Thursday, July 02, 2009

How Not To Tip Your Hand

One of the big problems Obama has is that liberals have become too accustomed to getting lip service from politicians on both sides of the aisle, and in particular, are accustomed to the way Bushies played rhetorical word games with how they described their support of an issue. And we get so accustomed to the codewords and headfakes that they automatically interpret everything similar as such.

For example, Bush always pretended as if he didn't want to invade Iraq, right up until the moment the bombs started dropping; and then it became the most important mission in history. As a sad reminder, here's Bush on December 31, 2002, when asked about "a possible war with Iraq looming" while at a coffeeshop in Crawford (partial audio here):

And the American -- this government will continue to lead the world toward more peace, and the American people need to be mindful of the fact that our government is committed to peace and committed to freedom. And we hope to resolve all the situations in which we find ourselves in a peaceful way. That's my commitment, to try to do so peacefully. But I want to remind people that Saddam Hussein, the choice is his to make as to whether or not the Iraqi situation resolved peacefully.

You said we're headed to war in Iraq. I don't know why you say that. I hope we're not headed to war in Iraq.

I'm the person who gets to decide, not you. And I hope this can be done peacefully.

We have got a military presence there to remind Saddam Hussein, however, that when I say we will lead a coalition of the willing to disarm him if he chooses not to disarm, I mean it.

Huh. I wonder how that turned out. And of course, by then everyone knew we were headed to war in a few months. But Bush knew he had to pretend otherwise, lest he gave up the pretext that it was all Saddam's fault. And the media went along with it and didn't even mind when Bush would continue to blame Saddam for many more years. And so the media betrayed every semblance of common sense and was forced to pretend as if the decision hadn't already been made.

And so when Obama doesn't draw a line in the sand on the public option, but instead only describes his support as "strong," it sends up red flags that he's about to sell us out. Same for issues like gay rights and saving Social Security. He uses many of the same words that the liars use when they want to lie; in according with media rules which say that it's not a lie if you use agreed upon codewords that might sound like the exact opposite of what you really mean. And so it's only natural for people to be suspicious when Obama sounds the same way.

Target in the Sand

And while there should always be reason to watch Obama cautiously when he doesn't take a definitive stand, it needs to be seen from the other side: If Obama draws a line in the sand on ANY issue, it sends out a strong message to Republicans to do everything they can to defeat him, in order to damage his reputation for getting things done. Any unbending stance by Obama on the public option or gay marriage or Social Security will just make it more likely that we get defeated.

As it is, Republicans already have plenty of reasons to oppose him on these issues. But by staking his political reputation on any specific policy, he's drawing a giant target on himself. And if we get anything short of his stated goal, the media will rant endlessly about how crippled and powerless Obama is. And there's no upside to this, as Democrats won't see a line in the sand as being a requirement for them, and the "centrist" types are likely to see it as a challenge, for them to demonstrate their "centrism" by going against Obama.

And this is how all negotiations work. It's never a good idea to signal to your opponent which issue they can target you on. And for as frustrating as that is for us outsiders, who can't mindread Obama's true intentions, it's unfortunately necessary. And while this is the same thing the Bushies did when they wanted to go to war with Iraq or privatize Social Security, we've got to hope that Obama's doing it for our benefit; not against it. It'd be nice if he could send us special signals that only we could understand, but that's not how it works. The more he assures us about something, the more he's signaling Republicans on where they should hurt him.

And the best we can do is have faith that Obama is intelligent enough to understand why he needs to pass these policies. So far, he's shown himself to be the smartest politician in our generation. Only time will tell if he was smart enough.

1 comment:

Mike Goldman said...

Good analysis again. There's simply no way to signal one's intentions to one side without also signaling the other side. We cannot know what Obama will do, and trust is not a sufficient basis, but he is doing exactly what I would under the same circumstances, and I have to believe that his political instincts are sound.