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Monday, November 03, 2008

Mockery Monday

Shorter Cal Thomas: Barack Hussein al-Obama will kill you.

Verbatim Cal Thomas:

Electing Barack Obama president of the United States would be a roll of loaded dice. We will live (and possibly die) to regret it.

See? I told you.  If you give this man a ride, sweet family will die. Killer on the road.  What part of killer on the road don’t you understand?  Those dice are loaded, people.

The rest of the graf is even better.  No, really:

Republicans have made many mistakes and deserve the punishment they are now getting, but the one charge that cannot be laid at their doorstep is that they wanted to rewrite the Constitution and weaken the country.

Isn’t that odd?  I was thinking just the other day that if there’s one charge we can definitely lay at Republicans’ doorstep, it’s that they’ve rewritten the Constitution and weakened the country.  Weird!

Anyway, read the whole column about Obama the radical socialist who wants to destroy America, and don’t forget to pick up a copy of Cal Thomas’s latest book, Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That Is Destroying America.

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Speaking of partisan war: back when the Obama-Clinton struggle was at its fiercest, and bloggers and commenters bloodied each other mercilessly with every new 3 AM phone call and every reference to Ronald Reagan as a transformational president, I was puzzled by two things.  I mentioned one of them briefly at the TPM Café—the transformation (you should excuse the term) of Hillary Clinton into a Working-Class Hero® along the lines of Joe Hill or Cesar Chavez.  The other was the insistence, on the part of Hillary’s supporters, that she would fight fight fight against the VRWC whereas Obama would try to make nice-nice with them.  I simply did not understand this at all.  It was beyond my comprehension.  I was flabbergas. . . .  OK, you get the idea.  I could understand this argument coming from people 20 and under, who had no memory of the Clinton years, who didn’t recognize the names “Lani Guinier” or “Dick Morris,” and who didn’t know who Mark Penn was and why he was directing Hillary’s campaign.  But from people of a certain age, it was bewildering.  (It was even more bewildering after Hillary came to Pittsburgh to make nice-nice with Richard Mellon Scaife, but by then the campaign was in its Late Baroque period, where anything was possible.)

Now, I’ve never cared for Obama’s version of the “how to stop the partisan war that is destroying America” shtick.  I don’t care for any version of the shtick, whether it comes from Obama or Cal Thomas or David Broder or Alan Wolfe.  We have partisan wars because we have partisan disagreements, people, whether we’re talking about war in Iraq or justice as fairness or the question of whether zygotes and embryos have the same moral status as neonates.  These disagreements aren’t going away, no matter how much anyone wants to get beyond red-and-blue America to a bruised-purplish America.  And like a lot of partisans, I went into the presidential debates thinking, goddamn, I hope Obama calls McCain on every sleazy lie and distortion he’s ever tried to pull in this sleazy lying campaign.  And like a lot of partisans, when Obama didn’t do that, I was disappointed.

The media/campaign narrative since then has emphasized Obama’s coolness, his unflappability, his above-all-this-silly-shit demeanor.  And that’s right, up to a point: Obama knew that the most important thing he could do in the debates, as in the campaign’s closing stages more generally (especially with regard to the financial crisis), was to perform stability.  His demeanor, even more than his actual answers, had to say you can trust me—I can do this job

But there’s something else going on, and last week, one of the exchanges in my exceptionally fine comment section crystallized it for me.  From this thread:

“and after Kerry and Gore’s losses seemed partly due to not fighting low blows with more low blows, I figured Obama was sure to come out swinging at some point. But nope.”

Oh no, Orange in comment #3.  I hate to see this narrative re-forming.  When Obama finally came out swinging was when his campaign started to turn around.  He was losing, remember?  Right around then was when he started to respond to McCain’s Ayers ad with the ad that said “Barack was eight at the time.  Why is McCain so interested in talking about the 60s?” Which would have given establishment Democrats of any other cycle the vapors.

No one wants, or ever did want, a candidate who curses like a blogger.  But let’s not preemptively whitewash the campaign in one big happy glow of “Obama made me feel good about politics again.”

That’s Rich Puchalsky replying to Orange (if that is her real name).  And since Rich P. and Orange have been reading this blog and offering wonderful comments since way back in 1985 when I first started, it pains me to say this, but: yer both wrong.  Or only three-quarters right.

The curious thing is that Obama has been firing back, pretty consistently, without cursing like a blogger—and without quite “coming out swinging,” either.  He’s introduced an entirely new discursive mode to the world of Democratic presidential politics, and I should have recognized it much earlier, because it’s the mode this humble blog has adopted in all its exchanges with David Horowitz: the mode of derisive mockery.  (This has, indeed, given some of my colleagues the vapors—such as the guy who told me he doesn’t think mockery is ever appropriate in public discourse.  He doesn’t teach at Penn State, though.  He teaches at the Institute for Earnest Leftism.)

But unlike my responses to Horowitz, Obama’s mockery hasn’t been over the top; it’s been dismissive but calm, cool, collected, as when Obama replied to McCain’s charge that he is a radical socialist by surmising that McCain’s next move would be to attack him for being a “secret communist” on the grounds that he shared his toys in kindergarten.  Still more recently, Obama took Lord Voldemort’s Dick Cheney’s endorsement of McCain not only as an opportunity to offer McCain his mock congratulations but also as an occasion for mocking Cheney himself:

“Yesterday, Dick Cheney came out of his undisclosed location,” Obama said. “He said that he is, and I quote, ‘Delighted to support John McCain.’ He’s delighted. You’ve never seen Dick Cheney delighted before. But he is. That’s kind of hard to picture.”

So no, Obama doesn’t curse like a blogger.  But he has brought some serious snark to the campaign trail, for maybe the first time ever in the history of everything ever.  Seriously: just try to imagine Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, or (bless her heart) Hillary “that’s not change you can believe in, that’s change you can Xerox” Clinton trying to pull this off.  (OK, maybe Adlai Stevenson—now there was a funny guy.) Obama’s fighting back, all right, but in ways no Democratic candidate has even attempted before.  He’s not post-partisan, and he’s not Olbermanian either.  He merely treats McCain’s attacks with the contempt they deserve, but lightly; and while he performs stability, he also manages to perform seriousness and snarkiness all at once.  It’s not easy.  But he’s really, really good at it. 

As is Rachel Maddow.  What we’re seeing in Maddow and Obama, I think, are public figures who combine high seriousness and all-purpose unflappability with flashes of scary-smartness and moments of dismissive snark.  This M-O m.o. is qualitatively different from the 80-to-100 percent snark content of the Stewart/ Colbert demeanor, and vastly more effective than John Kerry trying to tell a “joke” about being born in the West Wing.  And it seems, for now, to be exactly what the public sphere needs.

Posted by Michael on 11/03 at 08:57 AM
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