Thursday, August 11, 2011

An implacable conciliator

Drew Westen's full-fronted assault on President Obama's performance, rhetoric and character riveted liberal America.  To my mind, Westen core charges have been definitively refudiated. Westen idealized and mischaracterized FDR, vastly overestimated the power of presidential rhetoric, short-changed Obama's legislative accomplishments, ignored what he actually said in his speeches and impugned his motives without any meaningful discussion or evidence.

Westen did, however, touch a  raw nerve in progressives frustrated by Obama's refusal to acknowledge that Republicans have not dealt with him in good faith, and by his endlessly proffered willingness to engage with them under the assumption that they are willing to compromise to find solutions to the country's problems. Michael Tomasky offers a more substantive critique than Westen's of this conciliatory approach to leadership.  While acknowledging a variety of possible contributory causes, Tomasky focuses on Obama's political philosophy -- which is easily verifiable in his writing, speeches and engagement with Congress:

Obama has beliefs about democratic governance, and about himself as president, that dictate his behavior in battles like the debt-ceiling brawl. These beliefs were a big part of what made him so inspirational to so many people before he won the 2008 election, but they have served him—and his voters, and the country—poorly since he took office, and especially since the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives.

Obama believes in civic virtue, and in the idea that in a democracy it’s the duty of responsible leaders to reason together on behalf of something they all agree to call the common good. The fancy name for this theory of government in political-philosophy circles is civic republicanism: the “civic” part refers to action taken in the public sphere, while “republican” (a small-r republican and a big-R Republican are very different animals) signals a concern with tyrannical majorities and a faith that reasoned debate will produce a balanced result...

A return to that kind of civic culture [of the "era of good feelings" following the War of 1812] is what Obama hoped to bring about—all that talk about transforming politics. And that vision was key to his appeal during, and before, the campaign. The most famous sentence in Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech—“there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America”—is a textbook civic-republican sentiment. After the thuggish, with-us-or-against-us posture of the Bush administration, it was something millions of Americans wanted to hear, and believe in.
While I believe that Obama erred terribly in getting sucked into the debt ceiling Charybdis, I also think the jury is still out as to whether "these beliefs" will prove to have "served him poorly" by 2012 or 2016. It remains an open question how Democrats can effectively counter Republican extremism. While Obama was forced to retreat from his insistence on a "balanced" deficit reduction deal under threat of national default -- a threat I believe he should never have accepted as a term of negotiation--  he did succeed in exposing the GOP's extremism on taxes, which his proving wildly unpopular with the public.  His sweet reasonableness, set off against their fanaticism, may yet -- perhaps over the course of years -- generate the electoral pressure that forces the GOP to moderate. That is, if he manages to avoid hostage situations.

The question is whether Obama's conciliation has a bottom.  And on that question, Tomasky cites a fascinating dual lesson in the career of Obama's acknowledged role model, Lincoln:
To begin with, says historian Eric Rauchway of the University of California, Davis, Obama misapprehends history. Obama admires the Abraham Lincoln of the second inaugural—the Lincoln who promised “malice toward none” and “charity for all” those involved in the Civil War, on both sides. But Rauchway points out that six weeks later, Lincoln was dead—and that had the rhetoric of the second inaugural been translated into policy, it would have been disastrous. “The Lincoln who was a great success, the one who gets the monument on the Mall, is the one who was willing to make war rather than accept a moral wrong,” says Rauchway.

This caught my eye, because I do think that Obama aims to make "with malice toward none" the keynote of presidency. Rauchway's assertion is not entirely accurate, insofar as Lincoln was perfectly willing to accept a sheaf of "moral wrongs," including adherence to the Fugitive Slave Act, in order to avoid war; what he was not willing to accept was the severing of the Union.  In any case, it sent me back to Lincoln's First Inaugural to reacquaint myself with the extent and limits of his conciliation of the South upon taking office.

The speech's most famous passage, its conclusion, is what you might call Obama catnip:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The beginning, too, is conciliatory. Lincoln aims at the outset to soothe southern paranoia by promising, as he had repeatedly in the campaign, that he has no intention of interfering with slavery in the southern states.   From there, the first part of the speech lays out step by step how far he is willing to go to mollify the South. To our ears -- and to those of abolitionists at the time, it is very far indeed. He will

1) Forswear the invasion of any state that remains a state:
Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:
Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.
2) Uphold the obligation of citizens of free states to return fugitive slaves:
There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:
No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution—to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause "shall be delivered up" their oaths are unanimous. Now, if they would make the effort in good temper, could they not with nearly equal unanimity frame and pass a law by means of which to keep good that unanimous oath?
3) Tolerate a degree of passive resistance to Federal authority in states currently hostile to the Union:
In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States in any interior locality shall be so great and universal as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people for that object. While the strict legal right may exist in the Government to enforce the exercise of these offices, the attempt to do so would be so irritating and so nearly impracticable withal that I deem it better to forego for the time the uses of such offices.
4) Support an amendment that codifies a principle he has already affirmed -- guaranteeing the perpetuation of slavery in any state that already has it and wants to maintain it:
I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.
All this yielding has a hard limit, however: the Union cannot be dissolved.
I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.

Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it—break it, so to speak—but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?...

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.

I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.

So the full extent of Lincoln's concessions, extending even to the point of not insisting that Federal offices in Southern states be occupied, serves to mark the limit of what he will not tolerate: secession.  This is the mother of all hard lines.You might call it a soft speaker's manual for how to draw a hard line. If you cross this, Lincoln says, on your head be it:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."
Then comes the soft and emotional pleading of the conclusion, quoted at the outset above.

No chief magistrate could be milder. Or more implacable.


  1. Just wonderful. A tremendous tonic and beautifully apposite. Many thanks.

    Also apposite and a tonic today was NPR’s On Point call-in show, featuring Drew Westen, who reiterated his case, with all of its distortions of the historical record, and who was then obliterated by fellow guest Jonathan Chait and most of the callers. Westen has a knack for mildly ceding the merit of some of the criticism aimed at him while blithely ignoring most of the palpable hits, and shrugging at the ominous potential upshot of his anti-Obamaism. He talks like a guy who thinks Ralph Nader's contribution to the 200o presidential election was to clarify its rich narrative elements. Very revealing and HIghly recommended:

  2. Nothing much to add. I just wanted to say thank you for this!