Fear Factor – Ross Douthat Takes a Swipe at the President

April 11, 2012   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX

Douthat and Hillary

By Marie Burns:

On days like today, the New York Times editorial pages leave me with very little to work with. Maureen Dowd managed to pull a fairly insightful column out of a chimera – a hilarious new Tumblr page called “Texts from Hillary” that riffs off photos of Secretary Clinton, wearing sunglasses and texting aboard a C-17 on her way to Tripoli. Meanwhile, Tom Friedman copied out that column of his about how we need to cut Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit. You know the one. Somewhere in there he says, “If I cut off both my thumbs…, I’d also have a hard time getting another job.” I think he wants you to know he types that recycled malarkey himself, which is what makes the old new again. With or without his thumbs, Friedman doesn’t deserve another job. Or the one he has.

That leaves me with Ross Douthat. Douthat never disappoints. Today he writes a “Campaign Stops” post in which he joins the Hysteria and Hyperbole Chorus of right-wingers who are shocked, shocked, that a Democrat would dare speak ill of their far-right legislative and judicial agendas. In his post, Douthat accuses the President of practicing “the liberalism of fear”:

Whether in his slashing attack last week on the ‘radical vision’ of the House Republican budget, his finger-wagging at the Supreme Court over health care reform, or his administration’s transparently calculated outrage over the supposed Republican ‘war on women,’ the incumbent is building a case for re-election that rests almost exclusively on the evils of the opposition.

My immediate reaction to Douthat’s long wail is to roll on the floor laughing (See Clinton tweet). Douthat’s post, as it happens, is literally the pot calling the kettle black. Or blah, to use the locution suspended GOP candidate Rick Santorum prefers. Republicans have spent three years frightening their racist constituencies with the President’s black-black-blackidy-blackness. In January 2011, Adam Serwer wrote in the Washington Post,

If you’re curious as to why we spent the late summer [of 2010] discussing the New Black Panther Party, the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, Shirley Sherrod, and birthright citizenship, I think you have your answer. Ever since the first genuine race pseudo-scandal, Barack Obama suggesting the the Cambridge Police acted ‘stupidly’ in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home – Republicans sensed an opportunity in exploiting the anxieties of white voters.

Serwer goes on to cite more examples of GOP race-baiting language. He noted that “From the Affordable Care Act to the overhaul of financial regulations, there’s been an effort to cast nearly every element of Obama’s agenda as a form of racially tinged redistributionism.” As the GOP presidential contest ramped up, the candidates for the top job got with the program. The Associated Press reported last May,

Republican Newt Gingrich told a Georgia audience on Friday evening that the 2012 presidential election is the most consequential since the 1860 race that elected Abraham Lincoln to the White House and was soon followed by the Civil War…. Gingrich also blasted Obama as ‘the most successful food stamp president in modern American history.’

What happens when you get a post-Civil War food-stamp president? Again, from the AP report: “Addressing the Georgia Republican Party’s convention, Gingrich said the nation is at a crossroads and that the re-election of Democratic President Barack Obama would lead to four more years of ‘radical left-wing values’ that would drive the nation to ruin.” Oh. My. God.

(On “Meet the Press,” David Gregory asked Gingrich if his association of the first black president with food stamps was “racially-tinged language.” Gingrich called the question “bizarre.”

But racism is not enough. In an associated scare tactic, even some established politicians on the right are happy to let stand the idea that Obama is a Muslim. The purpose of this is not only to suggest Obama, in the popular shorthand of the day, is a foreign terrorist, but also to remind white folks of the only Muslims many of them have seen around town: Black Muslims. It’s two-fer! Michael Landsberg of the Los Angeles Times noted that in January of this year, Rick Santorum “failed to correct a woman who told him that Obama is ‘an avowed Muslim.’ He was later quoted as saying it wasn’t his job to correct such assertions.” In February, Santorum said Obama adhered to “some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.” At other times, according to the New York Times editors, Santorum has followed a common GOP get-out-fear-mongering-charge trick by saying skeptically, “The president says he’s a Christian.”

In the Times editorial, which runs alongside Douthat’s post, the board is scathing in its criticism of Santorum’s fear-mongering:

Mr. Santorum … sensed early on that Mr. Romney was not adequately feeding the fury of the religious right toward President Obama, and he found a singular way to combine contempt for government with the fervor of faith. When Mr. Obama would make a public-health argument in favor of prenatal testing, or insurance coverage for contraceptives, Mr. Santorum wouldn’t just disagree with him. He would accuse the president of trampling on religious freedom.

