Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Down to This: Which side is stronger and wronger

In Domestic Politics on March 17, 2010 at 10:36 pm

In one of the most cogent statements of this era of inclusion, Bill Clinton provided an analysis of the 2002 midterm election in which Republicans not only failed to lose seats, as is typically the case between Presidential contests, but also manged to pick up a few. In a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council Clinton said:

So we have to be firm and clear and strong and positive and prepared to defend our positions and those who are brave enough to stick their necks out to take them…When we look weak in a time where people feel insecure, we lose. When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right…We have a heavy responsibility to cooperate in uniting this country on security issues, and also to come up with better ideas across the board.

What Clinton has said of security issues has become all the more central in an era of über-recession, when every issue is a security issue. Not only do many Americans feel desperate and abandoned, but they also confront a professional environment which is either starkly divided or depleted of legitimacy and Balkanized. People pick their media like they pick their socks, and while non-democratic institutions like the Military and the University still have remarkable high levels of public confidence, the former institution is branded as too far right to trust and the latter as too far left–unless of course one has a acute need for either brute force or brute intellect.

In this kind of environment it may not make sense to be right. Right is only right with respect to a set of premises, themselves deeply contested. In the time it  would take to produce a critical test of a theory, conditions may well have changed. Lurking variables abound in our polarized political environment, and the great mass of middle Americans (defined both in terms of their demographics and their views because polarization is an elite phenomenon) would not know which among the array of caviling authorities to trust in the final analysis in any case. The more this polarization takes hold, the more crucial the political test shifts from right and wrong, to weak and strong. Thing are somewhat bleak, but even this shall pass. History tells us that these things come in cycles of unknown frequency and with time a new normal will emerge.

So the choice for a partisan is who is going to be stronger and wronger. This is a bit of a playful turn of Clinton’s phrase, but it is not entirely inapt in that one side’s right is the other’s wrong. What is irrefutable is strength. If the Democrats win and the people really do hate the bill (if the Democrats are wrong about long run public opinion), at least they will not look weak. Odds are that appearing to be weak is worse for Democrats than appearing to be tenderhearted.

The show of strength matters more for President Obama than it does for Republican leaders, because they are in a deep minority and have already shown remarkable resilience. Few tea partiers will be happy to lose on health care, but it will make their faith all that much stronger in the cause of freedom. Liberty is strength Patriot! The Nervous Nellies of the Republican leadership can make a great and plausible case that they have made their stand at Thermopylae and have delayed the advance of a modern day Xerxes (my favorite twist on this is that among the last few Greeks guarding the pass at Thermopylae were said to have been 700 Thespians).

The right is as shrill as I have seen it. Norman Ornstein of the right of center American Enterprise Institute accuses Republicans of feigned indignation. Having immersed myself in right-of-center media, I half expect Obama to start lashing the Hellespont while his minions scream “You hateful water, our master lays his judgment on you thus, for you have unjustly punished him even though he’s done you no wrong! Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you wish it or not!” But this is simply not his style. In fact I think that Obama has gotten himself in trouble more because of his ethic responsibility than for his ethic of ultimate ends. Note his comments in the astonishing Fox News interview:

Now, we can fix this in a way that is sensible, that is centrist. I have rejected a whole bunch of provisions that the left wanted that are — you know, they were very adamant about because I thought it would be too disruptive to the system.

The health care plan before us, makes sense from a left-of-center point of view. It does not make sense form a leftist point of view; it may not make sense from a right-of-center point of view, but what is good enough for a Massachusetts Republican must be good enough for a Pennsylvania Democrat. What is sure, is that if these Republicans can hold the pass on the health care bill this weekend, Obama may need to bivouac on the way back to Persepolis.

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