Preparing to Fail

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On July 11, Robert Gibbs, the roly-poly, happy-go-lucky White House press secretary, told a television interviewer that his party might well lose the House in the November election — oh well.

His blase comment infuriated Nancy Pelosi, and one can understand her emotion. With her speakership trembling in the electoral balance, Gibbs appeared to be running up the white flag, four months before the battle happened.

There must have been an occasion like this in the past, but I can’t think of one — an episode in American political his- tory in which a top party leader said that the party might lose. Merely to imply something like this is regarded as a serious discouragement to political activity. On the other hand, even obvious lies, so long as they are optimistic, are regarded as good for the troops. Libertarian Party candidates, who are always being asked why they’re running when they have no chance to win, keep saying things like, “I believe that the American people agree with our positions, and when they realize that we’re here on the ballot, they’re going to vote for us.”

They say that on the morning news, on election day. So do the Democrats and Republicans, no matter what. But here’s the spokesman for the White House, telling everyone that his party is likely to lose.

How do the troops in the field react to that? In the same way, I suspect, that General Lee’s men would have reacted if he’d told the force assembled for Pickett’s charge, “Gemmum . . . There’s guhd reason t’ blieve that you all are ’bout to lose yo’ lahvs.” Inspiring, right? Good strategic thinking, eh?

Yet according to the political sages at the Associated Press, Gibbs’ comments can be viewed in two ways: (1) as “intend- ed to light a fire under Democrats who are dispirited after about 18 months of Obama’s presidency and motivate them to work hard to maintain their majorities in both the House and Senate”; (2) as an attempt “to lower expectations in case Democrats do lose the House majority.”

So, choose your poison — the Democrats are dispirited now; the Democrats will be even more dispirited in November, and looking for someone to blame. Someone, perhaps, like the president. And his adviser, Robert Gibbs.

Many observers characterized Gibbs’ statement as a cynical attempt to keep Democratic mobs from besieging the White House on Wednesday, November 3. True, no one actually said “cynical” or mentioned “mobs” — but that was the tenor of the analysis. Whatever middle-level Democratic leaders may say in public, they are desperately unhappy, and not with Republicans. They’re unhappy with the president and his advisers — people who, they believe, have directed the affairs of the party from the isolation of a political spaceship, a ship in which they intend to escape the slaughter of their troops below.

Fun to watch — but these Democrats’ opinions are perhaps not entirely fair. Virtually all of them supported the presidential programs that have made their party unpopular. They knew at the time that the programs were as unpopular as any in American history. They knew how those programs were formulated, and by whom. They were eyewitnesses of the tactics by which the White House enforced obedience. Few of them objected. Of those few, the great majority publicly withdrew their objections — sometimes, it appears, in exchange for political rewards; sometimes merely in response to political and personal pressures. At that point, who spoke up?

Certainly not the multitude of little first-term congress- persons whom Obama’s victory helped to be elected in conservative districts. They owe their all to Obama, and it does not become them — now, and publicly — to denounce the president as the destroyer of their careers. And certainly not the multitude of safe-district Democratic congressmen, the people who will glide into their eighth, ninth, or tenth term, whatever happens to the party or Obama this November.

You might ask, Why didn’t someone from the second group, understanding his or her own political immunity, step in to alert the party or the nation? I’m sure that many warnings circulated in the party, and they were ignored, both by the political fanatics who care more about their “issues” than about either the country or the party, and by Obama and his advisers, who are always sure that they are right. But as for warnings to the nation . . . that’s not what party politicians do.

In general, I am sorry to say, this reflects the normal condition of American politics. For months and years, party loyalty, however obtained, obliterates all appearance of dissent. Intellectual honesty completely disappears; the public is led to believe that everyone in the ruling party is blissfully happy with its policies. That’s bad. But there’s a good side. Criticism, though delayed, comes massively when it finally comes. That’s what happened in 1994. That’s what happened in 2008. I suppose that’s what’s going to happen in 2010.

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