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Charlie Brown, Football, and Enough Black Eyes to Fill a Harem

November 8, 2010

The two real political parties in America are the winners and the losers — Kurt Vonnegut



There is an old, decidedly un-PC joke which goes:

Q:   What do  you say to a woman who has two black eyes?

A:   Nothing – she’s obviously not a very good listener.

Although it will no doubt offend some for being misogynistic & crass, the deep truth from which this bit of barroom bonhomie derives its comedic punch (as it were) has nothing to do with gender. No, what triggers a grimacing chuckle is the recognition of the universal truth that when first and second bruisings don’t engender wisdom, words are hardly likely to make much of a difference.

That same truth is why Barack Obama is starting to look a lot like a one-term President. Because even as The Chosen One admits that he got shellacked, even as the alarm clock goes off on another Groundhog Day, the lesson fails to sink in.

Unlike the unfortunate victim of spousal abuse in that tired old joke, his walk-on-water-liness doesn’t have just one black eye; he’s sporting enough of them to fill a Morman nuclear family. Starting with the stimulus, on to the salvation of the nation’s largest remaining manufacturing industry, through health care and cap & trade (remember cap & trade? It was supposed to be the opening move in a large-scale policy shift and set an example for the rest of the world. It was also supported by the vast majority of Americans) and right through financial reform, the BarackStar has continued his noxious habit of assaulting The Right’s fist with his face.

And now, to paraphrase the original Great Manipulator Communicator, there he goes again.

In one of the most stunningly crass examples of un-patriotism and anti-statesmanship that I can remember since Newt Gingrich ascended the steps of the Capital building in 1994 and announced that he was looking forward to using his newly-acquired power to destroy the institutions of government, Senate minority leader McConnell announced just two days after the election that the only thing he plans to do during the next two years of his long taxpayer-funded career is to undermine one of the other co-equal branches of government. For political gain.


And the cool-calm-and-collected-one’s response? “Why don’t you fellas come on up to the White House. You can sip slurpees while I root around and see if I can’t find another eye for you to punch.”

Even more disgusting.

Let’s first establish a baseline for the conversation. The Democratic Party didn’t get its collective asses kicked because the country disagrees with their values. In poll after poll, American’s cultural attitudes come down squarely on the side of the angels – we believe that the free market requires proper regulation to work effectively, we want to invest in education and infrastructure, we’re horrified at the death of the middle class, we don’t care very much about the sexual orientation of two people who love each other and want to get married (or who are willing to serve in the military), we want to do what we can to make the world a fairer place than “nature red in tooth and claw”, we’re willing to give up a little of what we have to make the world a better place for our children…the list goes on. Yet despite this cultural tailwind, Democrats can only seem to win elections after the other side has power long enough to demonstrate its complete contempt for those values.

So it’s obvious that the problem isn’t that the Democrats don’t understand the aspirations of the country; they get them just fine. The problem is that nobody trusts them to translate those aspirations into action. Nobody trusts them to lead.

And who’s to blame them?

We live in a football country. Unlike the rest of the world, which revels in a “beautiful game” that reflects the existentialist principle of sound and fury signifying nothing, Americans keep score. That’s probably not even a strong enough way to say it, actually – we don’t just keep score, we absolutely depend on scores to make sense of our increasingly complex world. And not just final scores – we watch, and keep track of, and endlessly rehash & dissect every play. Every gain and loss, every pass & handoff, every penalty, every first down, every field goal, touchdown, extra point and safety, who gets injured, who trash talks their team, who gets fired for it, how much it costs them in lost income when they get fired and yadayadayada. We even have an entire $3 billion industry built on using the statistics generated by the game to imagine how different combinations of players would lead to different outcomes. This is not to say that we’re not hugely invested in who wins or loses– we have our tribal loyalties just as does your average soccer hooligan. What it says is that simply winning or losing doesn’t satisfy our need to understand what’s going on; we need to justify the outcome with an understanding of how we got there.

Because we spend so much more time watching sports than we do thinking about the finer points of managing the social contract, and because both sports and politics are competitive fields of battle, it should surprise no one that one of the primary ‘hints’ that we take about who we should believe (and believe in) is how they play the game. People who play the game more successfully inherently engage our sympathies and win our trust.

