Democratic Tribalism; or A Nation Without a President

Governance by a president and the executive branch has always been political in nature.  A president gains office by persuading more people in more regions that he is fit to hold the reins of power.  To keep that coalition intact in order to pass a budget and any legislation, the president necessarily must continue politicking to gather his ‘side’ and perhaps attract a few stragglers.  That is the democratic principle at work.  However, the president is also supposed to be a leader for the entire nation.  As a result, he must appear above the fray and offer compromises and drive consensus.  It is the ‘presidential’ attribute that we ascribe to our leader when he acts to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.  It is tricky.  It demands a mix of political courage and determination. 

This president has neither.  Here’s why.

From Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post, February 27, 2011, ‘A modern twist on the old world death spiral,’ he writes, “The latest manifestations of this histrionic political disorder can be found in the Republican caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives and among some of the newly elected Republican governors, who aim to use a serious budget crisis as a pretext for driving a stake through the heart of government, the labor movement and the “enemy” party. It’s not just the Republicans, however – this tribalism afflicts both parties and has been getting worse for decades.”

Party tribalism is a favorite term for political pundits these days.  Tribalism is a kind of kneejerk reaction that regardless of philosophy or consistancy, a group will coalesce to defend its own.  It’s most certainly not used to describe an admirable trait.  It’s a kind of, ‘he may not be perfect, but he’s ours,’ mentality.  Pearlstein is saying, in effect, that Republicans are clannish hypocrites that will say and do anything just to spite the other side.  Sure, Democrats do it too, but they aren’t as spiteful and mean about it.  Pearlstein’s problem is, the events don’t speak to his characterization.  Rather than being kneejerk, conservatives, Republicans, and independents are actually not wedded to a brand or tribe.  They are openly spatting and arguing about policy and tactics.  The Right side of the aisle is not singular in their behavior.  In fact, there is widespread disagreement over how to accomplish their shared set of goals. 

What unites them is a shared philosophy of limited government, fiscal sanity, rule of law, and respect for values.  Otherwise, the ‘tribalism’ Pearlstein sees is completely illusionary.  It is in the raucous debate that truths are told.  It is in rhetorical battles that remedies become apparent.  The real tribalism, as Pearlstein admits in part, is entirely on the Democratic Party side.  It isn’t open warfare, but a ‘spy versus spy’ Cold  War that is ripping the Party’s philosophy to shreds.  The only thing holding the Democratic coalition together is the shared moniker of ‘Democrat.’

The Obama administration can feel the rumblings and hear the faults begin to crack.  As a result, the president and members of his administration are battening down the hatches, abandoning all pretense of governing, and doing what they think the do best; campaigning.

Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 was considered magnificent.  He ousted Hillary Clinton from her dominance over the nomination fight, created a persona no one could match, and defeated the entire Republican brand in the form of John McCain and a huge swath of Republican lawmakers.  Following his victory, it was Obama who bragged that Democrats need not worry about making unpopular votes in Congress.  When questioned about the 1994 landslide against the Democrats giving the House and Senate to the GOP, Obama scoffed.  Then Rep. Marion Berry D-Arkansas recalled; ““They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’ We’re going to see how much difference that makes now.”  Obama and his entourage believed The Won would have coattails that spread like FDR.  He believed he was charmed and could dispense that popularity like confetti upon the endangered few.  The Democratic Party-aligned mainstream media also promulgated this idea.  Obama’s campaigning skills were so powerful, he could just fly into a district or state and the people would flock to his side. 

2010 proved just how wrong he really was.  In fact, candidates fled before he arrived.  Tim Kaine, Democratic National Committee chair pleaded with Democrats nationwide to embrace Obama, Obamanomics, Obamacare, and all things Obama-esque.  This would be a winning combination, Kaine argued.

The ones who were in deep navy blue districts or states survived.  Those who were in districts that even tinged purple, lost.  Or, managed to avoid appearing even slightly in favor of all things Obama.  Joe Manchin in West Virginia is a good example.  He only won by shooting a big example of Democratic legislative thuggishness in the form of a bill. 

Obama is now the brand.  Many Democrats, those who still embrace the label and are reasonable, are scared to death.  Obamanomics has failed miserably.  The economy is sputtering.  Job growth is anemic.  Inflation is rearing its ugly head for the first time in decades.  We are deeply addicted to spending, spending everyone realizes is poisonous.  The deficits and debt weigh heavy on the general public and their attitudes toward their government.  Overseas, we are viewed with suspicion, or jocularity, or outright contempt.  For a president who promised peace, we are still embroiled in two occupations that look like wars and we are now saber-rattling in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. 

This is a president watching as his empty promises and failed policies drain the vigor from his Party. 

What he has left is the brand.  He must shore up his base, stave off any last minute defection that would run against him, and rally the troops.  Obama doesn’t have the luxury of governing any more.  He has to ignite the Party and stop the bleeding.  The moniker ‘Democrat’ is what he has left.

