Fiddling While the Country Burns: A Story Arc for 2008-10

How did it come to this? In 2008, we, Democrats, won a landslide victory, with the public deserting the cynicism and policymaking bumbling of the Republican Party in droves for the promise of optimism, progress, and reasoned solutions to complicated problems. Today, we’re back to square one. Maybe worse. When the sitting President can’t sell middle-class tax cuts to the people, without the promise of pork for the rich, we’re a sorry lot indeed. Apologists may say we’re saving the tax issue for Obama’s re-election; but if we don’t have the spine for the battle now, why will we have it when even more is on the line? How can we come back from this profound political malaise, and why are we even there in the first place?

Since 2008, we’ve offered reasonable, popular solutions to tough problems. “ObamaCare’s” unpopularity stems as much from its failure to deliver on the promise of comprehensive care as from conservative America’s shocking suspicion of regulation. If the causal elements aren’t exactly 50/50, they’re enough to keep the basic idea of “reform through regulation” net-positive. Similarly, reforming the capital markets should be an easy sell during a recession caused, exclusively or at least largely, by reckless financial actors. And if we actually care about the deficit — as tea party partisans would have us believe — hiking taxes on those who can best afford to support their country should be an extremely easy sell, especially to “fiscal conservatives,” those bizarre animals that one hears so much about, but never truly sees.

So what went wrong?

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Republican obstructionism was far from purposeless, and for far more than short-term gain. From January 1, 2009, two trends were objectively foreseeable: (1) the damage done by the Bush years would not be easily cured, and that (2) the American memory is short, especially when attempting to assign blame. Building on these, the Republicans could sit back, stonewall any attempt at progress, wait for Bush’s sins to be forgotten, and expect that, absent a miraculous and unlikely twelve-month recovery, Obama would drown in the long wake left by his predecessor. As an elegant touch, this recovery could be forestalled, by simply blocking the President at every turn.

And in fact, this is exactly what our honorable opposition has done. Having banished the specter of our last, failed President with no more than some handwaving, and a little waiting, the Party has leveraged anger over the still-floundering economy into something resembling a mandate, all without ever offering any new solutions to the very difficult problems we still face — problems of their own creation.

This anger persists as background noise distorting the national debate, and obscures the critical realization that voters must make, or risk repeating their mistakes: that the Republican Party still has no solution to our tarnished economy, or anything else for that reason.

If this is the problem, no immediate solution emerges. We can wait and hope that, with Republicans back in something resembling power, time reveals their ideas to be not just bad, this time, but also nonexistent. And we can focus immediately and with all our attention on the economy, to blunt this anger, or repurpose it into forward momentum.

And we can remain confident… or regain our confidence. For all our setbacks, this is still the country we inherited in 2008.



  1. “This anger persists…and obscures the critical realization that voters must make…that the Republican Party still has no solution to our tarnished economy, or anything else for that reason.”

    I think they had that realization in 2006 and 2012 which is why Democrats saw big gains. Now they seem to be making the same realization about Democrats. The problem is that you want to blame it on messaging instead of accepting that maybe just maybe the public is smarter than you give them credit for. When you blame your failures on messaging the not-so-hidden subtext is that the public just isn’t smart enough to realize how awesome your ideas are. You’re also saying that they are easily duped by those sneaky conservatives and Fox News. It sounds amazingly similar to the narrative from the Left about Iraq which is that the general public was hypnotized into supporting a war for oil and only intelligent liberals were immune to their power.

    Ames, when conservatives complain about liberal elitism, it’s not a dig at education as you all like to pretend. It’s a criticism of your attitude towards the public. You assume that the average voter is easily manipulated and just not smart enough to understand how great liberal policies are. It’s amazingly condescending and I think it’s why so few people self-identify as liberals. You are NEVER going to keep power for any length of time until you learn to check your arrogance.

    1. That should read 2006 and 2010.

      1. I rather expect that your original will be right, in time.

    2. Dick Turpis · ·

      The reason we have representative Democracy instead of a direct one is because, by and large, people are not informed enough to decide many large and complex issues themselves, and that goes for both liberals and conservatives. When we have a large group of people who think that Obama was born in Kenya, who think that the healthcare law is a takeover of the entire industry, who think that government spending causes unemployment, etc. we have a lot of not very smart and very easily manipulated people. Or maybe I’m just an elitist. In any case, I prefer our leaders to be “elite” in some respect, rather than a Joe Sixpack or a Sarah Palin, or any other decidedly mediocre individual. But I agree that obvious condescension is not a great way to win elections.