As smart as Obama is, and as much more intelligent and well-educated as Progressives are than our right-leaning brethren, we Just Don’t Get it when it comes to understanding that what the vast majority of our countrymen need in order to trust us with the reins of power is to see us fight hard and score points.

Which is why we’re all sporting a couple of shiners this week.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. The Center Square permalink
    November 8, 2010 3:33 pm

    “…the problem isn’t that the Democrats don’t understand the aspirations of the country; they get them just fine. The problem is that nobody trusts them to translate those aspirations into action.”

    Maybe it’s a bit of that. But more or less, Obama and the Congressional Democrats did in fact translate the electoral aspirations of 2008 into action. Almost item for item, actually. Other than the stimulus package — that tsunami of tax cuts so despised by Republicans — pretty much everything else was straight from the campaign checklist.

    I think the deeper problem is that too often we want what we want for shallow, short-sighted, sometimes even blatantly selfish reasons. Thus, when we are confronted with the actual, real-world implications of these policies, we find it wasn’t quite what we had in mind. Obama’s energy policy always was going to be about cap-and-trade. Obama’s healthcare policy always was going to be about expanding access. Obama’s economic policy always was going to be about deficit-based stimulus. Obama’s financial policy always was going to be about regulating Wall Street.

    Republicans now will have to go through some of the same ordeal. Their base, especially their reluctant Tea Party base, will find out over the next two years that severe recessions cause exploding federal deficit, not socialist presidents. That eliminating earmarks and “waste” do not balance budgets, serious entitlements reforms do. That Obamacare doesn’t cause 10% annual healthcare insurance premium increases, our private healthcare market does. And so on.

    Two years from now, we will look back and see two more budgets, each calling for more spending more than the one before it, and each contemplating $1 trillion plus deficits. We will have raised the debt ceiling another time or two. And Lucy will yank the football away from 2010’s election victors, as surely as she did from 2008’s.

    • November 8, 2010 6:27 pm

      “Obama and the Congressional Democrats did in fact translate the electoral aspirations of 2008 into action”

      Exactly. But the electorate trusts them so little that even though they did exactly what they said they were going to do — and presumably what voters wanted them to do — they still got hammered. So it’s clearly not substance for which they were punished.

      Look, it’s a given that most people are selfish, short-sighted, etc. Or at least a strong plurality are, or are a good proportion of the time (and all the time when they’re frightened). Most people have learned that by the time they’re 25 or so. That’s why we have aphorisms like “you have to take your medicine”…nobody would have to be hectored into doing what’s good for them if we were largely virtuous.

      The challenge of governance isn’t just doing the right thing — if it were that easy, we’d have a much more just and effective society. The challenge is getting people to respect and trust you enough that they’ll support policies which are painful in the short-term but healthy for the body politic. That’s what leadership is.

      The Dems problem is that they confuse being liked with being effective. Or, to be more precise, they seem to think that if they’re good enough and smart enough, gosh darn it people will like them (even Al Franken knows that isn’t true, and he was the actual Stuart Smalley!) That’s not the way leadership works. You have to kick ass to earn people’s respect — particularly when you’ve ridden into power on a wave of “hopey change.” You can’t just follow your conscience and expect the majority of people to follow right along. People have their own consciences, so if that’s all it took we’d be living in utopia. You need to earn people’s trust before you ask them to sacrifice — anybody who’s led anything more sophisticated than a square dance knows that’s true.

      And when it comes to yanking 2012’s football, my bet is that as always it will be the Republicans in the guise of Lucy (again!) They’re just goddamned good at it, primarily because they don’t have the same illusions that we do about how people work. If the Democrats want to hang on to power, they’re going to have to come down off of the mountain and duke it out on the street.

      To be clear, this isn’t what I want personally, or what I’d hoped for. But I’m sick and tired of the black eyes. It’s pathetic to lose elections because you don’t bother to come out swinging. More importantly, if we want to save the country from it’s current slide into chaos and self-destruction, we’re going to have to man up (that’s right — I said it!)

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