Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 

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They Said It:

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”; in action, one does not always enjoy the luxury of a decision that is consistent both with one’s individual conscience and the good of mankind.  The choice must always be for the latter.  Action is for mass salvation and not for the individual’s personal salvation.  He who sacrifices the mass good for his personal conscience has a peculiar conception of “personal salvation”; he doesn’t care enough for people to be “corrupted” for them. . . .The means-and-ends moralists, constantly obsessed with the ethics of the means used by the Have-Nots against the Haves, should search themselves as to their real political position.  In fact, they are passive – but real – allies of the Haves.  They are the ones Jacques Maritain referred to in his statement, “The fear of soiling ourselves by entering the context of history is not virtue, but a way of escaping virtue.”

Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, 1971.



We have been covering Washington in various capacities for a long time now – somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 years between the two of us.  And in all that time, we can’t really recall a policy debate that has played out quite like the current one over guns.  Never have we seen and heard so many people who “know” so much about the contours of the argument yet understand so little about what is really going on.  The conventional wisdom is set.  It spans parties, factions, and ideologies.  And it is all wrong, warped, distorted.

Everyone “knows” that Barack Obama believes deeply in gun control.  Everyone “knows” that he believes that guns are now a critical component of his second-term legacy.  Everyone “knows” that he had to issue 23 executive orders on guns and related matters last week because he thinks that something must be done immediately and also thinks that the Congress will move too slowly, if at all.  Everyone “knows” that the key bits of legislations he backed last week – such as a renewed ban on “assault weapons” and a ban on large-capacity magazines – are largely symbolic and will do very little to stop gun violence in this country.   Everyone “knows” that this is beside the point in the President’s estimation and that he will push forward anyway, believing that even symbolism is important.  Everyone “knows” that this is a risky and bold strategy for the President since he will be putting a number of Democratic members of both the House and Senate at risk by pushing gun control.  And lastly, everyone “knows” that no matter how hard he tries, he is likely to “lose” this one, given the strength and influence of the forces allied against him.

This is a compelling storyline.  A few tweaks here, a change of emphasis there, and it can be twisted to fit any partisan purpose.

Want to make Obama look like a totalitarian nut hell-bent on grabbing everyone’s guns?  Then you emphasize the bit about Obama really believing in gun control.  You harp on his reliance on and his belief in the unquestioned legitimacy of executive action.  And you declare that the guy will push symbols that accomplish nothing positive, but will serve as outlets for his power-lust.  Enter, for example, Ted Cruz, the Freshman Senator from Texas and a hero to the Tea Party:

 He is feeling right now high on his own power, and he is pushing on every front, on guns . . . And I think it’s really sad to see the president of the United States exploiting the murder of children and using it to push his own extreme, anti-gun agenda.  I think what the president is proposing and the gun control proposals that are coming from Democrats in the Senate are, number one, unconstitutional, and number two, they don’t work.  They’re bad policy . . . this is a president who has drunk the Kool-Aid.

Want, by contrast, to make the President seem reasonable, patient, and heroic?  Then you simply change things up a bit.  You emphasize the need for action – any action, even if only symbolic.  You play up the unreasonableness of the “other side” – which is to say people who own guns.  You demonize the “bad guys.”  And you insist that all that Obama is trying to do is to fix a problem that afflicts America and Americans and that has long needed fixing.  CBS News’s Bob Schieffer, for example, compared defeating the NRA to beating “the Nazis.”  The odious troll-Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, insisted that “this not a constitutional question . . . This is a question of courage . . . There is no debate here.  It’s common sense.”  And the vapid presidential wannabe Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, hit almost all the high notes, proclaiming:

There is a sickness in our country and that sickness is gun violence . . . We’re putting in place common sense things that can prevent lives being taken from us . . . There may not be, perhaps there is no way to prevent the next Newtown tragedy . . . But perhaps there is.

