08/13/2010 04:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Gibbs v. the "Professional Left"

I returned yesterday from an overseas vacation to find Washington embroiled in furious controversy over Robert Gibbs's gibes at the "professional left." Somehow, the shock waves from this momentous development had failed to register in Corsica, which may be a gorgeous, sun-splashed rock in the Mediterranean, but is hopelessly apathetic about U.S. politics.

Fortunately for slackers like me, Washington's chattering class is too busy for vacations. And cable TV never rests, keeping the vital discourse of democracy going even as Americans frolic heedlessly on beaches, lakes and mountains. Well, the fun's over for me, so I might as well wade into the fray between the frazzled White House Press Secretary and his netroots tormentors.

For starters, it's hard not to feel some sympathy to Gibbs, for whom watching cable TV is an occupational hazard. Too much of a bad thing, is, well, bad and it's only human for Gibbs to vent about the ideological purism of talk show anchors and lefty bloggers who imagine that most Americans are pining for a full-throated liberal avenger in the White House. Real-life politics is nothing like The West Wing.

And Democrats might as well have it out now, the summer of their economic discontent, rather than, say, in October on the eve of the midterm. One truly silly argument is that Gibb's criticisms of the administration's "base" could alienate them and cause them to stay home on election day. In the first place, netroots types aren't really the Democratic Party's base.

They are a subset of liberals, who are themselves outnumbered by moderates and conservatives in the party. And they love to be attacked, because it validates their rather inflated sense of political self-importance. The worst thing you can do to the netroots is to ignore them.

In fact, every Democratic President in recent memory has been flayed by the hard left for lapses from orthodoxy. That is especially true of Franklin Roosevelt, the President many of today's disappointed liberals say they wish Obama would be more like.

Like Obama, FDR was called a tool of Wall Street, a trimmer, an opportunist. He was bitterly assailed for trying to rescue and restore the free enterprise system rather than replacing it with central economic planning.

This drove leading liberal New Dealers like Rexford Tugwell and Harold Ickes to distraction. Here's Tugwell:

"They [FDR's liberal critics] are like Chinese warriors who decide battles, not by fighting, but by desertion...They rush to the aid of any liberal victor, and then proceed to stab him in the back when he fails to perform the mental impossibility of subscribing unconditionally to their dozen or more conflicting principles." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 414)

And Ickes had some equally choice words for the perfectabilian demands of his fellow liberals:

"That so-called liberals spend so much time trying to expose fellow liberals to the sneering scorn of those who delight to have their attention called to clay feet...I get very tired of the smug self-satisfaction, the holier-than-thou attitude, the sneering meticulousness of men and women with whose outlook on economic and social questions I often regretfully find myself in accord. It seems to be a fact that a reformer would rather hold up to ridicule another reformer because of some newly discovered fly speck than he would to clean out Tammany Hall. Sometimes even the fly speck is imaginary." (Schlesinger, The Politics of Upheaval, 413-414)

Gibbs has a point when he says that liberals undervalue Obama's major political achievements. On the big matters that really count - the breakthrough on universal health care, the financial regulatory bill, getting out of Iraq on time, and placing liberal women on the Supreme Court (including the Court's first Hispanic member) - Obama unquestionably has moved the needle in a progressive direction. But if history is any guide, it won't matter - he's still going to get pilloried by the congenitally insatiable left for something (For failing to close Gitmo, or embrace gay marriage, or demand amnesty for immigrants, etc.)

The fundamental problem with the left's carping about Obama is the underlying assumption that their views are shared by a majority of the country: If only he would fight harder for structural transformations in American life, the latent progressive majority would spring into being and rally behind him!

This is sheer fantasy. If the country has moved in any direction over the past two years, it is to the center, and perhaps even the center right (excepting Republicans, who have surged lemming-like off the ideological cliff). What liberals see as overly tepid moves to restructure and stimulate the economy a healthy chunk of the increasingly cranky electorate, especially independences, see as overweening government intrusion.

The party's leftists are obviously within theirs rights to criticize Obama when they think he deviates from the true path, just as centrists and conservatives are. And the dialectic between the President's essential political pragmatism and left-wing fundamentalists is probably a healthy thing. It could force Obama to articulate more clearly the overarching philosophical framework that informs a Presidency that otherwise seems to proceed on the logic of serial pragmatism.

But ultimately, left leaning Democrats aren't going to find a better horse to ride. And the more they flog Obama, the worse Democrats are likely to do this November.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.