Within the last week or two, both the 43rd and 44th presidents of these here United States were back on the stump in anticipation of the November elections. Their return to politics breaks a seven decades-long practice of ex-presidents staying silent about the goings-on of their successors.
Like other presidential traditions in the age of Trump, the code of silence was destined to be broken. It is inconceivable that old number 45 could—upon his exit from office—control himself for as much as a New York minute before telling his successor how dull s/he is compared to his orangie-brilliance.
Bush and Obama are predictably being bashed about by the opposition press for their decisions. Vox’s Mathew Iglesias dismisses any suggestion that Bush has returned to politics to lead the Republican resistance. He chooses to believe that 43 has two missions. One is to raise money for Republican House and Senate candidates. The other is to convince Republicans in districts that swung against Trump to swallow their doubts and reelect a Congress that is determined to enable Trump — his corruption and…attacks on the rule of law. (emphasis added)
In today’s tit-for-tat world, Gary Locke of the Weekly Standard termed Obama’s speech at the University of Illinois the answer to the Democrat’s partisan prayers. According to Locke, Barack Obama finally did what Democratic activists had been desperately hoping he would do—he reproached his successor ahead of the midterm election. The speech for Locke was a long, discursive oration…[with] lots of impromptu gibes and derisive harrumphs that made the 44th president sound less like a retired statesman than a candidate vying for office. (emphasis added)
A more neutral observer would have judged Obama’s gibes much inferior to Trump’s harrumphs, while fairer assessments of two ex-presidents breaking with tradition might consider them motivated by more than mere partisanship. Have Bush and Obama returned to competitive politics to raise needed contributions and help their respective parties win in November? Undoubtedly, they have.
Politics, after all, is a game one pays to play. Having skin in the contest moves 43 and 44 from the sidelines to the field where they can speak more securely about the current state of America’s public affairs.
It doesn’t come easy for me to suggest that Bush is capable of a higher calling than as an apologist for Donald Trump. I admit to never being fond of “W” or his administration. In terms of combating climate change, I have scored 43 barely higher than 45, who is destined to go down in history as the worst environmental president of modern times.
I am willing, however, to believe that both Obama and Bush understand the threat to democracy posed by hyper-partisanship and are wading back into the swamp in hopes of moving their parties back to a conscionable middle. In his return to the political stump, Obama told an audience of 1,100 students at the University of Illinois that today’s brand of partisanship did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause… capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.
Bush 43 appears to have taken time to reflect upon the partisanship that marked and marred his administration, and that has only become more entrenched and intense since his leaving office. In words more eloquent than mine, he has denounced what politics have become.
The health of the democratic spirit itself is at issue… renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.
We know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.
The American dream of upward mobility seems out of reach for some who feel left behind in a changing economy. Discontent [has] deepened and sharpened partisan conflicts.
There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned… Some have called this “democratic deconsolidation.”
At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best….
We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.
Bigotry in any form is blasphemy…it means the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation. Bullying and prejudice in our public life set a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children.
The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.
Perhaps this is the man Senator McCain saw, and Michelle Obama sees? The imagery of McCain’s requesting Presidents Bush and Obama to eulogize his passing and to keep Trump from attending his funeral is a sad but accurate reflection of the current state of American politics.
Both ex-presidents have refrained from blanket endorsements of their party’s candidates. Obama has endorsed just 81 Democrats of the thousands running for federal and state offices. Bush has similarly narrowed the number of Republicans he appears actively willing to endorse and support through fundraising. These limits reflect the deepening divisions between moderate and more extreme elements within each of the parties, as well as the comfort levels of both 43 and 44 with more moderate factions.
The escalating war between far-right populists and more moderate members in the House and Senate is hampering the ability of a Republican Congress and White House to take advantage of their majority status. Although Democrats in Congress appear more cohesive, it is a false positive. What binds them today is their opposition to Trump. The differences between progressive and establishment Democrats will surge up after the 2018 elections.
