You can’t get fooled again

Yes, he was flat, affectless, bored, ill-prepared and non-confrontational. We’ve seen that before. And, yes, presidential televised “debates” are hardly a useful tool in determining a candidate’s fitness for office. We’ve always known that. But still there was one surprising thing in the President’s performance at the first of the 2012 debates last night: Barack Obama has lost interest in faking it any more.

No, it’s now painfully clear: The President is not a liberal. It’s not part of his make-up. There were once such people. Hubert Humphrey, for example, was cheerfully, passionately, perhaps organically, a liberal. Everything about him suggested that social and economic justice is what drove him. Next to the Happy Warrior, our President is a Tory.

It’s true that as a candidate, and even through some of his first (and probably last) term, he fooled a lot of people. He talked vaguely progressive. I’m not ashamed to admit I fully drank that in. I ascribed too much to it. Things that weren’t there, I inferred. A lot of people did. Then came the performance in office.

There is no shame in taking people at their word. Once. Even if you read too much into it. But as George W. Bush memorably said: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”

An it’s Bush that our President always harkens back to. We liberals thought we were replacing Bush. The candidate, once elected, decided to extend him, and clean him up for wider public consumption. Hence, mostly the same approach to foreign policy: Endless war. With some new wrinkles, admittedly. But I’m sure Dick Cheney secretly approves of the kill lists and indiscriminate drones. President Romney will have a tough act to live up to among the neocons. It would be really embarrassing for him to be called “wimpier than Obama” by William Kristol.

In collecting power for the Imperial Presidency, Mr. Obama outshines Bush. The monument to Bush’s disregard of due process, Gitmo, still stands. Whistle blowers can, of course, suck air. If you cross this man, the weight of the Executive comes down on you. Ask Bradley Manning. If he’s allowed to talk to anyone. The right to assassinate American citizens is something Dick Cheney would never have uttered in public. Torture? That’s in the past. We kill now. The War Powers Act is not applicable, per this Admnistration, for use of drones, because that is not “hostility.” That is diplomacy.

Ah, but all these Bushisms were worth it because we got the domestic liberal! So we’ve been told. A man who would support card check and stand in the picket line to protect union rights. Except when opponents of card check like Arlen Specter want to join up with the President and when it looks like organizing rights might be unpopular, like in Wisconsin.

But he did muscle through the Heritage Foundation’s plan for health care. And he spent some money, and he got some tax cuts for small businesses and those who pay payroll taxes.

But in the end it is just a pose. He is happier golfing with John Boehner than “organizing” with organizers.

But let’s not pile on poor Barack Obama after a performance that may have given away his office. After all, he did not betray the principles of the New Deal. Or more precisely, he was not the first leader of the Democrats to do so. Bill Clinton, you may recall, ended welfare and Glass-Steagall, among other things. Before him “leaders” who would eventually rally around him constantly wrung their hands about how the Democrats were too liberal to get elected. How they had to lurch to the right. How Ronald Reagan was a juggernaut, too popular and too persuasive to be opposed. We just have to tack to his left (a little, not too much). Didn’t our President acknowledge the truth of this when he proclaimed Reagan “transformational”?

But really it was not Reagan. The Democratic Party was done in before that. Remember the State of the Union by James Earl Carter, delivered January 18, 1978:

We need patience and good will, but we really need to realize that there is a limit to the role and the function of government. Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy. And government cannot mandate goodness.

It was Jimmy Carter who was “transformational.”

But maybe it goes back farther than that. Maybe when JFK beat Humphrey. Or when Truman was selected for VP. Maybe, the idea that Democrats are liberal is an illusion. Maybe 100 years from now, historians will regard the New Deal as an aberration, the principles of which were never to be repeated.

Who knows? But one thing we do know: Democrats will not soon be leading a charge for liberalism. Our current leader can’t even pretend he’s interested for a full 90 minutes.

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