Politics & Media
Jun 03, 2010, 12:33PM

Will These Hands Never Be Clean?

By which I mean: Obama needs another Philadelphia speech.

The US Senate is really a sight to behold sometimes. Some would in fact say “most of the time,” and after the recent and perverse histrionics of Senate Republicans concerning the COMPETES Act, it’d be difficult to argue the point. The legislation in question—technically, its reauthorization—concerns funding for scientific research and innovation:

The act responds to concerns that the United States may not be able to compete economically with other nations in the future due to insufficient investment today in science and technology research and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and workforce development. The America COMPETES Act is intended to increase the nations investment in science and engineering research and in STEM education from kindergarten to graduate school and postdoctoral education. It is designed to focus on two perceived concerns believed to influence future U.S. competitiveness: inadequate research and development funding to generate sufficient technological progress, and inadequate numbers of American students proficient in science and mathematics or interested in science and engineering careers relative to international competitors.

(Full text here.)

Take it away, boys:

In an example of Republican obstructionism rendered beautiful by its simplicity, the GOP yesterday killed a House bill that would increase funding for scientific research and math and science education by forcing Democrats to vote in favor of federal employees viewing pornography.

This is beyond embarrassing—for the discerning public and the officials involved. It makes a sham of government, regardless of which party is guilty this time around. But congressional Republicans are dragging down a lot of government; the list of executive appointees pending confirmation is no less than a dereliction of duty on the part of the Senate.

In a fantastic speech last night at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, President Obama talked a lot about Republican opposition:

And some of this, of course, is just politics.  Before I was even inaugurated, the congressional leaders of the other party got together and made a calculation that if I failed, they’d win. So when I went to meet with them about the need for a Recovery Act, in the midst of crisis, they announced they were against it before I even arrived at the meeting.  Before we even had a health care bill, a Republican senator actually said, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo.  It will break him.”  So those weren’t very hopeful signs.    

But to be fair, a good deal of the other party’s opposition to our agenda has also been rooted in their sincere and fundamental belief about the role of government.  It’s a belief that government has little or no role to play in helping this nation meet our collective challenges.  It’s an agenda that basically offers two answers to every problem we face:  more tax breaks for the wealthy and fewer rules for corporations.

Obama is falling pray to an unfortunate journalistic standby—the other hand, "to be fair." Out of a well-intentioned desire to report subjectively, journalists unfortunately wind up giving credence to abjectly incorrect positions—climate change, MMR vaccines, etc. The Atlantic’s politics editor Marc Ambinder, a conservative reporter with no patience for bullshit, recently let loose the inner spirits of his journalistic ethos:

I suppose I began to get angry, really angry, at the destructive force of denialism, and the way in which some people in my chosen profession were donning blinders to prevent engaging with it. Denialism comes in a variety of forms. There is a segment of America that believes that gay people are degenerate and will not treat them with a basic measure of dignity. I don't feel obligated to treat that segment as it were a serious, well-grounded and valid alternative point of view. I do not mean to say that one cannot oppose gay marriage or gay rights in some ways without harboring this malevolent view, or that one cannot fairly cover those who do as a political movement worthy of respect as a political movement. It's just that I am not going to pretend that gay people don't deserve dignity.

Congressional Republican talking points, Tea Party outrage and any number of the Right's core principles—small government, never raise taxes—are completely out of touch with reality, from disastrous farm and oil subsidies to the government's role in regulating marriage. Rand Paul's unbelievable meltdown over the constitutionality of the Civil Rights act is close to a case in point (and a godsend to the Democratic Party, who now have a decent shot at picking up what should be a safe Republican seat): ideology disconnected from reality.

The neat binary of Democrat and Republican, Right and Left, often unravels when comparing actual, existing policy and precedent against the sweeping platitudes and ideological demagoguery that clog pretty much every news outlet in one form or another. So Obama's caveat—that "a good deal of the other party’s opposition to our agenda has also been rooted in their sincere and fundamental belief about the role of government"—is empty. The words lack any oomph (unlike the rest of the speech; the news peg being, of course, the President's call for a carbon tax) because they are simply not true.

I would like to see a second iteration of Obama's speech on race in Philadephia during the campaign—except I want to see him tackle the public's problematic cognitive dissonance regarding what they want from government and what government actually does. He certainly can't "fix" America's nightmarish partisanship any more than he "fixed" America's problem with race. But he did offer a rhetorical and emotional template for moving forward, toward a more enlightened union. He said:

But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances - for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American - and yes, conservative - notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright's sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

Obama's Philadelphia secured its place in the annals of political and cultural rhetoric the minute he stepped to the lecturn. I would love to see this passion, this nuanced and empathetic take on reality, applied to partisan condescension and heedless anger of all stripes.


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