18 January 2012

Andrew Sullivan falls back into the tank

Andrew Sullivan's Newsweek cover story has rightly been getting quite a bit of press.

Among others, Conor Friedersdorf had an excellent global rebuttal of Sullivan's piece. But here's mine, which I wrote to a friend the night after he posted Sullivan's column to Facebook.

First: I read Sullivan religiously. I go to the Dish at least twice a day. It's probably the best blog on the internet. So, I like Sullivan. Generally, I think his instincts are good, his analysis is sound and he shares my classical liberal principles. That said, the guy is in the tank for Obama. This goes beyond being a reliable partisan (Eugene Robinson, James Carville) or even having worked for the guy (Robert Gibbs, Austin Goolsbee). He genuinely believes Obama is transformative, as in, he's a great, historically significant president. And he really believes that to his core. It's like he treats Obama as a family member or friend, and he can't stomach anyone, from anywhere on the political spectrum, criticizing him. Now, it's ok for Sullivan to engage in a sort of friendly policy-based self-critique of the president, but when others do it, he throws a fit.

Second: Just because some Republican attacks are ridiculous -- Perry saying the administration is at war with organized religion; Gingrich and the "Kenyan anti-colonialist" nonsense; Romney accusing Obama of going on an apology tour -- doesn't mean they're not always without merit. It's indisputable that government has continued to expand and Obama has done nothing about it. It's indisputable that he created a blue-ribbon fiscal commission, got a serious plan that would have given him bipartisan to meaningfully reduce our long-term debt load, and ignored it. It's indisputable that his non-recess "recess" appointment of Cordray was unprecedented and unconstitutional. It's indisputable that it's outrageous for the NLRB to tell Boeing it can't open a new factory in a non-right-to-work state and then say that it's retaliatory if they even try. On these issues, the president is flat wrong. Just because the tea party has a lot of crazy characters and is largely a partisan echo chamber doesn't mean its critiques of Obama's presidency aren't at times valid. To me, Sullivan tarring tea partiers -- which he does almost every day on the Dish -- gives him a convenient excuse to ignore the kind of president Obama's been.

Third: In his column, Sullivan says that the attacks on Obama from the right AND left are wrong. Read this piece from Glenn Greenwald and consider how thoughtful and devastating the civil libertarian critique of Obama is, from the left. It's unquestionably true that, in almost every respect, continued the Bush policies on executive power, civil liberties and the unconstitutional expansion of the imperial executive. He has continued the war on drugs, launched an unconstitutional war and is now claiming he can kidnap an American citizen and hold him forever -- or kill him. This is outrageous. Bush did things that candidate Obama excoriated him for, and rightly so. But then President Obama turned around and adopted the same policies as his own; liberals like Greenwald have called him on it, as have guys like Ron Paul, Gary Johnson and Conor Friedersdorf. Sullivan thinks that's "wrong"? It's "wrong" to hold a candidate to not only the words of the Constitution but his campaign promises? Especially in light of his awful record on civil liberties and executive power issues, it's beyond ridiculous to say that Obama is transformative, or he's kept his promises, or even cares what the Constitution actually says, because there's not a shred of evidence to support it. In terms of governance, it's the height of hypocrisy to rip a sitting president for a set of policies, and then completely reverse course and adopt that president's policies wholesale when you take office. I give liberals like Greenwald who actually criticize Obama for these things a tremendous deal of credit, because most liberals' instinct is to either ignore Obama's apostasies or attack people like Greenwald who are criticizing him within the tent. In part, I remember how "dear leader"-ish Republicans were in the Bush era, and it takes balls to criticize a sitting president in your own party.

Fourth: Sullivan says he was appalled by Bush's records on war, debt, spending, and torture. Fine. Those are legitimate critiques. And with respect to just about all of them, they are the central reasons why I think the Bush presidency was so destructive. But with the exception of torture, Obama is as bad or worse than Bush. Bush said he could imprison whoever he wanted for as long as he wanted, but he didn't ever try to make the case that he could kill an American citizen by executive order. When he went to war in Iraq, he at least asked for congressional authorization and tried to make the case that Iraq was an existential threat (it wasn't, but at the time he had a plausible case).

Fifth: This is a trend you see at the Dish regularly, and why I find reading Sullivan so maddening sometimes -- he is obsessed with Obama's "long game." He has it in his head that in 2007, candidate Obama had an 8-year master plan that set out all the fixes to the country's problems by the time his 2nd term would expire in 2016. Where is the evidence of that? He was given a chance to back Bowles-Simpson and refused. He was given several opportunities to strike "Grand Bargains" with Boehner, et al. and walked away. He could have reined in the global militarism that Bush started, and instead has perpetuated it. Give me a break. There is no evidence of a "long game." Especially in the era of hyperpartisanship and divided government, any president who assumes he will be a 2-term president is foolish. If Obama assumed this, he's squandering his supposedly transformative political skills.

Sixth: Sullivan's numbers are just wrong in terms of how much Obama has added to the deficit. We ran a $1T+ deficit in 2011. Now yes, Bush's last budget, FY 2009, did the same. Of course, we're beyond defending Bush here. But the expected budget shortfall for FY 2012 was something in the neighborhood of $700B. Alone that's approaching $2T. And Sullivan says overall in terms of real and expected debt, Obama era budgets will only add $1.4T to the deficit? Really? I wonder where he's getting his numbers.

Finally: Just looking at a survey of seemingly random policies, I don't see how anyone can look at his record and conclude that he's been a success or a great president. His war on whistleblowers is unprecedented. The treatment of Bradley Manning was deplorable. His use of signing statements rivals that of Bush. He's seeking to have a record number of people arrested for using marijuana. And contra Sullivan, Obamacare was not "universal health care." It was subsidies for some people to purchase health insurance, a modest expansion of Medicaid, and a mandate. And on the governance front, Obama will have spent the last third of his term running for reelection.

Sullivan has been smitten with Obama since he burst on the scene and decided to run for president. While Sullivan has a point that some criticisms of Obama are really unfair and stupid, the reality is that he should be judged not according to his critics, but based on what he himself promised while running for president, and the policies he's pursued since taking office. By that metric, the only reasonable conclusion is that Obama has been a failure and must be voted out.

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