When Republicans aren’t characterizing President Obama as a Muslim terrorist (okay, Republicans would complain the term “Muslim terrorist” was redundant), they are stoking the fear that he has brought “European-style socialism” to the good old U.S.A. and has a secret plan to expand this foreign influence. Charles Babington of the Associated Press reported this morning that just yesterday, Mitt Romney – who most certainly will be the GOP nominee, “portrayed Obama as a weak leader who apologizes for America’s greatness and prefers European-style socialism over robust free enterprise. Obama’s allies call such claims nonsense.” Romney added that Obama “is clearly trying to hide from us what he intends to do.”

Romney has made a cottage industry of lying about Obama. The purpose of most of these lies is to make Americans fear President Obama. Politicians, of course, are supposed to get voters to worry about their opponents’ policies and actions. But, as Jamelle Bouie of the American Prospect wrote last month, “Romney is running against policies that haven’t happened and an Obama that doesn’t exist. Exaggeration is normal in politics, but this goes beyond garden-variety embellishment – Romney’s speech, along with much of his rhetoric, is a remarkable work of staggering dishonesty.”

For spectacular fear-mongering, no one can quite touch the GOP’s friends at National Rifle Association. Wayne LaPierre of the NRA “revealed” recently a massive Obama conspiracy to “take away our guns,” the proof of which was that Obama has not yet taken away our guns. You can see where GOP politicians go for logic lessons. The windup to LaPierre’s speech is too hilarious not to share:

If you want a glimpse of a genuine nightmare for America, just look at what’s headed our way.

But unlike a nightmare, this isn’t some fantasy. It’s a very real, very dangerous conspiracy of public deception intended to destroy your Right to Keep and Bear Arms. It’s targeted directly atyou.

And it’ll succeed unless you recognize it, understand it, and take action now to stop it.

The best way you could do so is by carrying your new 2012 membership card (see sidebar story on page 29) in your wallet as a symbol of your commitment – and by renewing or upgrading your NRA membership or making a contribution to defending freedom today.

Perhaps the scariest of all the GOP charges against President Obama is that he is bent on “stealing our liberty” or “destroying our freedom.” In a major policy speech, Romney said Obama had “attacked the cornerstone of American prosperity: economic freedom.” Santorum even uses that sort of unfounded scare tact in tweets. Last week, for instance. he tweeted, “If we don’t reverse Obamacare, it will effectively destroy our freedoms.”

Douthat complains in his column that President Obama made “a slashing attack … on the ‘radical vision’ of the House Republican budget.” President Obama has hardly been alone in attacking the Ryan/House budget. Today, the New York Times editors called the Ryan budget, which Romney has embraced, “economic extremism” a plan with “unconscionable cuts to the social safety net, represents an economic extremism.” In his New York Times column, Paul Krugman labeled the Ryan budget “Pink Slime.” “a kind of throwback to the 19th century,” “what happens when extremists gain complete control of a party’s discourse” and “the most fraudulent [budget] in American history.” And that’s before he got to the substance:

The trouble with the budget devised by Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, isn’t just its almost inconceivably cruel priorities, the way it slashes taxes for corporations and the rich while drastically cutting food and medical aid to the needy. Even aside from all that, the Ryan budget purports to reduce the deficit – but the alleged deficit reduction depends on the completely unsupported assertion that trillions of dollars in revenue can be found by closing tax loopholes.

In a more recent column, Krugman directly addressed Obama’s critique of the Ryan bill, and Obama critics’ rap on Obama:

President Obama said the obvious: the latest Republican budget proposal, a proposal that Mitt Romney has avidly embraced, is a ‘Trojan horse’ – that is, it is essentially a fraud. ‘Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country.’ The reaction from many commentators was a howl of outrage. The president was being rude; he was being partisan; he was being a big meanie. Yet what he said about the Ryan proposal was completely accurate.

In other words, that’s all they got: tone. (David Brooks made the same complaint last week, accusing the President of “putting on a Keith Olbermann mask.”)

Douthat complains about President Obama’s “finger-wagging at the Supreme Court over health care reform.” Bear in mind that prior to oral hearings, Constitutional scholars from every hue of the political spectrum believed the Supreme Court would rule for the Affordable Care Act with no more than a tut-tut. There were predictions of 7-2 votes; even some 8-1, with Clarence de Lune the only holdout. After the first hearing that dealt with the act itself, all bets were off, and the number most often heard among legal experts was 5-4, with the 5 most often going to the challengers. Most liberals and supporters of the Affordable Care Act were glad to hear the President remark on the case. In reaction to conservative fainting spells, Jeff Shesol, “whose book, ‘Supreme Power,’ chronicles FDR’s battle with the Supreme Court over the New Deal,” told the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent: “By historical standards, [Obama's comment] was more of a nudge than an attack.”

