Fight of the Long Knives

Barack Obama hit the campaign trail, reached across the aisle, talked tough when he needed to, and got a nearly $800-billion stimulus package to help the economy. It’s a victory that could spell his doom.

Hopefully, as Obama maintains his unruffled mien, he’s learning a valuable lesson that never quite stuck to Slick Willy: The Republicans reject evolution, but relish Darwinism.

The Repubs to a man (and their few women) play long-knife politics – a willingness to do anything to destroy their opponent, their own destructiveness be damned.

That’s among the reasons why the Republican leadership issued such statements during the stimulus package debate as this one from Republican Congressional Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia: “You can call it a safety net bill, a relief bill. It was a spending bill,” he said. That more than disingenuously linked the stimulus to a welfare state that exists only in the narrow recesses of his mind.

long-knife tactics are in order.

Obama: long-knife tactics are in order.

Such swinish conduct is a mostly brainless play to the base. Although that base would never consider voting for someone who isn’t a Repub themselves, this faction keeps shrill, relentless pressure on their elected reps. They always suggest they’ll vote for that nice, clean-cut crypto-Fascist next time around if they don’t get their way. The Repubs’s knee-jerk response to such empty-headed hysteria is why a functional illiterate like Joe the Plumber can actually lecture Ivy League-educated Congressional aides.

So, Obama and the Democrats do what they do best when unfairly attacked: they backed down. Tax cuts were tossed in, and $100 billion has been trimmed from the $789 billion package. According to the Washington Post, Moodys.com says that the pared-down package will create only 2.2 million jobs between now and 2010, leaving unemployment rates at double-digit levels.

I’m not quite sure how you can create that many jobs and have the unemployment rate go up by more than two percentage points from its current level of 7.6%. Perhaps the Post eliminated its newsroom calculator as part of a cost reduction campaign.

So, throw out that math, but keep the date in mind: 2010. That’s where the Repubs have their eyes. They hope that if the stimulus package was diluted enough, the economy will remain sluggish by mid-term elections. Then they can paint Obama as an incompetent and snatch back enough Congressional seats to derail plans he might have for energy policy, healthcare reform and all the other non-cosmetic damage left by the previous White House tenant.

Paul Krugman of the New York Times got the Repub venality and the weak-kneed compromise correct in yesterday’s column. However, he ended being weak-kneed himself, complaining of “a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” and trying to channel William Butler Yeats. For some reason I began feeling ill myself.

Krugman did call for Obama to be stronger, an amusing request because he got where he is by being composed of steel. What he actually needs to be is meaner. And if Obama doesn’t want to do it himself, he should promptly delegate.

Certainly Obama is intelligent enough to know that the center and left are still burdened by the concept of fair play. Indeed, that’s why there hasn’t been a Long Knife Democrat since Lyndon Johnson. His demons drove him to stomp on anyone who meandered into his extraordinarily coarse way. One example: during a Congressional campaign, Johnson wanted to infer his opponent was particularly enthusiastic about consorting with barnyard animals. Johnson acknowledged to his campaign manager that this smear wasn’t true, but he wanted to put him in the position of having to deny it anyway. Sound familiar?

Johnson was repellent to the end, but look how much he accomplished as President: The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, appointment of the first black Supreme Court Justice, and Vietnam (what is it with Texans and unnecessary wars?).

Of course, Obama’s a far, far, smoother operator than Johnson. He needs to be. How far would race relations be reversed if he replicated some of LBJ’s more endearing Oval Office moments: showing off surgical scars to reporters, lifting family dogs by their ears, or phoning his tailor to ensure his trousers are given a generous crotch?

Lyndon Johnson shows off his surgical scars to White House reporters.

Bottomless charm: Lyndon Johnson shows off his surgical scars to White House reporters.

However, if Obama doesn’t want to exit the White House in 2013 as Jimmy Carter incarnate, he needs to empower his people with some subtle Long Knife moves. I make my (mostly tongue-in-cheek) suggestions here:

1. Hire a crackerjack hacker and stick him on some secret CIA payroll. I don’t mean some dumb 20-something who can get into Sarah Palin’s Yahoo! account. I’m talking about an expert at slipping child porn onto a home computer while anonymously alerting the FBI. Imagine the amusement that can be had with Clarence Thomas or John Boehner.

2. Rebrand tax cuts. The Repubs had a field day in the early days of the Bush Administration with the estate tax. They successfully pushed for its repeal by calling it the “death tax.” Not a single Democrat had the wit to rebrand it as the “brat tax,” which is who it actually benefits: spoiled kids of the wealthy. That last word should be the mantra of a tax-cut rebranding campaign: “Wealthy welfare.” It’s pithy, appropriately denigrating, and easy to remember. If that term came up every time some Repub called for another tax cut in lieu of thoughtful fiscal policy, they would shut up. At least for a while.

3. Don’t forget Larry Flynt. The head of the Hustler empire is crude and grotesque, but he’s also tied Jerry Falwell in knots, and forced two conservative Congressmen to resign because he outed their extracurricular activities. How many Democrats can make such boasts?

4. Use the IRS. Nixon was the first president to employ this tactic, and it was thus considered guilty by association. But given that Obama’s cabinet nominees continue to have their tax payment habits very publicly aired – no doubt aided by Repub leakers – this practice should no longer be considered off-limits.

Perhaps the economy will rise to the stimulus, and smack the Repubs into temporary silence. Then, Obama can remain on the high road well into a second term.

But just in case, it’s high time to put on the sheathes and get out the whetstone.

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