Sunday, July 26, 2009

Parse-Snips: "And I Mean It"

Much has been made about the Skip Gates / Cambridge Police imbroglio. The biggest drama in the aftermath of the press conference is of its diffusion -- not the completely predictable, almost mechanical, escalation of indignation between two sparring partners (and they are partners). I tip my hat to Obama's calibrated apology: I'm not taking any of it back but I did get in over my head. In the moment where the fear-harboring swells into the shouting match Crowley, Gates and the President were all consumed by passion and that's the boundary-smasher.

The spectacle was ripe for picking because:

(1) It was unscripted -- it wasn't about health care. Obama could have been just as easily asked about the newest wave of settlements in the West Bank. He could have struck the same tender chord of authenticity by invoking his parental instincts about his own daughters in harm's way. And everyone would have gone on talking about how a veto-proof Senate needs bi-partisan support for health care reform to pass.

(2) Obama departed from his game -- rather than the arbitrage he favors over the triangulations of the Clinton/Bush era, he put himself squarely in the middle -- not as arbitrator but victim. The third-person ID on "any one of us would have been angry" begged a color-based stencil. Yes, racial profiling is a fact of American life. So is pigment justice as the surest race to the bottom of any policy debate on race.

(3) Narrative tells itself -- The race card is runner-up only to the cult of celebrity and sex for marquee media value -- "if you want a crowd, start a fight" [and] keep the camera rolling long enough for the barkers to mount their soap boxes. There's no nuance necessary when the questions are so black and so white. Or are they?

In one corner we have the institutional clout of law enforcement teamed with the sensitivity training of a post white supremacist world view. In the other the venerable brand of glittering brains and policy-speak of towering Harvard backed with every unfinished agenda on the social left that gives voice to the "world's most opinionated zip code." Yes, try undressing those vagaries and then convince the scorekeeper there's a scoreboard big enough to hold all the debating points.

Full disclosure -- Obama and Skip go back together? Well the Cambridge cops should be on a first name basis with the streets they patrol. The block of the reported break-in is lined with the residences of sleep-deprived, prestigous, self-important Harvard professors.

The more substantive misstep to my thinking was Obama's stretch of self-conferring credibility. Here's the line:

"I have also pledged that health insurance reform will not add to our deficit over the next decade - and I mean it."

Without delving into GAO reports, GAAP principles, or lies and damn lies let's look at the face of this: Part of the reason the man is so comfortable in his skin is that he can perform a feat that evades the vanity of elected officials. He can identify himself as a third party -- a major survival skill for anyone needing to function in a leadership role without compromising their own integrity. When Bob Dole referred to himself as Dole it sounded like we weren't going to have Nixon to kick around any longer. When Obama does it we float to the ceiling of the press room and undergo an out-of-body experience.

That's what's so shocking about the "and I mean it" part. That's the kind of defensive posturing I'd expect from a more shrill and less assured pol. It begs the question: what if you don't really mean it. The health care deficit water should be carried more presumably by HHS Secretary Kathy Sebelius or Joe the Biden: "And he means it," might have taken Obama's pledge one step closer to echo chamber gospel. But the 'crats are a squirmy choir regardless of the sheet music or the talking points.

For the good of the country I hope the next time the health care debate is not about Obama that the President doesn't personalize his candor or have those Senate lions let their donor base decide on the compromises that are baked into the final signing of the 2009/10 Universal Health Recovery Act.

On second thought I hope Obama reconsiders and does make the battle about himself. Like Reagan he's more popular than his policies. But no one but himself will be asking to face this kind of crucible; his allies because they believe he's irreplacable and his enemies because he scares them so.

For a punishment-happy republic as ours it is ironic and sobering how little sacrifice we have come to expect from our leaders. But is their cowardice that hard to question in the pursuit of our own narrow interests?

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