Chris Matthews was apoplectic: "There's a hot debate going on in this country, and you know where it's being held? Here, on this network, is where we're having this debate. We have our knives out. We go after the people and the facts. What was he doing tonight? He went in disarmed!"
Ed Schultz was “absolutely stunned.” The president, he proclaimed, made a “deal with the devil" by saying he agreed with Mitt Romney on Social Security. (“A somewhat similar position” is how Obama put it.) Ed was not brooking any of Rachel Maddow’s excuses about how Romney muscled in for time: “The president needs to go in there and fight for that time. There’s people out there who expect him to fight for that time.” (Another ideological illusion: According to one analyst, Obama actually got 11% more microphone time than Romney, while saying 9% fewer words. The problem wasn’t time. It was energy.)
Note the tone of personal disappointment, even anger, in these remarks. Matthews is acknowledging that “we, here” (he and his MSNBC colleagues) have been Obama’s surrogates, “having the debate” on his behalf with “knives out” for months. He is pissed off that Obama did not show up to have “our” backs. And you know that Schultz sees himself as one of the “people out there” who expected Obama to join his fight. Obama has betrayed the MSNBC posse that has been doing all the warm-up combat for him.
As posses are wont to do, this one fails (or pretends, or does not want) to understand that their leader is not the person they have been telling themselves and others that he is. He did not come armed for the fight they’ve been waging because it’s not his fight. Obama’s not really interested in the same fight they are, although he often creates the fiction that he is. Throughout his presidency, and especially during this campaign, the MSNBC crew has been doing the same thing that most liberals and progressives did during the 2008 campaign: Based on staged and scripted events and speeches, carefully targeted to people like them, they projected on to Obama the image of a progressive politician who was determined – even if ever so subtly, secretly, n-dimensionally, or from-behind – to defend the interests of working people against the plutocracy, to redress the inequalities and injustices of late American capitalism at home and abroad, and to fundamentally change the way that our politics works.
In reality, he is not this, and has never been. The Obama they saw in the debates, in a context where the discourse could not be so tightly controlled by his production crew, was exactly the Obama we saw after his election in 2008: someone who continually seeks accommodation with the most reactionary politicians and policies, because that is what he wants and likes to do, because it is those policies – and not any “progressive” ones – that he is more comfortable accommodating. Anyone who thinks it strange that Obama was so passive in the face of – indeed, so inclined to be compliant with – Romney and his principles, has not been paying attention to (or has been deluding him/herself about) what Obama has been saying and doing for the past three and a half years. Ed and his colleagues have been so wrapped up in writing themselves into the Story of Obama that they failed to notice that Obama has been making deals with the devil since day one.
(During the debate, besides pointing out their “similar position” on Social Security, Obama said he “agreed” with Romney on substantive issues six times, including on the need to lower taxes for corporations, and urged Romney to agree that Obamacare is “a Republican idea,” in fact, “the same plan” crafted by “the same advisers” as Romney’s plan in Massachusetts. Romney said he “agreed” with Obama three times, mostly on Obama’s and Arne Duncan’s “chartist” education initiatives).
As I remarked in a previous post, the MSNBC Obamicans spend all their time talking about Republicans because, while it’s easy to trash them for being reactionary liars, it’s considerably harder to coherently portray as “progressive” a president who is quite obviously not very progressive at all. Therefore it’s better not to focus on him too sharply. Obama is present in their discourse mainly as an absence, as the implicit other of the Republicans. Obama, they suggest, without actually inspecting him too closely, is he who, we can be confident, is the opposite of them. On Wednesday night, we saw these Obama knife-fighters wake up for a moment, startled by reality of the politician, which contrasts so sharply with the image they have been helping to fictionalize.
As I said in another post, Obama has been more adept than Romney at turning his deceptions into attractive fictions. At Wednesday’s debate, that dynamic was reversed. We cannot know, of course, whether this new dynamic will persist through the remainder of the campaign, or whether, as I think more likely, Brand Obama will re-establish the dominance of its creative capacities.
We can, however, be fairly certain that Obama will be primed to take a more aggressive tone in the next debate. It is important to note that the MSNBC posse’s job is to gin up enthusiasm, and votes, for Obama, from wary, and erstwhile antiwar, youth and liberals, and to do that they have been relying heavily on some putative case for Obama’s energetic progressivism on domestic issues. One of the things that must annoy them the most about his limp performance in Wednesday’s debate is that it leaves them the daunting task of finding a way to spin his performance in the upcoming debate in a way that retrieves his “progressivism” for those strong left-liberal voters. Good luck with that.
The main topic of that debate will be foreign policy, on which Obama has established his imperialist credentials in ways that satisfy even Dick Cheney and Ann Coulter. So there is likely to be a lot of agreement between Barack and Mitt on fundamental principles. Since Romney is what he is at the moment, this means that any attacks on Obama will be from the even-more imperialist and Zionist right. And since Obama is who he is, this means that his riposte will be to aggressively insist that, no, he’s even-even-more imperialist and Zionist than Romney.
It will be fun, or maybe pathetic, to watch the “progressive” MSNBC posse expound on that fight. Of course, they’ll glow about how Obama killed Bin Laden and how he will be a more effective enabler of Israel. (Indeed, they are likely to complain if he’s not aggressive enough on those topics.) Maybe they’ll even chirp a little about “humanitarian intervention.” But they won’t want to dwell too long on substantive issues like perpetual, ubiquitous drone warfare and the unfettered presidential prerogative to attack foreign countries and assassinate American citizens, since it is absolutely impossible to find anything “progressive” in all that. Too much militarist posturing may further discourage those already disillusioned base voters, so the MSNBC commentators will probably gloss over the militarism, as they have done for years, to focus on “style.”
If Obama comes across as more likeably assertive, he’ll be declared the “winner.” And whoever wins the debate, the more-imperialist-and-Zionist-than-thou discourse of American politics will be ratcheted further to the right, with no tirades about that from Chris or Ed.
Glenn Greenwald, “The Vindication of Dick Cheney” (http://www.salon.com/2011/01/18/cheney_72/).