You see how this works?  If you ask Bloomberg what he thinks of Cruz, or ask Cruz what he thinks of Bloomberg, you’ll get much the same response:  “The guy’s a nut, and he’s filling the public airwaves with sheer madness!  He must be stopped!”  Fact is, though, that they’re all telling the same story.  They’re telling different versions of it, to be sure.  But they’re all peddling the same basic tale of politics-as-usual.

And they’re all wrong.

If you can say one thing for sure about Barack Obama, it is that he is unlike any president the United States has ever known.  Politics-as-usual is a game he doesn’t play.  And he doesn’t play it because he prefers a much more brutal kind of game, politics-as-blood-sport.  Four years ago, Obama promised to be a “different kind of politician.”  There can be little doubt that this is one promise that he has more than kept.

The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, who, we suspect, would give Obama every benefit of every doubt she could and who once counted herself among his supporters, has belatedly come to realize that his promise to be different from other politicians was not necessarily a promise to be better than the others.  All of which is to say that even she has noticed the President’s penchant for political viciousness and the uniqueness of that viciousness in American politics:

President Obama has been using the days and weeks leading up to his inauguration to show the depth of his disdain for the leaders of the other major party and, by inference, that party’s voters, which is to say more or less half the country.  He has been spending his time alienating instead of summoning.  It has left the political air more sour and estranged.

As a presidential style this is something strange and new.  That has to be said again: It is new, and does not augur well.

What was remarkable about the president’s news conference Monday is that he didn’t seem to think he had to mask his partisan rancor or be large-spirited.  He bristled with unashamed hostility for Republicans on the Hill.  They are holding the economy “ransom,” they are using the threat of “crashing the American economy” as “leverage,” some are “absolutist” while others are “consumed with partisan brinkmanship.”  They are holding “a gun at the head of the American people.”  And what is “motivating and propelling” them is not a desire for debt reduction, as they claim.  They are “suspicious about government’s commitment . . . to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older.  They have suspicions about Social Security.  They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat, or whether we should be spending money on medical research.” . . .

No one has good faith but him.  No one is sincere but him.  Doesn’t this get boring, even to him?

Noonan, we should note, is not alone.  The inimitable Michael Barone, who is as thoughtful and bright in his conservatism as Noonan is conventional, has also noticed that the President has a rather unusual thirst for blood.  Barone sees that what Obama wants, more than anything, is to destroy the nation’s enemies.  The only catch is that this President thinks that those “enemies” live not in the Hindu Kush or the barren Saharan Maghreb, but rather down at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  Or as Barone put it last week:

To judge from his surly demeanor and defiant words at his press conference Monday, Barack Obama begins his second term with a strategy to defeat and humiliate Republicans rather than a strategy to govern.

His point-blank refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling was clearly designed to make the House Republicans look bad . . .

What we do know, from Bob Woodward’s “The Price of Politics,” is that Obama is not very good at negotiating.  He apparently can’t stomach listening to views he does not share.

Perhaps that is to be expected of one who has chosen all his adult life to live in university communities and who made his way upward in the one-party politics of Chicago.

What’s funny about this is that neither Barone nor Noonan – nor anyone else for that matter – takes this analysis of Obama’s political temperament the next logical step.  They acknowledge his unbending ruthlessness, but then fail to connect it to real-life policy dramas; they fail to use their model of his behavior in assessing, for example, Obama’s current fixation on guns.  Consider, if you will, Noonan’s judgment of last week’s gun proposals.  And as you do, note that these sentences follow immediately after those in which she berates the guy for his absolute inability to deal with anyone on any matter in good faith:

His gun-control recommendations themselves seemed, on balance, reasonable and moderate.  I don’t remember that the Second Amendment died when Bill Clinton banned assault rifles; it seemed to thrive, and good, too.  That ban shouldn’t have been allowed to expire in 2004.

What was offensive about the president’s recommendations is what they excluded.  He had nothing to say about America’s culture of violence—its movies, TV shows and videogames.  Excuse me, there will be a study of videogames; they are going to do “research” on whether seeing 10,000 heads explode on video screens every day might lead unstable young men to think about making heads explode.  You’ll need a real genius to figure that out.