      1. I don’t believe the term ‘representative democracy’ is means, “We elected you because we’re morons and you know what’s best for us.” If that were the case then politicians would just stay up in Washington, debate issues in secret and send down their decrees. While elected officials are not direct proxies, they also answer to the voters in elections.

        We can debate the collective intellect of the American public (conservatives tend to be a bit more optimistic on that topic) but I think the forefathers mostly opposed Hamilton on the notion of a highly educated leadership which would function as a quasi nobility.

        I’d also dispute that our leaders are really that much smarter than the average joe.

        1. Dick Turpis · ·

          Many aren’t, but they should be, and that’s the point. The fact that being smart and informed seems to be a liability in some circles is what I find disturbing. Looking at the people who hang on every word of morons like Limbaugh and Beck, taking it as gospel, makes me worry about how easily manipulated some people are. Perhaps there aren’t as many of them as it seems, and perhaps the left is as bad (though I can’t think of too many examples of liberal equivalents) but my elitist brain still is still bothered by anti-intellectualism.

          1. One could argue that a less-than-brilliant official who talks regularly with his voters and does his best to pursue their interests is a greater asset than a brilliant one who thinks he is so smart he doesn’t need their input and can just do whatever he thinks is best.

            1. Please find me onf these . . . of any political stripe . . .

              1. I’m fairly happy with my elected officials in Washington and I certainly don’t think any of them qualify as brilliant. john Yarmuth is a solid liberal but has moderated his policy positions because the voters here demand it.

            2. The problem is that the constituents’ best interests may not be the same as the country’s best interest. That is particularly true with the looming debt/deficit crisis. No matter how you cut it, solving it is going to hurt a lot of people, but doing nothing will hurt even more in the long run. So sometimes those representatives just have to ignore their constituents, who may not want their taxes to increase or entitlements cut, and go ahead and do it anyway.

              1. You may be right – but on the flip side a small minority have been able to sway a disconnected leadership to do some pretty crazy things in the past. Prohibition was certainly not favored by the masses.

    3. But they’re not really that smart. Or not really that, just not well informed and influenced by messaging.

      There’s been plenty of polls to show that. How many people thought that there were tax increases, versus how many people knew there were tax cuts in the stimulus. How many people approve of health care reform when specifically broken up into it’s parts, versus in generality. I mean, this whole tax cut thing is another example. Letting tax cuts expire for the rich is a popular position. Yet, I doubt Democrats will make a strong case for it and instead will let just give in.

      Democrats have a disconnect with fighting for what they believe in, and are ineffective at cohesive messaging and informing the public.

      I mean, I don’t think Democrats are anymore arrogant than Republicans. Going up and saying what the people want, when they don’t want the things they say they want.

    4. Let me put it differently, Democrats poll really well on various issues. For the most part, still are barely favored more than Republicans. Yet, for some reason, they are not actively selling those issues. THey do not fight for those issues. That shows that there is a way forward, that the Democrats don’t seem to go.

      That has nothing to do with elitism or people being dumb. Yet, it’s obvious there’s room for improvement on the Democrats site of politicking.

      1. I think we’re talking too separate issues. On one hand, you’re right, Democrats lack a spine. What i was responding to in Ames’ post though was the notion that the public has to be convinced that Republicans are terrible. My contention is that they already decided that in 2006 and 2008. Surely you all don’t think you won all those seats and the WH by accident. I haven’t bothered to google it but I have no doubt i could find hundreds of blog posts from around the web about how smart the electorate was in those years and how they finally saw through the conservative propaganda. Now, after you all get your asses kicked in 2010 you’re moaning about how stupid the public is and how you need to message better to make them see the error of their ways.

        Let me put it this way: In 2006 and 2008 I don’t recall anyone on the Right complaining about the collective intellect of the masses. That might be one of the best explanations of why the GOP regained so many seats so fast.

      2. There are separate issues there as well.

        One, who is saying people are dumb? Frustrated liberals/progressives who know that these policies can be popular and sold, are frustrated that it’s not happening, and frustrated in the people who vote or complain against it.

        Which is different than the “Democrats” because I don’t believe elected officials are usually going the way of calling constituents dumb. Obama has more apt to go after liberals for complaining too much than the voters.

        So we have the people versus politicians that behave differently.

        Now, I would think people always react this way when people don’t agree with them. I mean, I remember back as the election where conservatives were saying how horrible Obama was, how stupid liberals were for being duped by him.

