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What the President Didn't Seem to Learn From the Shirley Sherrod Incident

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The "teachable moment" cliché may be overused, as Jason Linkins observed the other day, but what the White House really needed this week was a learnable moment. The Administration and other leading Democrats had an opportunity this week to understand the nature of the opposition they face. The President's remarks about Shirley Sherrod's firing suggest that this "learnable moment" may have been lost. Let's hope not.

In what might be described as a "the buck stops there" comment, the President blamed Tom Vilsack for the decision. "He jumped the gun," said the President, "partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles."

No, Mr. President. The problem is that there is a highly motivated, ideologically driven, and extremely well funded movement that is determined to destroy you, your party, and everything you stand for, including the proper role of government in a civil society. Their ideology lies in tatters, destroyed by the economic collapse and the ecological devastation in the Gulf. All they have left is the politics of destruction.

The problem is not blogs and YouTube,. The problem is Fox News. The Right has a very simple and very successful model: Use people like Matt Drudge or Andrew Breitbart to start phony rumors, then use the massive media power of Fox, Rush, and other outlets to spread a lie around the world before the truth can get open its mouth. Fox News.

The "media culture" locution is another one of the President's ways of trying to remain "above left and right." But to do so in this case is to misunderstand the situation. Sun Tzu said "If you know yourself and know your enemy, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." The "media culture" frame is one that suggests he doesn't know his enemy.

It also suggests he doesn't know his friends. I'm here in Las Vegas at Netroots Nation, where progressive bloggers gather to share ideas and hear from their leaders. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will be taking questions tomorrow, but I don't see any Administration representatives in attendance (except Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who took part in a panel yesterday). The President likes to disparage progressive bloggers -- no doubt egged on by Rahm Emanuel, who's extremely unpopular in this crowd. And he likes to lump progressive bloggers in with their counterparts on the Right, as part of the "media culture" he disdains.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have heard high-level, educated, detailed discussions of policy topics that range from biofuels to counterinsurgency. This group represents a pool of talent the Administration and Congress could use to their advantage, if it weren't for their fear of "outside the Beltway" resources. And not a single one of the thousands of people here has ever doctored a video in order to ruin a career or discredit a Presidency.

The truth is, this "above left and right" routine has never served the President or Democrats particularly well. It's what led the President, a brilliant and gifted man, to make one of the silliest statements he's ever uttered: "Ultimately, there's no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. We rise or fall together as one nation. " Sadly (and unequivocally), that is not true. It's great to rise above the battle when you can. But sometimes there are battles, and they are battles worth fighting.

With the passage of the new financial bill, Wall Street reform has just begun. Banks are marshaling their resources to influence upcoming regulations and the actions of the regulators themselves. Lobbyists and the Right will be fighting to roll back the progress that's been made so far. The Administration and Congress are going to need all the help they can get. And now the Right is gearing up to dismantle Social Security, the successful embodiment of a social compact that has worked for generations. To strike a "bipartisan" pose in the face of this threat would be both callous policy and foolish politics.

As for the President's "media culture" comment, it reflects the same "above the fray" posture as those Wall Street/Main Street comments, and is equally likely to fizzle. Here's an idea: Don't hide your opponents in a verbal cloud, Mr. President. Name them. Call them out. If you don't want to go "left and right," just say that "there are those who would spread misinformation because the facts and the arguments aren't on their side." The ideology of deregulation and unfettered market rapacity is discredited, so they are using racial hatred and smear tactics to distract the public from the failure of their ideas. Remember, know your enemy and you need not fear a hundred battles.

And a hundred battles are certainly coming.

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