I honestly don’t mean to pick on Ross Douthat, op-ed columnist for the New York Times. But when you’re given to making egregiously false statements you’ve got to be willing to take your lumps. Case in point is Douthat’s May 12 piece, “Winning the News Cycle, Losing the Race” (another version appeared in the print edition May 13). Here Douthat not only takes Obama to task for coming out in support of marriage equality, but said, as the Times paraphrases it, that “The Obama White House has worked to change the subject to social issues. But in a pocketbook election, it helps to focus on pocketbook anxieties.”
Really? No mention here of course of Rand Paul’s claim Friday from Iowa that banning same-sex marriage, and depriving women of their right to their own vaginas, would fix the economy. No mention of the fact that the Republican platform is largely pronounced on radio and television from the sets of televangelists, or at the conferences of religious groups like the Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Douthat claims that “FOR a generation or more, liberals have complained that the Republican Party uses social and cultural debates to distract voters from pocketbook issues.” This is true, and the GOP has. But he is off-base entirely (one of those egregiously false claims I mentioned) when he claims,
In 2012, though, liberals have learned to stop worrying and love the social issues. Ever since Rick Santorum’s campaign provided an opportunity to paint Republicans as nostalgists for the Comstock laws (if not the Inquisition), the Obama White House has consistently sought to change the subject from the unemployment rate to contraception, or immigration, or now even gay marriage.
The idea here, according to Douthat, is about Obama finding “a way to talk about something — anything! — besides his economic record.”
Douthat focuses on George Clooney’s Hollywood fundraiser for Obama but somehow seems (tendentiously) unaware of all the things Obama has been saying lately in speeches and at campaign stops about the economy and green energy.
For example, you would not know at all from Douthat that Obama opened his campaign in Ohio by firing away at Romney over the economy, not social issues, just a few short days ago. Or that just a couple of days before, Stephanie Cutter, the Deputy Campaign manager for Obama for America set the record straight regarding a $6 million dollar lie told by the Koch brothers about Obama’s green energy push, rather than siccing her on Romney for his social stance. You wouldn’t know about the Obama campaign’s video “Forward” which is not focused on social issues but rather “outlines the challenges America faced as President Obama took office at the height of the worst recession in almost a century and details the progress that has been made reclaiming the security of the middle class and building an economy that’s meant to last, where hard work pays and responsibility is rewarded.”
These inconvenient facts, of course, makes a mockery of his next claim that “It must be said that the White House has executed this strategy effectively” because no such strategy can be discerned. Obama has begun his campaign solidly focused on the economy; that doesn’t mean he can’t also mention marriage equality, or healthcare or other issues important to the liberals, progressives, independents – and moderate Republicans who will be voting for him in November. Women and the LGBTQ community have a right to expect their president to come to their defense, don’t they?
Douthat cites the healthcare mandate regarding contraception as evidence for his thesis. But this is, as Obama correctly identified it, a healthcare issue, not a social issue. It is a social issue only to Christian conservatives and here Douthat is saying more about himself than about Obama.
You might say marriage equality is a social issue but at its core it is an equal rights issue. Was giving women the right to vote a social issue? Was racial equality a social issue? Those were rights issues, proceeding from the Constitution’s premise that we all have the same rights in the eyes of the law.
The question, though, is what this successful maneuvering is actually gaining the White House. The weaknesses it’s trying to exploit are real enough: the country is moving leftward on many social issues, and Romney’s mix of squareness and weirdness — the moneyed background, the Mormonism, the 1950s persona — makes it relatively easy to portray him as culturally out of touch.
A problem here: it is not liberals who are attacking Romney for his Mormonism: that would be the so-called Religious Right. The silence of the left on Mormonism is deafening while the right’s obsessions and fears fill the blogosphere and airwaves.
Douthat concludes that “this would be a bigger problem for Republicans if the 2012 campaign were taking place amid prosperity and plenty. At times, the Obama White House seems to be attempting to run a liberal version of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, which used cultural arguments to delegitimize Michael Dukakis.”
“But,” he tells us, “today’s economic landscape looks more like 1992, when Bush the elder discovered that the same arguments availed him little with a recession-weary electorate — even in a race against a slick, womanizing draft-dodger.”
Making Americans feel uncomfortable with Romney, in other words, won’t be enough if the economy keeps sputtering along. What Obama needs, instead, is to make voters fear a Romney presidency, even more than they fear four more years of high deficits and slow growth. And a re-election campaign that focuses on gay marriage, or the Dream Act, or birth control, or how Romney treated his dog and high school classmates is unlikely to stoke that kind of fear.
He asks: “What might?” His ready-made answer for the argument he has put in Obama’s mouth is this:
“Well, in a pocketbook election it helps to focus on pocketbook anxieties. It’s true that every day the White House spends talking about social issues is a day it isn’t stuck talking about the economy. But it’s also a day when it hasn’t talked about how Mitt Romney wants to take away your retirement security to pay for tax cuts for the rich.”
Clutching at straw men isn’t going to accomplishing anything and that is all Douthat has done here, and like John Boehner, he embraces it tightly, as though his sanity depends upon it. He calls the Democratic argument he has invented “a demagogic one.” Of course, a demagogue is “a political leader who appeals to the desires and prejudices of the general public” as my Pocket Oxford Dictionary says. He calls this “a predictable Democratic argument” but this has been the Republican strategy all along, not the Democratic. Obama is not appealing to prejudices of the people but to their better nature: the granting, not the limiting or abrogation of rights.
The claim that Obama is somehow “running for re-election as an opponent of sexism, homophobia and social reaction in all its forms” is demonstrably untrue. President Obama does stand for those things, as do most liberals and we are happy that he does. But what Obama has continually pounded home for going on four years, and continues to pound home, is the way in which Republican economic policies have destroyed our nation’s economy. That is not to say he does not also have the right to express his views on the social issues the Republicans continually and repeatedly focus on. Responding to Republican claims does not define the Obama presidency or platform. That would be defining Islam as Evangelicals see it, or Christianity as Islam sees it.
Douthat calls “a decent strategy for winning news cycles, which the administration clearly did last week — playing the media brilliantly and watching as Romney was thrown on the defensive yet again,” but claims that while “Obama has won news cycle after news cycle this spring, and yet the president and his unloved, out-of-step-with-the-times challenger are almost dead even in the polls. That’s a sign that something isn’t working — and that this White House, not for the first time, has mistaken a clever strategy for a winning one.”
So Douthat has neatly crafted an argument for the president to make, claims he has made it, and then proves how foolish it is without actually demonstrating that the president has done any such thing. This is a work, ultimately and entirely, of Douthat’s own conservative imagination and it is a good thing that our president is a great deal more intelligent than this, or we would indeed be backing a losing strategy.