Friday, July 29, 2016

In which Republican pundits hear Obama for the first time

A hard-baking meme in the commentary following the Democratic convention is that the Democrats stole traditional Republican thunder  -- projecting American exceptionalism, support of the military, economic optimism.

Granting that the speaker selection and crowd chants may have been a bit more rah-rah than the Democratic norm, this meme has its root in Republican reaction to Obama's speech on Wednesday night that says more about them than him.  The Times' Nick Confessore cites this example:
“What is Obama talking about? He’s talking about the Constitution. He’s talking about personal freedom,” said Craig Shirley, a conservative author and Reagan biographer, referring to the Wednesday speech in which President Obama invoked his Scotch-Irish roots and the homespun values of humility and hard work.

“Moving out several paragraphs, Reagan could have given that speech,” Mr. Shirley added. “This might be part of a dialectical change in American politics.”
Twitter abounded* with similar sentiments:

An here's National Review's Jim Geraghty, in an email to subscribers:
the point is that the Democrats — the Democrats! — are citing the Founding Fathers and the document of our national creation in their argument. This used to be the Republicans’ style. But since the GOP left it unused, the Democrats are picking it up and using it.
Obama did remind Republicans rather pointedly of Reagan's "shining city on a hill" -- picking up on his avowal that Trump is not conservative.  But the notion that the "optimism" or faith in America or the narrative of American history Obama delivered on Wednesday night represent some kind of  sea change for him proves only one thing: that these Republican pundits have never, ever listened to Obama before.

Ever since he came on the national stage, and probably long before, Obama has told the same story, presented the same idealized narrative, about America. The founding documents express principles that point toward a democratic Eden of equal rights and equal opportunity (pursuit of happiness) for all. Slavery was the original sin, the snake in the grass, and the country has wrestled with its legacy, making fitful but unmistakable progress. At various crux and crisis points, Americans have made choices and taken actions that expand the circle of those included in the promise of equality -- blacks, immigrants, women, the disabled,  gays.  That's because U.S. political institutions enable change when enough people will it. When the country makes bad choices, crucially, our institutions provide a means of self-correction. Obama himself led a movement that he cast as a correction to a rightward drift led by Reagan and Bush Jr. that triggered galloping inequality and the erosion of the middle class. Even our current political dysfunction should be viewed as one more wrong turn in need of a course correction that will come (see the Feb.19 quote here). This speech added: Trump constitutes a unique danger to those institutions and the spirit of progressive change they channel. But we'll clear this hurdle too.

Obama has quite simply never given a major address without some version of this narrative, which he encapsulates most commonly in the formula: more perfect, never perfected.  I have documented this narrative so many times that I'm not going to cite multiple examples in this post: see here, here and here. Let's take just one representative example from the speech that saved his candidacy in March 2008, when the Jeremiah Wright controversy triggered the meme that apparently has blinded a lot of conservatives until this Wednesday night: Obama does not love America (because his pastor said "God damn America"). The speech was titled, natch,.A More Perfect Union:
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time...

This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.
On Wednesday night, setting that narrative against the threat posed by Trump did lead to some variants.  Nick Confessore, putting Craig Shirley's comments in context above, captured one of them: the allusion to Obama's Scotch-Irish roots. Obama used that allusion, ironically, to confront a precursor of Trumpism in Sarah Palin's racist appeals to the "real America." As I noted yesterday, Obama tapped his Kansas heartland roots only to affirm that the tree has spread from Hawaii to working class Chicago, from the founding era to the present, from the Scotch-Irish to the Asian and Arab and Latino immigrants of today:
And what my grandparents understood was that these values weren’t limited to Kansas. They weren’t limited to small towns.  These values could travel to Hawaii; even the other side of the world, where my mother would end up working to help poor women get a better life.  They knew these values weren’t reserved for one race; they could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter; in fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago.  They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke; a baseball cap or a hijab.

America has changed over the years.  But these values my grandparents taught me – they haven’t gone anywhere.  They’re as strong as ever; still cherished by people of every party, every race, and every faith.  They live on in each of us.  What makes us American, what makes us patriots, is what’s in here.  That’s what matters.  That’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own.  That’s why we can attract strivers and entrepreneurs from around the globe to build new factories and create new industries here.  That’s why our military can look the way it does, every shade of humanity, forged into common service. That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end. 
Erik Erickson, reddest of RedStaters and diehard NeverTrumper, tweeted in the midst of Obama's speech:
The reference to "hope" suggests that perhaps Erickson was not entirely unfamiliar with the themes that got Obama elected in 2008. But faced with the Trump threat, perhaps he too had new ears with which to hear Obama. Welcome, Erick.

Update: Conservative anti-Trumpers wish Hillary would move to the center. But is anyone there?

*The tweets cited here were gathered in this piece by Slate's Ben Mathis-Lilley

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