        It’s the product of frustrated voters and people watching politics.

        1. Read Phillip’s comment. Read Ames’ post. In both cases there’s a contention that the public just doesn’t get it.

        2. I’m lost at the relevancy. Their posts don’t have much to do with the differences between politicians and political enthusiasts. It doesn’t have much to do with the example of frustrated people on the other side doing the same thing.

          1. You asked,”..who is saying people are dumb?”

            You said previously:

            “But they’re not really that smart. Or not really that, just not well informed and influenced by messaging.”

            I’m saying that’s arrogance and it’s an achilles hill of the Left. If people don’t agree with liberal policies they assume it’s because they can’t comprehend the brilliance, not that Americans can intelligently think about those policies and disagree with them.

          2. You’re not talking about what I’m talking about. I’m saying is that I’ve been called similar things for disagreeing with conservatives.

            I’ve been bamboozled for voting for Obama, or naive for “trusting government with health care” or as my step-dad thinks I’m foolish for mot believing that the government isn’t hiding Obama’s true birth place.

            That’s what happens when someone does something you don’t understand or agree with. It isn’t a left or right thing.

            But again, these are people who are not in elected positions just in regular conversations. Like the ones on this site. I mean, I used to read this popular conservative blog until their condescension drove me to madness. National Review has their share of it too.

            So, at least let’s divorce this conversation from what I mentioned earlier, the people talking about politics, and actual politicians. Cause they’re different discussions.

            The one thing I will concede, in terms of politicking, I think Republicans are better at not coming off as elitist while being so. They will run away from popular opinion arguments and say they’re doing what’s good for people even if they don’t agree (ex. McCain on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell). While, Democrats just try to sway people and get frustrated if they don’t succeed. But really, McCain’s position isn’t any less condescending in actuality, but less so in appearance.

            1. I think you’re ignoring the entire narrative of ‘liberals are intellectual and conservatives are anti-intellectual’. I’ve never heard that go in the other direction.

            2. And my point is, it’s just a narrative.

              One that conservatives are also complicit in encouraging.

              1. I mean, you didn’t disagree that bloggers were just as condescending on each side of the ideological line (except maybe through phrasing?).

                And you didn’t argue against elitism in politicians, when I brought up McCain.

                So if you concede those points (which you may not), it leaves very little concrete difference between liberal & conservative elitism/condescension except word choice.

                So while everyone kind of treats everyone else like they’re dumb for not believing or thinking what they do (and I’ve had these conversations with conservatives), the only difference would be the narrative as it’s presented.

                Republicans, conservatives, perpetuate the idea that it’s a one sided elitism of liberals versus conservatives.

                It behooves politicians to play up this storyline, because it makes the debate turn into an “us versus them”. Making Republicans the “us”.

                But, I’m not saying Republicans are solely to blame for the story line, just that they are involved with, benefit from, it’s repetition, perpetuation, while trying to turn it into a generalized “truth”. Even if they themselves act identically.

                1. Aren’t Democrats also guilty of continuing the narrative of conservative anti-intellectualism?

          3. When I asked who was saying people are dumb. I meant, bloggers or politicians.

            1. Well my original comment was specifically directed at Ames, so i guess I would say bloggers. But that also applies to pundits and other media figures. You can say that politicians are above the fray in that respect and to a small degree you are right, but I think the lines are pretty blurred today in a 24 hour news cycle.

  2. Ames, when conservatives complain about liberal elitism, it’s not a dig at education as you all like to pretend. It’s a criticism of your attitude towards the public. You assume that the average voter is easily manipulated and just not smart enough to understand how great liberal policies are. It’s amazingly condescending and I think it’s why so few people self-identify as liberals. You are NEVER going to keep power for any length of time until you learn to check your arrogance.

    Arrogance? Really? Let’s review. Approximately 25% of Americans across all age ranges have a college degree, so there is some educational disparity in our society, and that can easily lead to a large swath of the public that, indeed, doesn’t have the critical reasoning skills and assessment skills to sort fact from fiction, especially when that fiction comes from people who color themselves with the paintbrush of authority.

    Take Wikileaks. If you focus only on the media coverage, you get the impression that all 251,000 diplomatic cables were released without any attempt to redact information, or protect American intelligence or diplomatic assets. Yet if you actually go to Wikileaks, or the New York Times, or the U.K Guardian, you find that, while Wikileaks has 250K or so cables, there are only about 9500 publicly available. You also find out that the newspapers and Wikileaks worked together to redact sensitive information from those cables that might have gotten people killed or hurt ongoing intelligence operations. And you find out that that redaction was done AFTER the U.S. Government refused to redact the documents themselves.

