The Method To Their Madness

We’ve been going back and forth the last few days about whether the president and the Democrats are wise to use the “hector the base” strategy to close the enthusiasm gap. I wrote this:

More importantly, it’s a complete misreading of what ails the base. It’s not about a bunch of liberal bloggers being pissed about the health care bill or the wars. Sadly, there just aren’t enough of us to make a difference. And it’s not about a bunch of liberal pundits in DC fretting about “tidal waves.” Susie Madrak hits the nail on the head about what’s depressing Democratic turnout:

[T]hose of us left living on a wing and prayer thanks to your “half full”, half-assed economic policies just don’t have a sense of humor about our continuing plight. I know it’s been a long time since your mom got food stamps, but you might want to give that empathy thing some thought.

It’s not that rank and file Democrats are congenitally unable to celebrate all the wonderful accomplishments of the Obama administration. It’s that, like Americans everywhere, they are hurting financially and don’t have good feelings about the future. The Republicans are fired up and believe that they can take action to change it by voting for teabaggers. But Dems are stuck in a holding pattern waiting for things to hopefully turn around. They have nowhere to focus their angst so they tune out. In those comments, the president is, at best, ignoring their real issue and saying they don’t know how good they have it. It’s not helpful.

Yesterday the President heard from one of those non-professional left members of the base in person and this is what she said:

Velma Hart: Thank you very much. And good afternoon, President Obama. I’m deeply honored to be in this forum and so grateful for CNBC for making the forum available so you can speak to American citizens just like myself. I’m a chief financial officer for a veterans service organization and that’s here in Washington. I’m also a mother, I’m a wife, I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans.

Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. Exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the man for change I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I’ve been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people and I’m waiting, sir, I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. While I thought it wouldn’t be a great measure, I would feel it in some small measure. I have two children in private school, and the financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I joked that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives. And quite frankly, it’s starting to knock on our door and ring through that that might be where we’re headed.

And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer honestly, is this my new reality?

I think that says pretty clearly what has rank and file Democrats tuning out. It’s the economy, stupid.

But there’s another element in what she says that’s also very important and it’s one I hadn’t taken into consideration, although I should have since I’m very familiar with the phenomenon:

Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. Exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the man for change I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now.

The “deeply disappointed with where we are right now” speaks to the real worry people are feeling about the state of the nation. And in an appearance today on Hardball she articulated what she was worried about:

I’m worried. I know I shouldn’t be, somehow I know I shouldn’t be. I should have confidence in our leaders to get us through these trying times, but I’m getting a little anxious. And quite frankly, the other thing that I’m concerned about is that other people are getting anxious and anxious people do desperate things and I’d like to avoid that.”

And that brings me to the exhaustion part of her statement yesterday. Those of you who went through the 90s will recognize this phenomenon. It’s when the right’s ferocious attacks are so vicious and relentless that they eventually wear down average, common sense people with normal lives to lead — and even scare them a little.

In Clinton’s case it was defending him from the non-stop personal attacks that was so wearying. It took a brave soul with a taste for political combat to keep fighting in the face of that onslaught. It was called Clinton Fatigue, the sense that even people who were sympathetic to the president’s political plight and understood that his enemies were rabid and insane, just wanted it to end. Many analysts think it was the reason why Gore had such a hard time even though the economy was roaring — normally the country would have not wanted to rock that boat. It was the prospect of four or eight more years of wingnuts shrieking and howling that made at least few people say “whatever… give it to them … anything to shut them up.”

In Obama’s case it’s this moribund economy vs the outsized expectations that form the substance of the Democratic base’s complaint. And there’s good reason for people to be disappointed and worried. But the exhaustion at defending him, at least some of it, comes from the same place as that Clinton Fatigue. The right’s non-stop attacks eventually just wear people down, sap them of their enthusiasm, make them question their own judgment, especially in the face of a negative and less than hopeful future. You have to be pretty committed to want to wallow in this toxic mud every day and most people have better things to do with their time.

I’m not saying that if the GOP wasn’t relentlessly attacking Obama that this woman would feel good about him. He hasn’t been very successful at addressing her concerns and there are plenty of liberals who are critical of him as well. But even if he were able to allay her concerns about the economy and the future of the country, the exhaustion that comes from battling back these lunatics is what really takes its toll.

This woman feels besieged, she’s worried that the country she knew is slipping away and deeply concerned that the president and his party don’t know how to stop it. And she’s not wrong to be worried: they do seem to be paralyzed in the face of this psychotic right wing onslaught. They have a huge majority and the White House and they are left holding kabuki votes like today’s DADT show and tell and rather than making the Republicans look like big meanies, they end up making it appear that the crazies have the upper hand again. And when that happens a lot of Dems just tune out, avert their eyes, preferring to look to more personal concerns and withdraw into their own projects and pursuits.

I know this because I get emails every day from people who were deeply engaged asking me how I continue to do this every day because they just can’t stand to even turn on the TV. Seriously, I’ve had dozens of notes saying this and many of my friends feel the same way. And when you are on the defensive all the time and you don’t see any progress and you feel that politics is a scary freakshow, it’s actually the sane thing to do. I think it may be the people like me who are crazy.

So there is a method to this madness. It’s the same method that all bullies use. And it’s very effective.

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