Excuse us . . . but no.  What was offensive about Obama’s recommendations was that they were designed specifically to aggravate Republicans; that they were intended to goad Republicans into acts of political foolishness that would damage their credibility; and that they were crafted specifically to enhance the power of the state over the long term.  Video games?  Really?  That’s what has her upset?  She declares openly and unabashedly that the man whom she supported for president four years ago – over a bona fide war hero, we might add – is a creature unlike any known previously in American politics, a man bent on destroying, rather than merely besting his opponents.  And in the next paragraph she declares his policies reasonable and wonders merely why he left out video games?  Don’t you think that maybe she’d be worried that he’s playing a longer game here, that he is manipulating the gun issue – and the deaths of 20 children – to advance his personal agenda of political vindictiveness and soft authoritarianism?

Well . . . if she’s not, we sure as heck are.

Take a close look at Obama’s 23 executive orders.  We promise, you will find something interesting about them.  Consider, as a sampling, the following:

1. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.

2. Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.

3. Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system.

4. Direct the Attorney General to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.

5. Propose rulemaking to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun.

6. Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers.

7. Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign….

11. Nominate an ATF director.

12. Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations.

13. Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime….

18. Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.

19. Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.

20. Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover.

Noonan writes that these proposals seem “on balance, reasonable and moderate.”  That’s nuts.  These proposals aren’t reasonable and moderate.  They’re silly and pointless.  Nominate an ATF Director?  Uh . . . OK.  Go ahead.  We haven’t had one since 2006.  Maybe we should have one.  But what’s that have to do with guns violence in schools?  Launch a national gun safety program?  Great!  Why don’t you create a national organization to direct it, something like . . . say . . . the National Rifle Association!

What is interesting about Obama’s executive orders is that, from a policy perspective, they are complete and utter nonentities.  They matter not one little bit.  The President could have accomplished anything and everything on that list without issuing any executive orders.  He could have done it all without making a big deal about it and without calling attention to himself.  But he did make a big deal about it.  And he did call attention to himself.  The question is, “why?”

Obviously, we can’t see inside the President’s head, but if you ask us, it seems that his entire purpose here was political.  To put it another way, we believe he issued these pointless and largely uncontroversial executive orders specifically because he wanted to make a big deal and to draw attention to himself.  In short, he wanted to be on record taking unilateral action, which is to say acting without Congressional approval.  If that sounds counterintuitive, we suspect that’s only because you haven’t read/heard the reactions that this unilateral action set off among certain segments of the Republican Party.  Take, for example, the spirited reaction of Florida Congressman Trey Radel, who last week set the tone:

Before Congress has even had a chance to discuss and debate the laws of the land and be the voice for the American people, the President has once again demonstrated his disregard for the Constitution by bypassing lawmakers.  In true bipartisan form, I ask: Democrats, what would you do if a Republican President began overstepping his or her powers and trampling on your rights?  Executive orders must stop and the debate needs to begin.

No one man or woman, Republican or Democrat, should dictate the laws of the land.  Let’s allow Congress to do what the American people elected us to do – Govern as a body, with checks and balances, representing all Americans.

Or, perhaps you may want to consider the “measured” words of Texas Congressman Steve Stockman – never one to be outdone – who promptly upped the ante:

I will seek to thwart this action by any means necessary, including but not limited to eliminating funding for implementation, defunding the White House, and even filing articles of impeachment.

The President’s actions are an existential threat to this nation.  The right of the people to keep and bear arms is what has kept this nation free and secure for over 200 years . . . Under no circumstances whatsoever may the government take any action that disarms any peaceable person . . . The President’s actions are not just an attack on the Constitution and a violation of his sworn oath of office – they are a direct attack on Americans that place all of us in danger.  If the President is allowed to suspend constitutional rights on his own personal whims, our free republic has effectively ceased to exist.

 That’s good stuff, isn’t it?  These geniuses are going to impeach the President of the United States . . . for the “high crime” of wanting to name a new ATF Director.  Or for the “misdemeanor” of wanting to have gun safety classes taught to gun owners.  And all of this combined makes him “an existential threat to the nation.”  You’ll pardon us for noticing, but these guys are even nuttier than Peggy Noonan.

