The Corner

When the Zealots Are No Longer Zealous

In reading about Democratic and liberal uneasiness with Obama, one theme seems constant. There is a sort of repressed anger that Obama has somehow embarrassed many of his supporters, as if their ecstasy of 2008 now seems almost adolescent. 

The shaming, I think, focuses on two issues. One is the War on Terror. We learn that two lawyers who had criticized George W. Bush for supposed overreach recently drafted authorization to assassinate a U.S. citizen, the traitorous and dangerous Anwar al-Awlaki. This follows Bush critic and former Yale Dean Harold Koh’s various briefs authorizing elements of the Obama War on Terror, among them sanction to join the Anglo-French war against Qaddafi without U.S. congressional approval — something Bush obtained for both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The chief symptom of this embarrassment is silence. Gone are the sloppy charges of “war criminal,” the Hollywood movies, the outbursts by celebrities, the anguished op-eds. It is almost as if the 2,000-plus suspected terrorists killed by Predators put a complete stop to all the talk of Guantanamo as a gulag or the water-boarding of three known terrorists as war crimes or any of the other harangues about supposed constitution-shredding. True, for many the hypocrisy is just the stuff of politics, but for others there is a quiet anger that they have been taken for a ride. Fairly or not, it is as if an entire corpus of prior written work, public rants, and activism between 2003 and 2008 — even if sincere — has now been exposed as mere partisan politics.

The second source of shame is the current anger over Wall Street, a furor that ironically was first seen with the Tea Party’s middle-class animus over retirement accounts that had crashed while many of those responsible for crashing them were bailed out by government money. Nonetheless, for the left it is somewhat hard to join in the Wall Street protests when a hard-left Democratic candidate like Barack Obama, who ran on populist rhetoric and persists in Huey Long sloganeering, has proven to be a president fascinated by Wall Street power, cash, and perks. 

Most of his advisers were itinerant economists whose lives were often a three-way revolving door between high academia/institutes, Wall Street, and top government jobs — e.g., Peter Orszag, Larry Summers, or Timothy Geithner. Obama out-raised John McCain among the really big monied interests, and was the chief recipient of BP and Goldman Sachs cash. Easy Wall Street money led him to be the first presidential candidate to renounce public campaign financing in the general election — $1 billion in campaign money cuts a lot of prior principled assertions. And, of course, the first family’s personal tastes since assuming the presidency are certainly more akin to Citigroup executives than Trumanesque.

The effect of all this is that fierce critics of the Bush-Cheney War on Terror, or the 2008 excesses on Wall Street, have had to grow quiet, inasmuch as any continued criticism would hurt Barack Obama. But silence does not mean that his supporters appreciate the embarrassment, and that is precisely why there is unease among his base — and why in the last four weeks the president has once more tried to rev up the class-warfare rhetoric, albeit in a day-late, dollar-short fashion. 

Something analogous happened to Bush when he desperately needed base support during the dark days of the Iraq insurgency, even as many hard-core conservatives felt the serial deficits, unfunded entitlements like the prescription-drug benefit or No Child Left Behind, the Harriet Miers nomination, and advocacy for “comprehensive” immigration reform had made them uneasy and embarrassed as fiscal and social conservatives. Their abandonment sent the president’s polls from the mid to low 40s to, at the end, the mid to low 30s. 

Embarrassment is not so easily forgotten or forgiven, as Obama is now finding out.


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