Shesol, writing in the Daily Beast last week, elaborated:

Rush Limbaugh … called Obama a ‘thug’ for ‘threatening’ the court. Other conservatives have accused Obama of launching a ‘judicial witch hunt.’ … We have heard this line of attack before: in 2010, when Obama, in his State of the Union address, had the audacity to mention the Citizens United ruling in the presence of the people who decided the case. Then, he was criticized for speaking up after the opinion had been issued, when the gentlemanly thing to do was just to accept the result. Now, he is being rebuked for addressing the issue in advance.

The right’s indignation, plainly, has less to do with solicitude for the justices than with hostility toward the president and his purposes. It reflects a determination to shut or shout down the president any time he dares speak of the court. Conservatives have long dominated the national discussion about the courts and Constitution and do not intend to yield the floor…. Obama, more a reluctant than a happy warrior, has been conscripted into what FDR called the ‘unending struggle’ against those who ‘cry ‘unconstitutional’ at every effort to better the condition of our people.’

Shesol backs up this point of Sargent’s:

If you really want to hear an “attack” on the court, go check out F.D.R.’s 1937 address, in which he accused the Court of wanting to banish the nation to a “No-Man’s Land of final futility.” Or check out his Fireside Chat about his court-packing scheme, in which he warned that it was time to “save the Constitution from the Court” and accused the courts of operating in “direct contradiction of the high purposes of the framers of the Constitution.”

In a post titled “Grassley Calls Obama ‘Stupid’ for Agreeing for Grassley about Activist Judges,” Ian Millhiser of Think Progress fingers Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who called President Obama “stupid” for complaining about “activist judges”:

Grassley’s objection to President Obama would have far more credibility if Grassley himself did not have a long history of using this very same rhetoric. Indeed, as recently as 2011, Grassley harshly criticized people who ‘turn to the courts’ after they ‘can’t get their policy views enacted through the legislative process.’

Millhiser notes that the right never went nuts when President George W. Bush spoke out against “activist judges,” and Shesol points out the Ronald Reagan made the same kind of remarks about the judiciary with no complaints from the Douthats of his day.

Finally, Douthat gripes about the Obama “administration’s transparently calculated outrage over the supposed Republican ‘war on women’” I’ll grant that the “war on women” was a battleground on which Democrats were happy to see Republicans make a stand. But it was the Republicans’ choice. For weeks they were lobbing spears over the administration’s policy of requiring religiously-run, quasi-public institutions to provide the same kind of health care coverage for women as would secular institutions. That coverage included birth control, and nearly every Republican politician accused the President of trampling on “religious freedom,” even when Obama softened the requirement. All but one Senate Republican voted for legislation – the “Blunt Amendment” – that would have allowed any employer, religious or otherwise, to deny any kind of medical coverage to its employees, male or female, if s/he claimed to find such coverage “morally objectionable.” Mitt Romney supported the Blunt Amendment. That, along with his remark that he would “get rid of Planned Parenthood,” and his support for “personhood” laws that would make a number of kinds of contraception illegal, help explain why female voters give President Obama a 20-point lead over Romney.

I’m not sure if Douthat himself believes his own argument. After noting that many of his conservative blogger buddies call Obama’s rhetoric “acts of desperation,” Douthat concedes that Obama “isn’t necessarily desperate. (Indeed, it’s hard to call a politician desperate when he’s leading in the polls.)” Indeed, Douthat seems to be merely paying his Right Wing World membership dues. He huffs and puffs about Obama’s “divisive” turn, but he admits it is likely to work, and his admission is telling:

… the politics of fear offers particular benefits for left-of-center politicians, because its inherent small-c conservatism – vote for me if you want to Keep Things As They Are, a message with particular appeal – provides a way to overcome the built-in disadvantage of running for office as a Democrat in a country where more voters identify as conservatives then liberals.

Read that again. It boils down to this: Obama is using the same tactics conservatives use to persuade the electorate. Douthat resents Obama’s repurposing of a time-honored Republican tactic. Douthat is peeved that Obama has learned to play on GOP turf. At this point, Obama is even winning the game, largely because he has more than a grain of truth in his pocket. So in a post titled “The Liberalism of Fear,” doesn’t Douthat really mean that Obama has stolen the “conservatism of fear”? Most everything in Right Wing World is backwards. In both senses of the word.

Marie Burns blogs at 


Readers Comments (1)

  1. maineprep says:

    Maybe my memory is faulty, but I remember Ross Douthat as a conservative but reasonable member of the punditocracy (a la Andrew Sullivan). This has changed in the last year or two, but perhaps all that has changed is that rather than tasking himself to put a positive spin on the doings of C-Plus Augustus (thanks Charles Pierce) his task now is to put a negative spin on everything that emanates from a man I suspect Ross secretly admires. One must be madly in love with laissez faire capitalism to find a good word to say about Paul Ryan or Santorum, to say nothing about the man who could suck the enthusiasm out of a wedding celebration and college graduation all rolled into one, Willard Mitt Romney. Mebbe Ross just likes the way the man sings.



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