Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ugly, Too

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent believes critics have been too hard on Senator Tom Coburn for his remarks explaining Barack Obama's rise to the top. He maintains

I think what Coburn means here is that African Americans are more likely to need such programs than whites are, and by his own lights, Coburn actually thinks he’s being charitable to Obama here. He’s essentially saying that Obama’s life experience quite naturally dictated that he would view the safety net as a good thing, because it helped poor African Americans.

Sargent contacted the fellow who wrote the story in the Tulsa World and printed the transcript so that Coburn's message, so benevolent, could be seen in context: The Senator stated

No, I don’t... He’s a very bright man. But think about his life. And think about what he was exposed to and what he saw in America. He’s only relating what his experience in life was...“His intent isn’t to destroy. It’s to create dependency because it worked so well for him. I don’t say that critically. Look at people for what they are. Don’t assume ulterior motives. I don’t think he doesn’t love our country. I think he does.

“As an African American male, coming through the progress of everything he experienced, he got tremendous benefit through a lot of these programs. So he believes in them. I just don’t believe they work overall and in the long run they don’t help our country. But he doesn’t know that because his life experience is something different. So it’s very important not to get mad at the man. And I understand, his philosophy — there’s nothing wrong with his philosophy other than it’s goofy and wrong [laughter] — but that doesn’t make him a bad person.”

Oh, but this makes it so much better! Viewing Sargent's analysis, Salon's Joan Walsh realizes"the remarks are a little bit more awful because it's clear the Oklahoma doctor can't see Obama for what he is." In fact, Coburn does not specify what "dependency" it was which "worked so well" for a young Obama. Nor does he identify "a lot of these programs" (food stamp program, home mortgage deduction, student loan system?) actually were. He is, hence, asserting a black man who became President of the United States must have benefited from the programs he stereotypes. It wouldn't have been quite so bad if the Senator had made a principled, conservative argument against such programs, nor if he had argued that Barack Obama advanced only because he took advantage of government programs.

But he did neither. Coburn sees these programs, assumes they are directed to the underclass, and hence assumes, "because (of) his life experience," the President couldn't have gotten where he has without them. Moreover, if the Senator "actually think(s) he's being charitable to Obama," he would have found it unnecessary to add (of Obama being aided by 'dependency') "I don't say that critically."

Sargent's analysis, though, is not merely wrong. It is ugly. At the recent Repub presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, ten of ten GOP candidates declared their opposition to a tax increase even if they could get in spending reduction ten times the amount of revenue increase. Yet, polls have shown a majority of Republican voters in favor of somewhat increasing taxes to aid deficit reduction, as well as most opposing cuts in Social Security benefits. The problem, it would appear, is not on the street but in the suites.

Still, Sargent contends

What’s funny to me about this whole episode is that it reveals how challenging it is for the saner variety of Republicans to reason with some of their constituents about the President. Coburn is struggling to talk a constituent out of his anxiety that Obama actively wants to destroy the country. He needs to find a way of defending Obama’s motives that a constituent inclined to believe the worst about Obama might be able to listen to and even tolerate. So Coburn hit on this way of defending Obama while still keeping his argument confined within a world view that this constituent might find acceptable. It’s not easy being a Republican official these days.

Coburn cleverly "hit on this way" by stereotyping black males and by making assumptions about Obama's rise. The problem, in Sargent's view, is not a wealthy, educated pol pandering- no, he's only valiantly "struggling to talk a constituent out of his anxiety." Unfortunately, while the citizen is "inclined to believe the worst about Obama," a United States Senator is trying to reinforce these instincts- about both the President and a whole group of Americans. "It's not easy being a Republican official these days," Sargent argues, though on Social Security, tax cuts, and probably other issues, those same individuals the journalist finds intolerant are way ahead of, and more reasonable than, their elected representatives. Perhaps Sargent feared also that an angry mob of the great unwashed awaited any GOP candidate who would emerge from the presidential debate after being unwilling to commit himself/herself to a "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge.

While Walsh believes Sargent may have been prompted by being "an always generous person," another explanation can emerge from her recognition that

Coburn is right about one thing. Our president does have a dependency problem. He's overly dependent on the nonexistent goodwill of Republicans who are out to destroy not only his presidency, but the entire system of social opportunity built by the Democratic Party, belatedly and briefly supported by Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, over the last 80 years. Obama's dependency on the notion that he's the lone man who can reason with implacable enemies and lure them to compromise is deeply debilitating, for him and for his party.

Greg Sargent never has lost his faith in the Man of Hope and Change and, Walsh notes, Coburn

is supposed to be one of the president's few "friends" on the other side of the aisle. Obama has repeatedly touted his "unlikely friendship" with Coburn, calling him his friend and his "brother in Christ" at this year's "National Prayer Breakfast." He's a member of the deficit-hawk "Gang of Six" much praised by the president. Coburn has called Obama a "wonderful man."

Perhaps Greg Sargent would be uncomfortable criticizing someone whom he believes is reasonable and open-minded and whom Obama is counting on to bring other Republicans around. Or he could be taking a more hard-headed, realistic approach, possibly needing to open a line of communication with an influential Senator who has a relationship with the President. Quite likely, the Washington Post journalist has far less need of establishing contacts with ordinary Oklahomans, in need of care and feeding by those "saner variety of Republicans."

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