No matter the outcome in November the battle between party extremists and moderates on both sides of the aisle will intensify. The first fights will be over the leadership of the House. Whether the donnybrooks are for Speaker of the House or Minority Leader will, of course, depend upon the outcome of November’s votes.
The Republican battle is already in bloom having started the minute Speaker Ryan announced his retirement. The contest is between Jim Jordan (OH), a co-founder of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, and Kevin McCarthy (CA), who is currently Ryan’s deputy and considered by moderates as the natural heir apparent. “Moderate” in this case is a relative term as Trump appears to have successfully taken over the Republican Party. Back in the day McCarthy would have been considered conservative.
To paraphrase Deroy Murdock, the Right feels stung and embarrassed over omnibus spending bills that have kept the government from shutting down at the cost of a nearly trillion-dollar deficit. Conservatives are more than mildly miffed by the lack of landmark legislation. For a party in the catbird’s seat, Republicans have had little success in governing.
The Democratic leadership race pits Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) against a likely unknown younger left-leaning representative from the Midwest—a geopolitical region of the country that has gone from reliably Democratic to Trump country in recent years.
Pelosi has been one of the two most prominent faces of resistance to Trump and Republican populists. She and Chuck Schumer (NY), her counterpart in the Senate, are also the images of the establishment.
Democrats on both sides of Congress have been careful to keep internal differences from going “too” public before the election. Their shared opposition to Trump is for the moment enough to keep the Party’s factions pulling in the same direction. The moment, however, will soon pass.
The primary victory of a 28-year-old self-described democratic socialist sent shock waves through the Democratic establishment. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Representative Joseph Crowley (NY) a ten-term Congressman. Her victory lays bare many of the differences between the Democratic left and middle in much the same way Bernie Sanders did during the 2016 primaries. Trump and Sanders tapped into the growing hurt and frustration felt by a large segment of America. Those feelings have not gone away.
The traditional response of both parties’ leaders to intra-mural conflicts has been to bend to certain of the demands–without yielding the floor. A new position is created to accommodate the troublemakers, or a committee appointed to “study” the situation. Such token actions do what seems most natural to politicians—kicking the can down the road. The end of that road, however, is in sight.
There comes a time when tokens and half measures no longer suffice. Decades of unyielding leaders, deferred decisions and dueling ideologies have brought both political parties to the point where half-measures are recognized for what they are—the same old, same old.
Frustration and anger have been building and intensifying in the wake of such palliatives. People are weary of waiting for promises to be fulfilled.
Loyalties once given to larger encompassing political organizations, i.e., the Democratic and Republican Parties, are being shifted to identity groups. Narrower affiliations of particular interests and viewpoints, e.g., Tea Party conservatives, or circumstance, i.e., race— groupings more willing and able to take on entrenched establishment interests.
These are often organizations born of anger that are sharing-impaired measuring their success in terms of winning and losing. For them, there is no middle ground. Think of Donald Trump.
Bush and Obama, like McCain, are “old school” politicians whose model of governing said that when you come to power, you do what you can to get at least some support from the other side for your big projects, not only as a way of getting them passed but because if they’re bipartisan they’ll have greater legitimacy.
Yoni Applebaum in his Atlantic article Losing the Democratic Habit writes:
…in the polarized political environment of 2018, the stakes seem incomprehensibly high. For Democrats and Republicans alike, abiding by the old rules can seem a sucker’s game, an act of unilateral disarmament. Norms are difficult to enshrine but easy to discard.
Divisiveness describes the American political landscape. Whether a symptom or cause, anger—not dedication to democratic ideals—appears to be the major motivator of voters in 2018. In my experience, angry people tend not to compromise.
Without compromise, the nation will continue to see years of politics at the extreme—periods of doing and undoing much as we see now in Trump’s dedication to erasing Obama’s environmental legacy. I ask you–is this any way to govern the greatest nation on earth?
Lead image from the movie Network.