And that, we think, is the point.

It strikes us that the sole purpose – let us say that again, the sole purpose – of busting out the “executive order” card was to bring out the nuts.  Obama – and his team, natch – wanted guys like Radel and Stockman to run their mouths, to look stupid, and, most importantly, to make the President look, by comparison, perfectly reasonable.  And judging by the reactions of the likes of Peggy Noonan, we’d say that he can celebrate another “mission accomplished.”

Last month, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Newtown, many people assumed that some form of serious gun control/reform was all but certain.  The shock and horror of the murdered kindergartners tugged at everyone’s heartstrings, and the feelings of complete helplessness suggested that the public would demand something – anything – be done.  Of course, it hasn’t exactly played out that way.  Obama committed himself to a gun reform agenda for a reason (more about which in a moment), and he is determined to see his agenda realized.  Given the return to normalcy, though, he’s finding it more of a challenge than he expected.

The President’s biggest problem at this point is that the agenda he wants passed is simply not very popular.  He himself remains popular.  The idea of doing “something” on guns remains popular.  But the actual specifics of what that “something” might be are unpopular.  Very unpopular.  In a post titled “How the NRA is Winning,” the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake provide the gory details:

It’s easy to think that in the wake of Wayne LaPierre’s angry press conference and the National Rifle Association’s tin-eared web video on President Obama’s daughters that the NRA is losing — and losing badly — in the fight over the proper place for guns in American society.

Easy and likely incorrect . . .

There’s little doubt that the inside-the-Beltway crowd and those who have been longtime advocates of more gun control laws are outraged by the brash style that the NRA has adopted following the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

But, there’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that the NRA is regarded entirely differently in the country at large.  Polling conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal this week showed 41 percent of people had a favorable opinion of the NRA, while 34 percent viewed it unfavorably, a margin largely unchanged from a similar survey conducted in January 2011.

And a look at the longer-term trend line on views of the NRA by Gallup suggests a striking consistency in the overall impression Americans have of the gun rights group . . . The NRA is already in the midst of a membership boom, as the actions taken by Obama — and, in particular, his executive orders — convince people that the threat of the government seizing guns or limiting gun ownership is real and, because it is, a counter-weight to that government is needed . . .

The likelihood is that whatever passes through Congress will be small, not big . . .

The likelihood of a small-bore bill coupled with the near-certainty of record growth in membership and money are a sort of best-of-both-worlds scenario for the NRA.

Given this, what’s a guy to do?  How’s a president supposed to turn the dynamics of the debate in his favor?

Well, it seems to us that he has to change the general public perception of the NRA and its Congressional water-carriers.  He has to make them appear far more menacing, far more out-of-the-mainstream, and far more reckless than they really are – and far more than most people believe they are.

And how, exactly, can he do that?  Truth be told, he could do it any numbers of ways, or at least he could try to do it any number of ways.  He could harness the power of the bully pulpit to make his case.  He could spend the next several weeks traveling the country and carefully informing the American public about his agenda and the reason he believes it is so important.  He could enlist the help of the media and other fellow travelers to depict the horrors of gun violence in this country.  The problem with all of these approaches is that they’re not likely to work.  The guy is not particularly good at convincing anyone of anything they don’t already believe.  And as for the media, there may be no institution in the country less trusted and less respected.  So that leaves him one option, the one he probably would have chosen in the first place anyway, since it fits his “governing” style the best:  he can simply poke the bear with a stick and hope that everyone is watching when the big dumb thing roars back.

No one should be even remotely surprised by any of this.  It’s in the book, as the saying goes.  In the “community organizer’s” handbook.  In Barack Obama’s guide to political power.  That is to say, in Saul D. Alinsky’s Rules for Radical.   To wit:

The real action is in the enemy’s reaction.  The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength.  Tactics, like organization, like life, require that you move with the action.

