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October 13, 2013 12:21 PM Peter Wehner is Part of the Problem

By Martin Longman

To see why there is such an alternative reality on the right in this country, it helps to pay attention to the bizarre stories they tell each other. Peter Wehner is a former deputy assistant to the president who served as Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Bush Administration from 2002 to 2007. Let’s look at his latest piece in Commentary Magazine. Here’s his opening:

Public opinion polls show Republicans are paying a higher price for the government shutdown than is the president. But Mr. Obama-whose approval rating has dropped to 37 percent in the most recent Associate Press-GfK Survey-is making some damaging errors that are haunting him as well.

What’s wrong with this? Well, he not only chose an outlier for his polling data, but a look at the Real Clear Politics aggregate of polls on the president’s approval rating shows that it is a major outlier. For example, the Republican-friendly Rasmussen poll shows the president with a 50%-48% approval rating, and the Associated Press-GfK poll is the only recent survey that has the president’s approval under 40%. Why cherry-pick your polling data unless your intent is to deceive?

Wehner continues:

There are a couple in particular that are worth highlighting. The first is his decision to elevate to an Inviolate Principle his insistence that he will not, under any circumstances, negotiate with Republicans over the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling. Dealing with Iran and Russia is one thing; dealing with the evil John Boehner is entirely another.

As should be pretty obvious to most observers, the president’s refusal to negotiate until after the Republicans pay our bills and open the government has been working very well for him. Bringing Iran and Russia into the conversation is a cute talking point, but that’s all it is. That kind of rhetoric is designed to win a three-minute segment on cable television, but it doesn’t do any real work in terms of changing the power dynamics that are playing out in the capital. And, if you really think about it, Wehner is highlighting that it is easier to negotiate with the Iranians and the Russians than it is to negotiate with the Republicans. This isn’t a substantive argument, at all. It’s just red meat.

Two problems: This no-negotiating position is at odds with the record of past presidents; and his insistence that not raising the debt ceiling can only be driven by nihilistic impulses is at odds with Obama himself, who as a U.S. senator voted against raising the debt ceiling. Mr. Obama has simply decided that he wants what he wants when he wants it, and that’s that. My way or the highway.

Again, this paragraph utilizes a decent talking point by pointing out a degree of hypocrisy in the president’s position. When he was a senator, he voted against raising the debt ceiling and now he is saying that taking that position is the height of irresponsibility. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But the debt ceiling did get raised in spite of Senator Obama’s objections, and there was never any possibility that it wouldn’t be raised. Obama was guilty of political grandstanding, but that only confirms that the Republicans are guilty of grandstanding today. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and being wrong yesterday is not a rationale for being wrong today. These kinds of arguments simply don’t accomplish anything.

The vulnerability of this mindset is that the president appears (because he is) obstinate, intransigent, and unyielding. He seems to believe that his uncompromising stance will be viewed by the public as a virtue. In fact, he’s very much on the wrong side of the vast majority of Americans who want the parties involved-and especially the president-to reach a compromise in order to end this governing fiasco.

It’s true that the majority of Americans want some kind of resolution to this stand-off, but that sentiment goes beyond this particular disagreement. In order to truly end this impasse, the habit of governing from one crisis to the next must end, and that is what the president is trying to accomplish. What matters is not what the public thinks right now, but what they will think when Obama has completed his two terms as president. Beyond that, the president is willing to negotiate once the hostage-taking is over.

It doesn’t help matters that Mr. Obama, when he gets in a jam, often seems unable to contain his petulance. He seems to revel in demonstrating mocking disdain of Congress. His small-mindedness is radiating in every direction-and as a result, the president is shrinking before our eyes.

Here we get into the mindset of people who just don’t like the president. What I take for legitimate exasperation, they take for petulance. What I see as a completely reasonable disdain for congressional dysfunction, they take for mocking disdain. What I take for political disagreement, they take for small-mindedness and radiating hostility. I’m drawn to the president’s personality and temperament, but I understand that others find him condescending, foreign, and aloof. My problem is with the tendency to feed these feelings of alienation, as though increasing misunderstanding and ill-feeling is a solution to our differences.

Next, we move into the arena of pure dishonesty.

The other mistake by Mr. Obama is his transparent effort to inflict maximum pain on Americans in the hope that he can convince the public that the GOP is the offending party. Just one example: The effort to erect barricades to keep wheelchair-bound World War II veterans away from the World War II Memorial-an open-air public monument that has always been open 24 hours a day-was vindictive and mean. For the Obama administration to pull this kind of a stunt-which is so transparently partisan, unnecessary, ungenerous, and unappreciative of our veterans-surprises me a bit. Not because I didn’t think Mr. Obama was capable of such things. (We learned long ago that Mr. Obama will say or do just about anything to advance what he believes is in his political interests.) It’s that he was arrogant enough to think he could get away with it.

Mr. Wehner has here resorted to bad conspiracy theories. The president doesn’t make decisions about what monuments to shutter or how they should be guarded. He did nothing to disrespect World War Two veterans, among whom was his grandfather. There was no stunt, partisan or otherwise. And to argue that the president will say or do anything is to suggest that he is dishonest and unscrupulous, which the record does not support. This kind of argumentation just poisons the well.

Which leads me to a final point. The president, always a distant, somewhat withdrawn, and imperious figure, now seems encased in a world all his own. One senses that Mr. Obama has surrounded himself with courtiers whose jobs are to affirm his greatness and his glory. He and they live in a bubble. The president is acting as if America is comprised solely of people who host, appear on, or watch MSNBC. Disagree with Republicans? Don’t engage with them and by all means don’t negotiate with them. Instead drop rhetorical acid on their heads. Describe them as jihadists, terrorists, anarchists, arsonists, gun-to-the-head hostage takers, and (to quote White House aide Dan Pfeiffer) “people with a bomb strapped to their chest.” And all of America will cheer.

Again, I understand that some people feel that the president is imperious and aloof, but it doesn’t do any work to insult the president and then turn around and complain about being insulted in return. No one, including the president, thinks that the entire country agrees with him or that everyone watches MSNBC. At the same time, no one thinks that the Republicans got more votes in the 2012 elections. Obviously, a lot of people don’t agree with them, either.

It is the Republican Party that has threatened to blow up the economy and that has shut down the government, and the public clearly is not impressed. The Republicans seem surprised by this outcome, but that is largely a result of the fact that they are continuously reading rhetoric produced by people like Peter Wehner. And Peter Wehner is not making a good faith effort to win the argument. He’s just keeping the right’s bubble inflated so that they cannot see anything clearly on the outside. Score petty talking points, pander to people’s prejudices and insecurities, feed their paranoia with conspiracy theories, and stoke their hate.

We’ve had enough of this. It has led to this impasse, and it hasn’t done any favors for the Republican Party or the nation.

Martin Longman is the Web Editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune. He has worked as a community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote and as a political consultant for Democracy for America.

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