    Yet, as I said, to hear it play out on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN, and in most other major daily papers, Wikileaks dumped it all, and endangered Americans in the process. Most Americans do not, sadly, have the education or the time or the Internet access to disassemble those claims.

    The same, FWIW is true when conservative politicians are quoted all over the news destroying liberal policy initiatives. Republicans as deficit hawks? The facts on the ground are that the current crop of Hill Republicans forced the president and Democrats to accept a $600M balloon in the deficit by preserving all the tax cuts, just so we could get a 13 month extension on unemployment benefits (also a deficit balloon). No arrogance there either.

    But other then you, or Ames, or I, or these commenters here, Americans generally can’t see through that ruse. And that, dear sir, is all about messaging, and not about condescension.

    1. Come on. There’s no possible way the US Gov’t could have cooperated on this thing. That would have made them an accessory to the release of their own classified information. I doubt that would even be legal.

      Besides, I don’t give much for this whole “But we’ve redacted it” defence WikiLeaks is trying to set up. For one thing, the greatest damage is done through the fact of the release itself; for another, just removing the names is not enough to protect identites if the details can be compared with other information; and for a third, they haven’t even managed to get the names redaction right in some cases.

    2. “Approximately 25% of Americans across all age ranges have a college degree, so there is some educational disparity in our society, and that can easily lead to a large swath of the public that, indeed, doesn’t have the critical reasoning skills and assessment skills to sort fact from fiction, especially when that fiction comes from people who color themselves with the paintbrush of authority.

      And that’s exactly the kind of stuff I’m talking about. I have plenty of friends and family who didn’t attend college or didn’t get a degree that really taught them any ‘critical reasoning’ skills and yet they often reach the exact same conclusions as myself and my fellow college graduates. How do you explain that Phillip? Just a lucky guess on their parts?

      As for the contention that Republicans forced Democrats to accept a $600 million deficit – that money never belonged to the fed and the simple fact is that they need to learn to tighten their belts just like the rest of us. Make the deep cuts necessary…but don’t claim that there is a cost associated with letting the American people keep their own money.

      1. Well, they can’t get to keep all of their money, because then they don’t have a government. On the other hand, they have to keep some of their money, because otherwise they don’t have an economy. The trick is to find the proper point between those two extremes; a point which of course changes depending on the economic circumstances.

        The most important thing, though, is to base fiscal policy on proper economics and not some vague moral ideas about whether taxes are evil.

        1. Well, yeah, I do think taxes should be based on sound economic theory. Conservatives and liberals just disagree about who best to spend the people’s money.

          1. Mike as I’ve noted elsewhere, we are way pats economic theory on taxes. ALL Discretionary spending at the federal level – ALL – falls within the deficit these days. If you want to pay for ANY discreationary activity – the FBI, the Border Patrol, federal highway repair and construction – in the current environment you HAVE TO HAVE TAXES. PERIOD. And sadly, that means you have to have government.

            1. As I think I have noted before, IMO we cut the military significantly and see where that gets us. Then you started cutting discretionary spending. I’m sure you recall that scene fom Dave where he asks the commerce secretary about a program designed to boost American confidence in a previous automobile purchase. He says,” I don’t want to tell some eight-year-old kid he’s gotta sleep in the street because we want people to feel better about their car.”

              I’m quite sure our government is full of those examples.

      2. Mike, I know people like that too, and I maintain they are in the minority of people in this country. Real critical reasoning, which works from facts not idealogy, is not common in the U.S. population. That is what allows politicians, operating from a purely idealogical position, to keep hammering “ideas” and “policies” down the throat of the population, when actual factual history shows those policies to have been abysmal failures. That ignorance also allows politicians to be deficit hawks one week, and pro- tax cuts the next week (which of necessity increases the deficit due to lowering revenue).

        Sorry to say, you are an exception in this country – you are an elite, regadless of your politics. Get over it.

        1. I am in an elite in terms of educational achievment – but I still don’t believe that critical reasoning skills are unique to college graduates. If nothing else, technology is providing a lot of ways for everyone to stay informed. My kids were using McCain and Obama’s websites to compare policy positions in 2008 and made relatively reasonable conclusions.

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