Joe Biden’s alternately snarling, eye-rolling, interrupting, grinning, occasionally weird performance seems to have traded off two conflicting outcomes: temporarily motivating Democrats who were unsettled by Barack Obama’s passivity in the first debate while repelling independents who got a florid reminder of just what it is they find distasteful about political combat.
But Biden unleashed revealed something about what has happened to the liberal political mood in this season. Beneath the back and forth over the quality of Obama’s economic stewardship, and the predictable jabs at the wealth and tax records of the first nominee since 1940 who has substantial private sector experience, there has been another context to this campaign, that is both retrograde and novel at the same time: namely, the left’s strategy of attack by caricature and ridicule, and the implicit worldview that conservatism is an oddball blend of plutocracy, racial resentment, sexual backwardness, and selfishness.
The backward leaning part of the theme is the resemblance to Franklin Roosevelt’s and Harry Truman’s exuberant Republican bashing, at least in the brutal depiction of the GOP agenda. But FDR’s tongue-lashing had a notable high-mindedness: the broadside in his 1936 acceptance speech about mastering the forces of greed in a second term was exquisite rhetorical theater of a kind Barack Obama as president has utterly failed to master. Moreover, the New Deal’s anti-Republican barbs were accompanied by a raft of prospective domestic legislation.
The core of the modern liberal sneer strategy, and Biden made it fairer than ever to describe it that way, is much more novel, not terribly high-flown, and not at all forward-looking. The technique unfurls itself daily behind the desks in MSNBC’s studio, where all but a select few anchors (Joe Scarborough, Chuck Todd) moderate rolling denunciations of all things Republican, without much pretense at balance, in the august editorial pages of the New York Times, which has traded in its vanishing profits as the paper of record for the mantle of intellectual enforcer of the left, and in a coherent, organized blogosphere which ritualistically strikes at every conservative pretense imaginable. Missing is any sustained rationale for what an Obama second term might look like, beyond the standard fare hike in upper income tax rates and a generalized commitment to more “investments” in conventional Democratic objectives.
The novelty is in the reversal of a generation of Democratic attempts to soften Republican/conservative opposition through persuasion. During the Clinton era, Democrats regularly sought to co-opt Republicans by shifting right on welfare and budgets, and moved back and forth between partisanship and outreach. Nor is there much trace of the feints liberals made a decade ago toward evangelicals, much less Obama’s 2004/2008 emphasis on reducing partisanship.
Spared the tactical imperative of persuading even mainstream conservatives, or crafting a legislative portfolio that could overcome gridlock, liberalism circa 2012 is largely a negative project aimed at dismissing the Right’s substantive and intellectual credibility. Nancy Pelosi’s eye-rolling at doubts about the constitutionality of the healthcare law, the establishment media’s persistent denunciations of the Tea Party as Neanderthal relics of George Wallace, the African American media’s trope that conservatism is racial backlash are all of a piece with Biden’s tactic of describing conservative economic policies as discredited claptrap.
Notably, there are few instances of liberal inspired policy innovation in the current climate. Democrats have been silent on how they intend to close the potential valley of low wage uninsured in red states that decline new federal Medicaid money, or how they plan to reverse wage stagnation, or what the contours of education or environmental policy might look like during the next four years.
By the way, it is telling and a reflection of liberal contempt that even Obama’s own projections of what a second term might look like are not bullish about an outbreak of bipartisan deal-making. The best case, as Obama suggested on 60 Minutes, is that Republicans would be so chastened by a defeat that they would shrink into a more accommodating posture: in other words, essentially the same theory of surrender Democrats fancifully clung to in the winter of 2008-09.
To be sure, liberal disdain has its unattractive mirror images on the political right. But there is an interesting difference. Right-wing consternation is invariably guilty of over-estimating the left’s influence and reach. But the left’s animosity minimizes conservatism and seems mystified that it commands followers at all: hardly a perspective that paves the way toward bargaining or concessions even from a position of strength.
Obama will be better armed with one liners in the now critical second debate on October 16, and will don a more forceful pose in general. But the status of this race three weeks out—a narrow Romney lead and a perceptible shifting of the Electoral College map away from Democrats—is a function not just of one bad night but a failure of the left’s campaign of ridicule. This fall, sneer seems out of fashion.