The far Left, which he represents and which hurled him into power, is laconic about their man.  Instead of turning off capitalism and embracing international socialism, he’s taken the Fabian route.  That infuriates them.  In fact, it may cause many of them to consider an alternative.  That scares the daylights out of the Obamanation team.  As history has shown, sitting presidents who were challenged within their own party have been defeated.  Bush I with Pat Buchanan.  Carter with Ted Kennedy.  Ford with Reagan.  In every case with a serious challenger, the sitting president has been defeated for a second term. 

So, his shining achievement, Obamacare, is, as Sen. Jim DeMint predicted, his Waterloo.

Moderate Democrats, ousted from power by the far Left, have become independents.  His far Left base, which is indignant over losing the single-payer, universal care model, is vacillating.  The union bosses are battling Republicans and Democratic business owners in the Midwest over government union ‘rights.’  The environmental movement is nervous about cuts to their feeding trough but even more concerned over relaxing regulations on a state level.  The feminists are flailing away at recapturing some relevancy.  Minority groups are nervously watching as the Obama administration clumsily gives them special privileges like immunity from prosecution in voter fraud scandals and retribution schemes like Pigford.  With the left fully engaged in hand to hand combat with other factions over patronage, the Democratic Party is looking less and less appealing to average American voters.  The rank and file Democratic Party is disgusted by the collectivist Left, and they may simply tune out.

Unless, Obama can turn back on the charm and salvage the brand.  If he and his team can make Republicans look worse than Democrats look, he believes he can win. 

That means igniting the fire of tribalism in the group.  That means non-stop campaigning.  That’s why his political team was sent to Chicago to turn back on the political machine and Obama is acting more and more erratic.  He’s busy becoming Campaigner-in-Chief and that means constant partisanship and shows.

Nothing else explains this kind of dangerous rhetoric.  Vice President Joe Biden gave his audience an interesting take on budget cutting arguments.  The Hill reported him as saying, ““When a woman got raped, blame her because she was wearing a skirt too short, she looked the wrong way or she wasn’t home in time to make the dinner,” Biden said.

“We’ve gotten by that,” he said. “But it’s amazing how these Republicans, the right wing of this party – whose philosophy threw us into this God-awful hole we’re in, gave us the tremendous deficit we’ve inherited – that they’re  now using, now attempting to use, the very economic condition they have created to blame the victim – whether it’s organized labor or ordinary middle-class working men and women. It’s bizarre. It’s bizarre.”

I have to admit, it is bizarre to compare Republicans demanding budget cuts to apologists for rapists.  It stretches the imagination to see the comparison.  But, I will try to explain the device Bite-Me is using here.  We can call it  the ‘we’re pretty bad, but not nearly as bad as them,’ argument.  Regardless, Bite-me is invoking the tribalism instinct in his Democratic audience.  This is simply twisting the ‘Bush’s fault’ argument to the nth degree.  Bite-me is characterizing Republicans as “The Other.”  The Other doesn’t treat people with dignity.  The Other is like a rapist, which in turn is defended by other would-be rapists.  Now, the Democratic Party is you.  You may be flawed.  You may even borrow too much money and bankrupt our economy.  You may engage in questionable policies that hamstring job growth.  You may overregulate and kill off businesses and economic production.  You may even use strong-arm tactics to accomplish questionable progressive health care schemes. 

But, you are Democrats, not Republicans.  Therefore, you must join us to defeat the rape-defending Republicans.  You are one with the tribe.  We may be a tribe that destroys the American dream, but at least we’re not Republicans.  Come back home, or else we’ll treat you like those outside the tribe.  Tribal loyalty demands your acceptance, regardless of our actions.  We must combine to defeat the forces of evil.

Much like President Obama’s unpresidential demand to a Latino audience last fall to, “Punish your enemies.”  This is simple totemism.  It is desperate tribal call to order.  It is pandering to the very last possible links within his coalition. 

This kind of rhetoric by an executive precludes the ability to be ‘presidential,’ even in passing. 

Because, this kind of tribalism practiced by Democrats will necessarily cause a reaction in the rest of the country.  This kind of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ mentality is off-putting and divisive. For the millions of Americans who don’t ascribe to the Democratic tribe, such words are scary and offensive.  It doesnt’ draw adherents, it merely angers and frustrates independents, even independents leaning toward the Democratic model. 

But he’s got to reconnect the base.  He’s got to get the Left motivated and the Bobbleheads in the center engaged.  He’s got to make The Other look terrible so he can get his Party together.  If that means abandoning the necessary tools of governance, so be it.  This president is nothing more than a political animal.  His principles are to win and his belief is to rule. 

That’s all.  Unfortunately, it means we will be without a president for the next two years.  Instead, we’ll be governed by rhetoric and appearance.  Perhaps Barack Obama has the ability to keep his Party together and win reelection, perhaps not.  But we won’t be better off in either case.  A ship of state without a rudder is just a floating pile of metal that meanders about the sea.  No direction, no goal, and no end in sight.