Drew Westen, author of the Political Brain, has a regretful, but devastating critique “What Happened to Obama?” at the NY Times, and precisely because it is so devastating and so prominent, it’s come under attack from from Jonathan Chait at the New Republic, under the none-to-subtle headline, “Drew Westen’s Nonsense”.
I regard Westen’s piece as a powerful critique, and touch on it in my most recent Al Jazeera English op-ed. Here’s how Westen’s piece begins:
IT was a blustery day in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, as it often seems to be on the day of a presidential inauguration. As I stood with my 8-year-old daughter, watching the president deliver his inaugural address, I had a feeling of unease. It wasn’t just that the man who could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.
Westen’s perspective is highly oriented toward cognition, how we think and communicate about the world. But his ultimate point is not about communication for communication’s sake. It’s much more about the ways that societies self-organize themselves, and the role of political leadership in that process. It’s about big-picture politics, the sort that moves generations, as opposed to inside baseball.
Chait advances a full-throated defense of the failed Democratic establishment, which he rightly sees as threatened by folks like Westen, who are far too thoughtful—and farseeing—for them. Worse still, if Democrats finally figured out how to govern again, who in the world would listen to the likes of Chait? And so he repeatedly misrepresents Westen in the most ludicrous and condescending ways, as I’ll get to in a moment. But two observations before I get to Chait’s piece.
The first is that Westen is not arguing for Obama to be some sort of great liberal/progressive champion—at least not any more than Obama himself presented himself as during the campaign. True, he does draw a comparison to FDR, but given the situation that Obama found himself in, the comparison is a natural one. More precisely: FDR created the American welfare state. All that Westen hoped and expected Obama to do, all that disappoints him is that Obama is unwilling to vigorously defend what FDR created, and the Democratic Party has stood for ever since, and to fight for policies that keep that legacy alive—such as an adequate counter-cyclical response to the economic catastrophe that conservatives have created. In the eyes of Washington today, that may seem like a Herculean task—even a Rooseveltian one—but it’s really just common sense and keeping true to the party’s core values.
It has proven exceedingly difficult for most political commentators to calibrate what Obama’s critics have to say about him, but that’s really it in a nutshell. The wheel has already been invented. We don’t need Obama to do that for us again. We just need our tires changed, thank you very much. It isn’t rocket science. But it is substance not style.
Second is that Westen is basically arguing for Obama to effectively reassert the foundations of Democratic politics: the broad basis of shared prosperity that has enjoyed overwhelming popular support across the decades. When these foundations are clarified—as they were, for example by Harry Truman in 1948—then Democrats regularly rally and defy expectations. When they are muddled—as they were in 2010—Democrats lose simply because people no longer know what they stand for anymore. Behind all the fancy analysis—which believe me, I thoroughly enjoy—the basic argument is really no more than that.
So now let’s turn to Chait’s attack. First off, he pairs Westen together with George Lakoff, profoundly misrepresenting both:
Westen is a figure, like George Lakoff, who arose during the darkest moments of the Bush years to sell liberals on an irresistible delusion. The delusion rests on the assumption that the timidity of their leaders is the only thing preventing their side from enjoying total victory.
This is extreme hyperbole, of course—a sure sign of writing that is overblown and under-thought. What Westen and Lakoff did say was that popular ideas (such as, for instance, protecting Social Security and Medicare) don’t win elections by themselves. They have to be effectively communicated, which, of course, also means that they have to be prioritized as well. This ought to be part of Politics 101, but unfortunately, for Democrats they are not. And people like Chait are part of the reason why.
Lakoff began writing about politics with his 1996 book, Moral Politics, but he really grabbed people’s attention with his 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, by which time Bush’s approval ratings showed him to be extremely vulnerable. This was not “the darkest moments of the Bush years”, it was not a time when liberals were desperately looking for a magic bullet, because they had no other hope, as Chait misleadingly implies. But it was a time when Democratic elites seemed clueless about how to capitalize on Bush’s growing weakness. Westen and Lakoff were addressing the issue of missing ingredients for winning. They were talking about about eggs, vanilla and cinnamon, not flour and water, not because flour and water aren’t important, but because Democrats already had the four and water, but didn’t seem to know that cinnamon and vanilla even existed, much less how tasty they are. And eggs??? Weren’t they what you wear on your face?
Chait goes on to further mislead by introducing a totally unrelated figure, Aaron Sorkin, in order to push his misrepresention further:
Conservatives, obviously, believe this as much or more than liberals. But the liberal fantasy has its own specific character. It is unusually fixated on the power of words. Before Westen and Lakoff, Aaron Sorkin has indulged the fantasy of a Democratic president who would simply advocate for unvarnished liberalism (defend the rights of flag burners, confiscate all the guns) and sweep along the public with the force of his conviction.
