Is the Left Being Too Easy On the President?


No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

On Tuesday lambert pointed out something I had not noticed: Talking Points Memo had not covered Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article on Goldman Sachs, and its coverage of them has been very light in recent months. Caveats: TPM advertises itself as "Breaking News and Analysis" and it gets to decide what is news and what merits analysis; Taibbi’s article was a lengthy narrative in a magazine and not breaking news, similar to Todd Purdum’s profile of Sarah Palin in Vanity Fair this month; while a web site has nearly unlimited space to devote to news there are only so many hours in the day and workers to publish during it. There are any number of good reasons why a site like TPM would not have covered it.

It still seems a curious omission though. After all, Purdum’s article got a brief mention and link on the front page. Financial scandals are covered there, and a search on Bernie Madoff brings up three pages of results. Like Martha Stewart before him Madoff seems to have become a synecdoche for the entire financial industry. Now, Stewart’s crime was a half million dollar stock scam whereas Madoff’s was a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, so the latter had a much larger impact. Still, it A) only affected private investors and B) is relatively small when compared to bailout, son of bailout and who knows what other giveaways we are only vaguely aware of at the moment. It seems that an article like Taibbi’s would serve an important reminder as to what the stakes and who the biggest players really are.

Maybe some of the president’s supporters prefer to turn a blind eye towards a scathing indictment of a company whose employees have lavishly funded the president and with whom he appears to enjoy a warm relationship. If so it is troubling. I am somewhat sympathetic to the view of politics as team sport. We have a long tradition of a two party system and it is easy to see them as opponents on a playing field. You don’t harshly criticize your captain any more than you would take a shot at your own goal. That is what the opposition is for, and if it is not willing or able to do so then you are under no obligation to help them out. As Bobby Bowden once told Lou Holtz after a lopsided win, "it’s your job to keep the score down, not mine."

Taking that approach may not be in the left’s ultimate interest though. For one, it moves the dialog closer to the whole "who won the week?" mentality – where policy is trumped by process – that progressives found so objectionable during the Bush years. If they embrace it now that Democrats are in control they will lose the chance to distinguish themselves from conservatives in any substantial way. That not only opens the door for Republicans to come back once the political winds shift but it sets liberals up to be regarded with the same deep distrust that has put the GOP in such a hole at the moment.

Strict obedience to the president did not serve conservatives well in another way: Because they never allowed a vibrant opposition from the right to develop they became hitched to Bush and had no ideas to offer once he left. When you tie your fate so closely to a leader and the leader becomes deeply unpopular you become, well, the Republican party circa 2009. Instead of simple triumphalism liberals should see the current disarray on the right as a cautionary tale. George Bush looked unassailably popular not too long ago and supporting him without reservation seemed to be the surest bet in politics; couldn’t that apply to Barack Obama too?

As a liberal, what bothers me most about what looks like an unseemly deference towards the president from the left is my belief that we are (or should be) more adversarial towards those in power. The idea of nearly automatic reverence for those in authority – what Taibbi called the peasant mentality – is an inheritance from conservatives. Seeing the press corps stand at attention (via) when the president walks in, or military trappings attending him (as Avedon points out – and we can never be told often enough – "The President of the United States is a civilian. You don’t salute him. Ever. Even if you are in the military."), or what Glenn Greenwald rightly called creepy assertions that we are obligated to fall in line behind the president simply because he is the president: all of that should rouse the authority-hating impulse of the left.

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