Common ground and the high ground

In the October 22 issue of the London Review of Books, David Bromwich argues that President Obama's irenic post-partisanship betrays a hobbling misconception about politics: the president seems to imagine that no divisions are so deep that they cannot be overcome with gestures of goodwill and a rhetoric of patient rationality. Rationality and patience are both necessary of course, now more than ever, but if the president expects any kind of consensus on financial regulation or health-care reform, he is wasting his time—and ours. There are limits to even his powers of persuasion, and unanimity often costs more than it's worth. Bromwich writes:

Delays in the passage, first, of Obamas stimulus package to strengthen the economy after last Septembers financial collapse, and, second, of his healthcare bill, have been due in large part to his public pauses to wait for Republicans to lend these measures a bipartisan glow. A few came along, at a high price, to vote for the economic stimulus. None has taken up the offer on healthcare. The Republicans stand in place, and give no sign, and watch as the presidents stature dwindles. His reason for waiting doubtless has something to do with fear. Obama receives four times as many death threats as George W. Bush did. Yet he is also encumbered by the natural wish of the moderate to hold himself close to all the establishments at once: military, financial, legislative, commercial. Ideally, he would like to inspire everyone and to offend no one. But the conceit of accommodating one's enemies inch by inch to attain bipartisan consensus seems with Obama almost a delusion in the literal sense: a fixed false belief. How did it come to possess so clever a man? [...]

Any act that achieves something concrete will leave small multitudes of the disappointed keening but unheard. There are hurt feelings in politics, which only time can cure if anything can. This is a truth now staring at Barack Obama, on several different fronts, but he does not accept it easily. His way of thinking is close to the spirit of that Enlightenment reasonableness which supposes a right course of action can never be described so as to be understood and not assented to.

Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic agrees, though for Wieseltier it is much more important that the president get tough with our enemies abroad (e.g., the government of Iran) than with his political opponents at home:

His "engagement" with the illegitimate theo-fascist rulers in Iran, even as their show trials proceed, represents a decision to scant ostentatious differences in favor of dubious similarities. (The demotion of human rights by the common ground presidency is absolutely incomprehensible. The common ground is not always the high ground.) When it is without end, moreover, the search for common ground is bad for bargaining. It informs the other side that what you most desire is the deal—that you will never acknowledge the finality of difference, and never be satisfied with the integrity of opposition. There is a reason that "uncompromising" is a term of approbation. As for the "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" in the Declaration of Independence, it is a call for courtesy, not a call for agreement. Where there is no common ground, the common ground man is useless. It is just him and his halo.("Common Ground," from the November 4 issue of TNR)

That rhetorical tautology at the end is good journalism but not very useful political theory: "Where there is no common ground, the common ground man is useless." All the trouble, for the president as for his critics, is in figuring out where the common ground is and isn't. As Bromwich and Wieseltier both argue, Obama can't afford to assume it's everywhere. But only a foo lsupposes he always knows where it is in advance.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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