Someone needs to explain to Chait that Hollywood movies are usually fantasies and always meant to entertain. Just because a fantasy involves similar subject matter as a documentary doesn’t mean that the documentary is a fantasy, too. Amazingly, this is not just introductory fluff, it’s actually the basis of Chait’s argument:
Westen’s op-ed rests upon a model of American politics in which the president in the not only the most important figure, but his most powerful weapon is rhetoric. The argument appears calculated to infuriate anybody with a passing familiarity with the basics of political science. In Westen’s telling, every known impediment to legislative progress — special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion — are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech. The impediment to an era of total an uncompromising liberal success is Obama’s failure to properly deploy this awesome weapon.
This is nothing but an extended re-statement of Chait’s original misrepresentation: he’s still painting Westen’s focus on the missing ingredients as if it were a woefully deficient recipe. “Hah!” Chait says, indignantly, “Westen thinks you bake a cake with nothing but eggs, vanilla and cinnamon! He doesn’t even talk about water and flour!”
Eventually, Chait gets to the point where it might seem he has a debatable argument. FDR didn’t change people’s minds about the need for balanced budgets, he says, and he’s got the Gallup polls to prove it! But here he reveals his own faulty grasp of political reality. Different polls reveal different aspects of political reality, not the totality. And Westin’s argument is about the president’s role in taking on the totality. Again, it’s that whole “missing ingredients” thing.
There are deeply contradictory tendencies in American public opinion, particularly if one contrasts what people want in practical terms versus their ideals. Balancing budgets is part of the ideal realm, where conservatives tend to do best, while taking care of grandma—and the grandkids—is where the practical concerns take over and leave fairy tale ideals behind. It’s no big surprise that Democrats win when they focus on taking care of grandma and the grandkids. That’s what FDR did—and what Obama has not. This was first explained by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in their 1967 book, The Political Beliefs of Americans, and it remains a central truth of American public opinion and politics, regardless of how staunchly the Democratic establishment tries to ignore it.
Chait enters full-panic mode when it comes to some of Westen’s most threatening observations:
Westen locates Obama’s inexplicable failure to properly use his storytelling power in some deep-rooted aversion to conflict. He fails to explain why every president of the postwar era has compromised, reversed, or endured the total failure of his domestic agenda.
This is a complete non-sequiter. Of course, presidents can’t get everything they want. But they do tend to get more when they try for more. This, too, is the stuff of Politics 101, and Westen knows this—it’s the background against which he’s arguing. The real question is why Obama seems totally clueless in this regard—and why Chait goes to such lengths to distract from this basic fact.
Chait also tries to portray Westen as being hopelessly wrong about Obama’s policy positions as well. He accuses Westen of offering “almost nothing but hand-waving and misstatements,” and says, “He blames Obama for the insufficiently large stimulus without even mentioning the role of Senate moderate Republicans, whose votes were needed to pass it, in weakening the stimulus.”
Once again, Chait berates Westen for focusing on the missing ingredients, totally missing Westen’s point: Obama didn’t even try to pass a larger stimulus, even knowing that a two-small stimulus could prove economically insufficient and politically disastrous. If Obama had been a normal politician, asking for more than he wanted (knowing he’d have to compromise), and forcefully arguing for it, then at least he’d be in a much stronger political position when it proved inadequate, and at most he might have gotten what he wanted all along…if only he’d wanted a stimulus big enough for the problem he faced.
“A foreign reader unfamiliar with our political system would come away from Westen’s op-ed believing Obama writes laws by fiat,” Chait sneers. Could it be that Westen wasn’t writing for foreign readers unfamiliar with our political system? Could it be that he was writing for people who follow politics closely?
Here’s a passage from Westen that Chait uses to support his claim Westen’s argument is “rooted primarily in a lack of factual understanding of what Obama has done”:
The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts.
What’s wrong with this, according to Chait?
In fact, the budget agreement does not include any entitlement cuts. It consists of cuts to domestic discretionary (i.e., non-entitlement spending.)
Except, of course, for the follow-on part of the agreement, which is set up precisely to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security by means of an American Politburo, the same sort of anti-democratic maneuver that Obama has repeatedly advanced, most notoriously under the delusional co-leadership of Alan Simpson last year. Thus, it’s Chait, not Westen, who’s not paying attention to the details.
I could go on and on, but I’ve already said more than enough already, giving the false impression that there’s more to Chait’s argument than there really is. In fact, it’s just the same old tired Democratic consultant BS, that’s not anywhere near good enough to effectively govern, but is just good enough to earn a comfortable living as the rest of the nation goes to hell.
Handbaskets not included.
After all, we’ve got a deficit to cut.