pay them off without the help of venture capitalists or loan sharks.
From the front of the envelope to the back of the plane: Thank you, Governor Romney and Chairman Riley.