That’s what Obama is doing right now.  He is poking the bear.  He wants Republican Congressmen to get upset and to shriek about impeachment.  He wants conservatives on talk radio to start caterwauling about how he is a fascist who is bound and determined to destroy this country.  He wants the NRA to make ads that bring his daughters and their armed Secret Service guards into the debate – and for Republicans like Chris Christie to attack the NRA for doing so.  Most of all, we suspect, he wants to keep this debate going; he wants, slowly but surely, to push and prod his “enemies” toward the point where they do or say something stupid; he wants to continue to appear to be the voice of reason and practicality and the lone voice crying out for justice when the inevitable happens again and the next lunatic takes up a gun and delivers his pain and anger upon the innocent.

We’re not sure whether the President thinks that the supporters of gun rights are crazier than they really are, or whether he is content to poke the bear over and over again, playing a cynical – and likely deadly – waiting game.  But we do know that this is an issue he is not going to abandon.  And we do know that he is going to continue to try his damnedest to aggravate his enemies in the hope of creating an opportunity for successful action that would otherwise fail.

It’s funny.  The crasser and less imaginative Leftie critics of gun owners like to couch their attacks in terms of “manhood.”  Gun owners, they taunt, use guns as a sort of substitute virility.  They can’t be real men without their guns.

Whether they know it or not, there is some kernel of truth in that.  It’s not that guns represent manhood specifically.  It’s that they represent a KIND of manhood.  They represent a free and independent manhood.  They represent the difference between free men, able to defend themselves, and wards of the state, incapable of distancing themselves from the state for fear of danger.  Ben Domenech, the editor of The Transom, summed it up as follows:

There is an important distinction Alexis de Tocqueville returned to several times within his writings about the difference between citizens and subjects.  The latter “are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry.  They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.”  They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved.”  The effect of this is to make their response to calamity very different – a citizen who seeks first to meet a challenge themselves, as a family or with their neighbors, and a subject, who instead appeals to the external faceless authorities they rely on as the source for most things in life.  For those friends who have had a criminal or stalker show up at their door, they called the police, but universally, they got their gun first – a line of defense against those who would do them harm, not a representative of authority to clean up after.

Viewed through this lens, gun rights in the United States are essentially a reiteration of our belief in self-government.  They are not incidental, though they may be old-fashioned.  They are instead an acknowledgement of where the authority for government begins: with the citizen, not with power granted from on high.

Throughout Obama’s first term and especially during the debate over health care reform, we argued that providing health care was a secondary goal in the “reform” agenda and that the real principal end was to alter the relationship between the individual and the state, making the former more completely reliant on the latter for almost everything in his life.  In a very real way, the current gun debate is an extension of that goal.  If the Left can undermine the legitimacy of guns, it can undermine the legitimacy of self-defense and of independence from and the right to exert control over the state.  And if it can accomplish that, then the state will be that much closer to complete supremacy.

Don’t think for a second that Obama doesn’t know this.  He promised to completely transform this country, and he has every intention of doing so.  And he intends, now that the opportunity has been given him, to use guns to do so.

This is not politics as usual.  This is not a case of pushing symbols just to look like something is being done and to demonstrate that Washington really does care.  This is war.  It’s always war these days.  Alinsky speaks throughout his book of “the enemy.”  You, gentle reader are “the enemy” if you oppose or are even indifferent to “the one” and his agenda.  And anyone who doesn’t know that and adjust his strategy accordingly is going to become a casualty.  The president of the United States is playing the long game here.  And he has four years to do so.  We suspect that he’ll be patient and persistent.

For what it’s worth, we think he’s biting off more than he chew.  We don’t think that he understands that playing this game on the national level – and therefore goading fully half of the population – is not the same as playing machine politics in Rochester, New York, where Alinsky wrote his “rules,” or in Chicago, where our young community organizer cut his own teeth.  We suspect that he is going to find out very quickly that the “rules” are a little different when you’re dealing with 300+ million people, many of whom distrust you from the start and almost none of whom share your unique political perspective and background.  In any case, it is going to be a nasty and socially disruptive four years.

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