Republicans derive a benefit from their base by disrespecting the president.
The GOP base wants its leadership to not just oppose Barack Obama, but to go out of its way to obstruct, block, and if at all possible, show open contempt and disrespect for him. Republicans understand that their base will punish them for any hint of respectful, or worse, accommodating behavior toward Obama, and that they will be rewarded by their base for elevating the level of negative attention they give the president.
It’s a permutation of what happened with Bill Clinton. Republicans also derived a benefit, in the form of increased energy and enthusiasm among their base, whenever they did things designed to delegitimize Clinton as president. The problem for Republicans then was that their attacks on Clinton, up to and including calling him a murderer and a drug dealer, and impeaching him over a sex scandal, had the opposite effect with independent voters and moderates, who recoiled from their naked hatred of the commander in chief.
Today’s Republicans, who have been overrun by a hardcore tea party faction in addition to the resurgent religious right, have made the calculation that there is literally no bottom — and no level of disrespect so great that they will pay a price with white independents. They seem to have decided that there is nothing they can do to Barack Obama that will stop them winning in 2012, because they believe, based on 2010, that there are far more people, including independents, who hate Barack Obama for organic reasons that go beyond policy, and go to his person than the polling indicates. It’s pretty clear that Republicans have decided that they can so demonize Barack Obama the person, and raise enough questions about him in the minds of white independents, that the increased zeal their attacks produce among the tea party base will offset any indie backlash and put, say, a Rick Perry over the top, even over the objections of the middle.
That’s the calculation. And that, in my opinion, is what all of this is about.
Case in point: before House Speaker Boehner took the unprecedented step of publicly brushing back the president’s request to address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday, he was being egged on to do just that by none other than Rush Limbaugh. That Boehner decided to puff out his chest on this one is telling. He may or may not have been responding directly to Limbaugh, but as Richard Wolffe said on MSNBC tonight, there is clearly something different going on with this president. Democrats despised George W. Bush, Wolffe pointed out on “The Last Word,” but they never put on this kind of display of blatant disrespect when it came to the ordinary and traditional workings of the legislative and executive branches. And as much as Republicans undermined and sought to destroy Bill Clinton, at the end of the day, even Newt Gingrich was willing to go into the proverbial “back room” and cut deals with him.
There is no deal cutting between this Republican Party and this president, even when Boehner occasionally seems to want to. Republicans understand that they pay a political price with the tea party base if they cooperate with Obama, but they believe they pay no reciprocal price with independents by obstructing him.
And that brings us to the left. It turns out, that part of the reason the GOP leadership can take on board the idea that it will pay no price for crashing through rock bottom in its treatment of President Obama, is that there is a vocal part of the left, including black political leaders and “progressives” — who do it too. Obama has no backstop on the left, and no quarter that reacts loudly when he is attacked. There is no equivalent of RedState.com or the Free Republic or right wing talk radio, which used to go ballistic at the slightest hint of disrespect for President Bush. Quite the converse: the vocal left is as contemptuous of Obama as the vocal right, which clearly gives Republicans more room to push the envelope.
Al Sharpton made this point on his show tonight. Can you imagine, for instance, members of the Congressional Black Caucus erupting over this incredible rebuke of the president by Mr. Boehner, the way they’ve reacted to the tea party? Can you imagine them going ballistic over this in defense of the president? If you can’t, you’re probably right. Can you imagine the vocal left doing so? Can you imagine, say, Glenn Greenwald or John Aravosis or Adam Green of PCCC doing so? You really shouldn’t be able to, because that would never, ever happen.
Obama is in many ways a man literally of the middle, because it is the middle that is keeping his poll numbers in the 40s. It is the middle that is turned off by all of the ugliness. But the middle isn’t vocal. It’s … well, it’s middle. Moderate. And being a man of the middle makes it really hard to fight a movement as nakedly hostile as the tea party with anything other than jujitsu. And there are times when jujitsu isn’t enough for you to win.
And with that, I bring you the news that the White House has blinked on moving the president’s speech date. I’m guessing the White House political team, if they’re true to form, is doing so because they have also made a calculation: that their “true base” — the middle — will give them credit for being the reasonable adults in the room, while letting Boehner look like the bully. And per the David Plouffe political philosophy, they probably calculate that they lose nothing with their true base — the middle — by giving in, while what they lose with the far left, which already hates Obama, is less important in the end because of the tiny relative size of the far left versus the overall electorate.
In other words, the Aravosis-Greenwald-Hamsher crowd is going to shred the president no matter what he does, while the tea party right is going to disrespect and obstruct the president no matter what he does, so the two of them are ballast. All that stays in the balloon is the middle.
That’s my unified theory of Barack Obama, the Republican Party, the left and this latest, really unnecessary flap over a speech by the American president before the Congress.
UPDATE: This passage from the Politico story illustrates my point (emphases added):
The latest sparring began early Wednesday, when Obama’s staff surprised leaders of both parties by informing them the president wanted to reserve a prime-time slot, 8 p.m. ET next Wednesday, to address the House and Senate on the nation’s employment crisis and how he plans to reconcile the need for job creation with the imperative of deficit reduction.
That the White House sprang the speech on short notice to everyone isn’t in dispute. The president’s letter was leaked to the press shortly after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was told of the request.
Republicans were incensed. The address would conflict with Rick Perry’s debut in the POLITICO/NBC Republican presidential debate — which administration officials insisted was pure coincidence.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said the scheduling of Obama’s speech “cements his reputation as campaigner-in-chief.”
Even Democrats were a little miffed, with one top Senate Democratic aide calling the move “pure Obama — keeping us in the dark until the last minute.”
… For a few hours after the letter was made public, an eerie silence prevailed. Then, around 4 p.m., Boehner threw a serious procedural brushback pitch at Obama — urging him to delay his address by a day.