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The Daily Debate - 7/18/2013

By Robert Tracinski

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July 18, 2013

1. Making a Virtue of Necessity

2. The Southern Strategy in Reverse

3. Dispatches

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1. Making a Virtue of Necessity

New York Times reporter Peter Baker has caused a stir by identifying President Obama's "hidden hand" approach to presidential leadership.

"In the nearly two weeks since Egypt's military seized power, President Obama has promoted a better federal bureaucracy, given a medal to George Lucas of 'Star Wars' fame and had former President George Bush to the White House for lunch. What he has not done is publicly address the violent upheaval in Cairo.

"That is not to say Mr. Obama is uninvolved. In the privacy of the West Wing, away from the cameras, he has made calls to leading figures in the Arab world and has met with advisers trying to influence the crisis. But his low public profile on issues like immigration, Syria and health care underscores a calculated presidential approach that admirers consider nuanced and detractors call passive.

"While other presidents have put the bully in the bully pulpit, Mr. Obama uses his megaphone, and the power that comes with it, sparingly, speaking out when he decides his voice can shape the trajectory of an issue and staying silent when he thinks it might be counterproductive. In his first year, the president seemed to be everywhere, talking about everything. In his fifth year, he is choosing his opportunities—even if it appears he is not always in command of events.

"Some compare Mr. Obama's approach to the 'hidden hand' style of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who often steered events behind the scenes without being public about his role."

This has the smell to me of a planted comparison, a new talking point originated by some spin doctor in the White House and fed to a cooperative reporter. Obama's people have always liked to compare him to other presidents. Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, Eisenhower—it doesn't matter so long as it is a president who is regarded by historians as successful.

What I love is the sheer unverifiability of Baker's thesis. He writes that "Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter of the late president, said it might be too soon to tell. 'Eisenhower's hidden-hand means of meeting his objectives was not really evident until his papers were opened, many decades after he left office.'" So you see, President Obama really is exerting effective leadership, you just can't see it—and you won't for a few more decades. But trust me, baby, it's there.

The Politico's Glenn Thrush offers another thesis: that Obama never really had a strategy for how to achieve his goals in his second term. All he had was an analogy about how the Republicans' Tea Party "fever" was going to "break," sweeping away congressional resistance. But the administration never really believed it.

"That 'fever' line was always bit of an eye-roller to the campaign's senior aides, even as they dutifully recited it on the cable shows. But it was a necessary political fairy tale. Obama, a candidate who has always fed off the emotion of his supporters, needed a hopeful hook to motivate his less-than-fired-up troops and, at times, himself.

"In the words of one aide, 'Four more years of the same old s—t' wasn't exactly going to cut it as a go-to aspirational message.

"Days after the word 'fever' popped out of candidate Obama's mouth, the president and his top staff began plotting out what a second term might look like.... Obama's team quickly concluded the House would remain in GOP hands—with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) still too weak to control his troops—and focused most of its energy on figuring out a way to target Republican senators on the tax and fiscal deals.

"Less time was devoted to an overall theory of how Obama planned to govern. What was discussed amounted to more of a shift in mind-set than a detailed game plan based, according to current and former Obama staffers, on a simple realization: The president couldn't control the game as he did four years earlier—but he could be less ambitious and more opportunistic in how he played it, seeking moments of leverage amid all the Republican infighting."

Or here's an even less charitable interpretation. Obama is only really good at campaigning, and that is the only tool he knows how to use to get things done. When it doesn't work, he fails. And all of this talk about how he has to lead from behind and act only indirectly is putting a high-minded gloss on that failure. It is making a virtue of necessity.

Here's a big example. What is the president relying on to make the rollout of ObamaCare work? A campaign—literally, modeled on and staffed by the same people who ran his presidential re-election campaign.

"Deep inside the White House, in a bare room that the chief of staff uses for meetings, David Simas is still thinking about turnout.

"Turnout has been Simas's job for years now. As director of public-opinion research and polling for President Obama's reelection campaign, Simas was at the center of the effort to find and persuade young and minority voters to go to the polls like they did in 2008....

"Now Simas, a sad-eyed Massachusetts native with a facility for PowerPoints, needs to reach those same groups again—with a much harder ask. This time, he doesn't just need them to vote. He needs them to buy health insurance, and, in some cases, spend hundreds of dollars a month for it. If they don't, the new insurance marketplaces—the absolute core of Obamacare—will be filled with older, sicker people, and premiums will skyrocket. And if that happens, the law will fail."

Sad to say, voting is a lot less expensive—at least, in the short term—than buying insurance. But it really is extraordinary how, when it comes to the central plank of his signature initiative, President Obama has substituted campaigning for governing.

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2. The Southern Strategy in Reverse

RCP's Sean Trende is in the hotseat for his thesis that Mitt Romney lost in large part because of "missing" blue-collar white voters who just wouldn't turn out for a candidate who didn't appeal to them.

It's a pretty straightforward thesis, if you ask me. Trende backs it up with a lot of poll numbers and turnout statistics. I back it up with knowing some of these blue-collar whites and knowing how little appeal Romney held for them.

But Trende has become a convenient target because the left can use him to reinforce its own prejudice that the Republican Party only appeals to white voters.

Dan McLaughlin offers a fairly technical defense of Trende's thesis, and so does the man himself. In his defense, Trende puts the shoe on the other foot. What he is really measuring is the fact that white voters are trending strongly toward Republicans. So it's not that Republicans are throwing away minority voters. It's the Democrats who are throwing away white voters.

"None of this should be surprising. Whites have become more prosperous over the past 50 years, and income still correlates with Republican voting habits (for Hispanics, non-Hispanic whites and, to a lesser extent, African Americans).

"Moreover, Democrats' decision to embrace policies aimed at their 'coalition of the ascendant' cannot be viewed in a vacuum. A case in point is Arizona, a state where Mitt Romney ran about as well as George W. Bush, despite a less favorable national environment. The Hispanic vote there has grown and, given a state GOP that stands as a poster child for how not to attract Hispanic voters, has moved sharply toward Democrats. But the Democrats' stance on immigration isn't particularly popular among whites, and whites, especially whites without college degrees, have shifted toward Republicans, resulting in no net change.

"The Democrats are reaping the benefits of our increased diversity. But they're paying it back with an increasingly poor showing among whites."

I wonder if what we're seeing here is the "Southern Strategy" in reverse. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Republican Party flipped the votes of Southern whites—but they neglected and comprehensively lost the black vote. Now Democrats are hoping to hold onto their death-grip on minority voters, and they are counting on this vote to rise—but they are pursuing this strategy at the expense of throwing away the white vote.

I'm not sure that this quite captures the awfulness of the whole "coalition of the ascendant" strategy. Because it hitches the Democratic Party's future to voting based on racial and ethnic loyalties, it is basically a strategy that consists of playing the race card from now until the end of time. Or to put it in terms that will hit home right now, the Democrats have to hope for one Trayvon Martin case after another to keep voters aligned by race.

Does that sound like fun? I didn't think so.

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3. Dispatches

The latest hearings have revealed the political appointee, the IRS chief counsel, behind the targeting of Tea Party groups.

Detroit has reached the dead end of bankruptcy.

Vladimir Putin has fully reverted to the old Soviet policy of just locking up dissidents.

Talk about the dog that didn't bark: what is behind the curious incident of the collapse of crime in wealthier nations?

Did Ayn Rand's ideas kill Sears? Well, no, but it was a bizarre and dogmatic interpretation of her ideas.

———

—Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

Brought to you by RealClearPolitics.

Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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