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I'll Quit Whining When You Start Fighting

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When Joe Lieberman threatened to scuttle health care reform, I wonder if President Obama accused him of "not being serious in the first place." I wonder if Joe Biden ever told Chuck Grassley to "quit whining," or if Robert Gibbs advised Mitch McConnel to get "drug tested."

Actually, I don't. I can't think of anything less likely than the Obama White House dealing with conservatives in anything like the derisive manner with which it treats its own supporters, a manner that has become even more pronounced as polls show many Democratic voters feeling less than inspired. The President makes the "not serious" charge against those Democrats in a new Rolling Stone interview, where he also says, "The idea that we've got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible." And the Vice President has now famously admonished progressives for whining about the administration "not doing enough."

But that's not what we're whining about. We're not disappointed that President Obama hasn't done enough, we're disappointed that, in too many caes, he hasn't fought hard enough. Not nearly.

We wouldn't have cared about losing the public option in a fair fight, but we cared a lot about giving it away before the fight even started. We wouldn't have minded striking a compromise on the size of the stimulus if the administration had argued for a big enough bill, but we very much minded never hearing the argument. And we very much resent being set up to take the fall for political tactics that, because they have legitimized the cancerous nonsense of the modern conservative movement, may have turned future battles into hopeless causes. The "professional left" as Robert Gibbs so revealingly called us, is not at fault for the looming electoral disaster in November. Despite the impressive string of Democratic legislative victories or, more accurately, because of the way they've been achieved, a White House that has been lending implicit credence to conservative propaganda for two years is now merely reaping what it sowed.

When Democrats tacitly accept Republican delusions and lies, when they characterize them as mere "differences of opinion," or adopt them as their own, they help give body and shape -- the weight of reality -- to insidious fantasy. The political trades and compromises of previous eras took place within a more or less agreed-upon reality, but modern conservatives re-concoct a new reality for themselves every day. It's not horse-trading anymore when the other side is offering unicorns. Yet Democrats have kept at it for years, despite the toll it's taken on their agenda, and the Obama White House's "victories" have virtually all been for legislation that would have been right at home in the Nixon White House.

The administration is forever lecturing the Democratic base about how things "really work" in Washington, about how little they can do if they "don't have the votes." But Republicans, whether in the majority or minority, in the White House or not, never care if they have the votes. They know the way things really work in Washington is that, sooner or later, volume and repetition can make anything true. Anything. Global warming is a hoax. The President is a Muslim. The unemployed want to be unemployed. Republicans know that losing a vote often doesn't matter as much as shaping perceptions of that vote. Even when they're taking serious legislative hits, they invariably succeed at nudging fantastical, or vile, malignant notions into the mainstream conversation, and pushing that conversation's center of gravity one step further to the right.

A recent poll from Democracy Corps found that 55 percent of likely voters in this November's elections believe Barack Obama is a socialist. It should go without saying that the President's policies and rhetoric have been anything but "socialistic," of course. He extended Bush's taxpayer bailout of Wall Street. His health care plan was more private-sector friendly than the one Richard Nixon proposed. He hasn't raised taxes, nationalized a single industry, or cut a red cent from the defense budget. So why have more than half of likely voters fallen for the right-wing caricature of our decidedly centrist President as the second coming of Che Guevara?

At least one answer is: what choice have they had? What equally vivid, galvanizing themes have been articulated by Democrats in response? How has the Obama Administration's political style defined the President, his core values and beliefs?

The Obama Administration needs to learn that there is more at stake in their debates with Republicans than the immediate legislation at hand. The timid, accommodating Democratic posture of the last thirty years has ceded more than mere political ground to conservatives. Every substantive and rhetorical bone thrown to the right has propped up an ever expanding, ever more influential edifice of crazy. When the Obama Administration ran away from including a public option in the health care plan, or the restoration of Glass-Steagal-type financial "firewalls," when it preemptively shaved the stimulus spending down to about half of what it should have been, at a time when those ideas were being described as "tyrannical," it not only lent credence to the fantastical free-market premises that got us into this crisis in the first place, it encouraged the foundational beliefs of the former lunatic "fringe" that has taken over the conservative movement.

Yet the White House has treated the sudden Republican concern with the deficit as genuine, once again preemptively ceding ground -- three trillion dollars worth of ground -- on all the Bush tax cuts except those aimed at the top two-percent, and then quickly given up the fight for even that relatively thin slice of sanity. They have allowed Republicans to characterize the entirely sensible, conventional idea that stimulative spending is good for a contracting economy as the wild-eyed profligacy of a socialist bent on wrecking the economy as "payback for slavery," as Rush Limbaugh recently put it. If the White House thought that kind of idea was too crazy to gain any purchase with the public, they haven't been paying attention.

Which wouldn't be unusual for Democrats. The habitually cool response of the administration to the right's paranoid, delusional rhetoric is a repeat of the same political mistake Democrats like Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and John Kerry have been making for years -- underestimating the metastatic reach of such rhetoric and the tenacious hold it can take in the public consciousness. But the stakes are so much higher now than they used to be.

If the last thirty years teaches us anything, it's that the Obama Administration needs to shake off worries about dignifying conservative craziness with a response. And they need to do it before they're Swift Boated, Willie Hortoned, Whitewatered, or worse. Whatever happens in November, they need to use the next two years to forcefully, repeatedly confront the delusionists, articulate a clear vision in powerfully symbolic language, and connect the dots between that vision and policy. They need to learn how to fight the good fight, even for causes that might, at the moment, seem hopeless, and especially for the most direly consequential cause of all: keeping our politics from going completely off the rails. There's more at stake than just an election.

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