Maureen Dowd's column this morning, which as I write is being praised on CNN's "State of the Union" by none other than that right-wing demagogue of smugness, Bill Bennett, makes a profound but also profoundly inadvertent and profoundly sad point: President Obama is too smart for the American electorate.
He and "His inner circle believed too much in the power of the Aura and in protecting the Brand," writes Dowd. "They didn’t think they needed to sell anything or fight back when the crazies started sliming them.... Obama ... missed the moment in August of 2009 when Sarah Palin and the Tea Party got oxygen with their loopy rants on death panels. It never occurred to the Icon that such wildness and gullibility would trump lofty rationality."
I, and I'm sure Obama as well, couldn't agree more. But in his defense I can say what he can't: He (and I know I did) misinterpreted the 2008 election as a broad re-endorsement of, and thus a return to, rationality. He had deeply invested in a new, soft post-partisanship whose chief objective was pragmatic problem-solving; he indeed believed that "lofty rationality," given the titanic problems we all faced, would trump "gullibility."
He trusted that the American electorate had grown up, that it had matured, that it would no longer opt for the shinest baubles tendered by those tarnished demagogues of the right. His confidence was misplaced. Within weeks of his inauguration the GOP began resolidifying its rabid base through amplified alarms about Obama's "socialist" agenda. Hence center-right independents began harboring doubts.
Meanwhile, insatiable movement progressives also began doing their petty, benighted and immature best to cripple Obama early on. "This is 'Change we can believe in'? Pshaw. Just more of the same." Although an impressive 75 percent of rank-and-file liberals have held their ground in support of Obama, movement progressives' pummeling message in the service of the far right began taking its toll on center-left independents. Hey, they're right, thought these perhaps lower-information voters -- Where, after a mere 18 months or so, is the organic Change we voted for?
In short, Obama has been squeezed from both ideological extremes, paradoxically leaving himself and his Congressional allies most vulnerable in the essentially non-ideological middle, where national elections are won or lost.
Being a supremely rational man in search of a new kind of rational politics -- which, again, Obama thought had been confirmed in November, 2008 -- it likely never occurred to the president that his in-office political strategy would soar so far above the street-fight mentality of both far left and far right that the latter's fog of war would obscure it, in the vast middle.
Obama believed in the power of rationality. He thought we had bought into it, too. He was wrong. The power of gullibility is as mighty as ever.