A lot of people, especially on the left, are saying that President Obama got rolled in the recent budget negotiations. According to this account, the old hands in Congress, most notably John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, played him perfectly, getting him to think that he could achieve a “grand bipartisan bargain” and then making sure that he got less than nothing. I don’t know if Obama was indeed a rube in this drama, but thinking of him as one brings to mind the 1939 Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Jefferson Lincoln Smith, of course, goes to Washington with his own version of “changing the culture” there. Here’s a speech he gives in the latter stages of his one-man filibuster:
Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that’s what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we’d better get those boys’ camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it’s not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again!
Smith naively fails to understand that big business runs politics, not the little man. Obama may not be that naïve, but he appears to have thought that he could arrive at a “grand bargain” with Boehner—the kind that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill used to arrive at—and appeared stunned when, on the verge of coming to an understanding, Boehner suddenly stopped returning his phone calls. “I was left at the altar” is how the president put it, appearing as angry and hurt as I’ve seen him.
What got passed instead was a classic Washington deal that, more than anything, kicked hard decisions down the road, first to a “supercommittee” and then to the next Congress.
As in the film, the hardened press corps comes down hard on anyone who appears weak in this way. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times conjured up the image of a “cowering” president (see below).
In the film, Smith has everything stacked against him. Outright lies are pawned off as truth and the Taylor-controlled media spins its own version of him (Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News?). At one point (I wonder if Obama has ever had these thoughts) the senator just wants to give up.
So what can Obama learn from the film? Here’s what he can’t count on. He can’t rely on the senator who is out to break him (Mitch McConnell in this case) to have a crisis of conscience and put truth and justice over electoral politics. McConnell now sees the strategy of (metaphorically) holding a gun to Obama’s head as a template for future action, so I don’t think that he will (as Senator Paine literally does in the movie) turn a gun on himself and then proclaim to the Senate that Obama was right.
What Obama can do is focus on his key ideals and communicate them to the public. Speaking at someone who is still an ardent Obama supporter, I am appreciative of the fact that he is a pragmatic problem solver rather than a Jimmy Carter sermonizer and works on making things happen, from the stimulus and saving the car companies to Obamacare to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to the killing of Bin Laden. (For someone making the argument that Obama has done more for the liberal agenda in two years than George W. Bush did for the conservative agenda in eight, go to the following Kevin Drum article.) But in the movie, it is only when Smith’s word gets out (thanks to the Boy Rangers, who create their own newspaper) that the tide begins to turn.
If Obama doesn’t communicate forcefully, we could see him collapsing, like Jefferson Smith, under all the weight of the negative things that are being said about him. (In the movie these show up in large mailbags.) His “leading from behind” may have been remarkably effective to date but I’m not convinced it will accomplish a great deal over the upcoming 12 months.
Changing the subject and recalling last Friday’s post, I keep on finding references to movies by columnists and politicians trying to get their minds around the debt ceiling debate. Maureen Dowd takes the prize in her most recent column. After glancing over the following list of film allusions, see if you can guess how she uses them:
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Vincent Price movies
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Night of the Living Dead
But not Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Here’s are two excerpts from the column:
Tea Party budget-slashers didn’t sport the black capes with blood-red lining beloved by the campy Vincent Price or wield the tinglers deployed by William Castle. But in their feral attack on Washington, in their talent for raising goose bumps from Wall Street to Westminster, this strange, compelling and uncompromising new force epitomized “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and evoked comparisons to our most mythic creatures of the night.
They were like cannibals, eating their own party and leaders alive. They were like vampires, draining the country’s reputation, credit rating and compassion. They were like zombies, relentlessly and mindlessly coming back again and again to assault their unnerved victims, Boehner and President Obama. They were like the metallic beasts in “Alien” flashing mouths of teeth inside other mouths of teeth, bursting out of Boehner’s stomach every time he came to a bouquet of microphones. (Conjuring that last image on Monday, Vladimir Putin described America as “a parasite.”)
If Obama were more of a horror-movie connoisseur, he would know that he was cast as the mild-mannered everyman David Mann (get it?), the driver in the Steven Spielberg classic “Duel,” caught in a road-rage episode with a faceless trucker on the highway who “challenges the protagonist’s masculinity,” as Zinoman put it.
Unfortunately, Obama cowered under his seat during the D.C. horror movie and now plans to try to hide behind his Supercommittee. But the Tea Party slashers roaming the corridors of the Capitol have feasted without resistance on delicious victims and will only grow bolder.
In other words, the president is going to need a bigger boat.
And here’s a disillusioned Dowd adding yet another filmic allusion:
Barack Obama blazed like Luke Skywalker in 2008, but he never learned to channel the Force. And now the Tea Party has run off with his light saber.
The dissonance of his promise and his reality is jarring.
When he had power, he didn’t use it. He wanted to be a “transformational” president like Ronald Reagan, but failed to understand that Reagan’s strategic shows of strength allowed him to keep the whip hand without raising his voice.
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