Friday, August 14, 2009

To President Obama: on the Conservative Opposition

Do you know the story of how it is that LBJ broke Humphrey in the Senate? It is told in Caro's biography of Johnson. Johnson arranged a humiliating defeat for Humphrey, and Humphrey never challenged Johnson again, even as Vice-President, during the disaster of Vietnam.

I think your former Senate colleagues are trying to do that to you. There is an important difference, of course: you are President. But you still need the Senate, and the Senate is heavily conservative. Like a working House of Lords, the Senate is an organization of the powerful, mostly men, mostly white. Long-term relationships (you know) are formed there. And, as in any aristocratic body, personalities matter.

It looks to me very much like some of your Senate colleagues, who you thought were friends and mentors, were setting you up, pretending to be reasonable and willing to compromise when in fact they were just getting you to stand still while they sharpened the knives. I think you've been betrayed and, with the opposition to your health care proposals now becoming visible, the knives are out.

These men are very skillful liars who have used your rhetoric of reconciliation. You wanted to believe in their integrity and so you did. But your opponents in the financial system and the health care system don't want reconciliation. They want it all, and even when they get everything they want, they want more.

Your choices as President are made on behalf of all Americans and, sometimes, all the world. You have a huge choice before you: you can maintain your connections with your false allies, or you can turn to the people. You cannot reconcile your wealthy, greedy, violent opponents to anything less than unlimited power: if you stay with them, they will sabotage your dream of reconciliation.

However you can reconcile some of the conflicts within the American people.

In my view it is important to discredit the right-wing crazies. They swing the vast majority of independent voters. While in a year or two most of the craziness will be forgotten, and the independents thinking differently, they are affecting the Congress now. I want you to succeed! I think it best to answer these people with incontrovertible truth, and keep on answering them until they are reduced to shouting in dark corners of the media space.

In the public sphere, also, I wish you would reconcile with ideological progressives. They were shut out of your campaign, for whatever reasons. But now you need them, because they're sane people who will support you, and will support your policies if you offer them policies they can support. They are capable of loyalty, something your conservative allies have shown they are not. You cannot make alliances with the swing voters, because the swing voters are easily swung by conservative propaganda sources and you have conservative enemies. But you can make alliances with ideological progressives, because they stand for something, and if you stand for them, they will stand for you.

In the interest-group sphere, I wish you would look out for the big-money groups who are willing to make alliances with the radical right. What we have now is a situation where your seemingly-loyal conservative opponents like the insurance and pharmaceutical industries are openly allied with radical groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. These groups in turn have followings of violent radicals, who, like members of lynch mobs, are all too willing to come out when they whistle. The violent radical groups are deserving of some police attention, and so are the radical right groups; people who promote violent tactics have very likely committed crimes themselves. But look back at the seemingly-peaceful opposition, that will not dirty its hands: if the divisiveness is to be stopped, consequences will have to be brought back to them.

I hope you will continue to pursue the dream of reconciliation and change.

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