Before the month came thumping in on elephant feet, I wrote that each August since 2007 had marked a cruel passage for Barack Obama and suggested how he might turn the ides this year. It was not to be, and maybe never will be. The month actually culminated — and confirmed its unhappy course — on September 13, when a machine-ordained Democratic candidate lost the New York City congressional seat of the deflated Anthony Weiner to a Republican tea merchant.
The GOP reaction was predictable: This was a referendum on Obama and a portent of doom in 2012. After all, here was the first Republican elected from this district since 1923. (Actually, that's a sloppy factoid, echoed in the media, to make it easy to blame Obama first; it's a fact in the Brooklyn rump of the district, but not in Queens, the district's predominant swath, where Forest Hills and other neighborhoods sent Republican Seymour Halpern to Congress in the 1960s and 1970s.)
Al Smith, the master of the sidewalks of New York, in a characteristic phrase, might have called the Democrat in this special election "a bum." At the least, David Weprin was a bumbler. He confidently offered up a figure on the national debt; he was off by 10 trillion (with a 'T') dollars. He skipped out of a debate, citing the threat of Hurricane Irene; the storm had already passed. He didn't go on the attack until it was too late; he never brought Gov. Andrew Cuomo into a district where he is overwhelmingly popular.
James Carville would have the president play a hasty game of musical chairs that would turn Obama's ship of state into the Titanic.
Weprin fled any identification with the president after former New York Mayor Ed Koch urged voters to retaliate against Obama's Mideast policy by rallying to the Right. Koch, whom I was proud to help defeat for re-election in 1989, has a record of exploiting ethnic tensions and turning on his own party. He race-baited Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential primary — and in the past, he's endorsed Rudolph Giuliani, the state's last Republican senator (Alfonse D'Amato), and George W. Bush.
Never mind that Weprin is an Orthodox Jew, an undeviating rubber stamp for Israeli policies, with relatives living in that country. And never mind that Obama's position is the same as Bush's, Bill Clinton's, and the peace deal Israel offered in 2000 and 2001 — a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps. And never mind that as Israel's self-ordained champion, Koch in reality endangers the increasingly isolated Jewish state with his knee-jerk support of a Netanyahu regime that subordinates the strategic imperatives of national survival to the political survival of his own extremist-infested coalition. To cite Abba Eban's famous phrase, it's now Netanyahu who "never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity" — say, to avert a dangerous break with Turkey — and there are "friends" of Israel like Koch who are there with him every lurch of the way.
Koch undoubtedly hurt Weprin; but there's little doubt that other, stronger Democrats — including former District Attorney and Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman — would have won anyway. But Democratic bosses outsmarted, or more accurately, out-dumbed themselves by ruling out a primary in favor of picking a patsy who would compliantly disappear after redistricting eliminated one of New York City's congressional seats. They got the patsy they wanted, only he inconveniently disappeared 14 months early.
As Democratic pollster Mark Mellman showed on the eve of Weprin's defeat, we may think "[special] elections foretell the future, and they don't." (In 2009-2010, Democrats took a majority of the specials; look what happened in November 2010.) As for the president's actual standing in New York, at the nadir of the post-debt-ceiling debacle, he led Mitt Romney in the state by 18 points and Rick Perry by 27. In the Reuters-Ipsos poll, he's ahead of Romney nationally by 6, and Perry by 8.
It's natural for the GOP to dismiss the facts in favor of misreading the entrails of a temporary congressional gain which will be reversed in 2012. But it's stupid, a sign of panic, and a pathetic and depressing picture to see Democrats joining in. Politico assembled the crybaby chorus, but you can't blame the messenger for replaying the dirges.
First, there are the Democratic donors, mostly anonymous, one of whom said, "People feel betrayed, disappointed, furious, disgusted"; they might, some of them, sit out 2012. It's unclear how many of them are gathering in that dark corner — or retreating to the self-justifying comfort of those who weren't for Obama in the first place and can now indulge the natural human tendency to say "we told you so." From these precincts, too, comes a lot of the speculation that Joe Biden should be replaced on the ticket by Hillary Clinton. The secretary of state disclaims any such inclination; for some who offer it, the suggestion surely reflects the recriminating instinct of less gracious losers who've never given up on the notion that the place she really should have taken was Obama's on the ticket — in 2008, or even now.
All this is bad politics all around, the kind of instinctive or calculated consternation that we didn't see from Ronald Reagan's contributors in the dog days of his recession-ridden presidency, or from George W. Bush's "Rangers" as he fell behind John Kerry in the summer of 2004. There were no demands then to dump Dick Cheney. Switching out Biden, and misusing Hillary as a crutch, would cast an indelible imprint of presidential weakness; prop up Obama primarily where he's already secure; and in hard political terms, potentially cost him critical blue collar swing states like Pennsylvania — where Biden arguably made the difference in the last election.
Next among the disaffected are elements of the labor movement. According to Politico, the AFL-CIO might emphasize state contests — and the Service Employers are contemplating a campaign for jobs, not Obama. This would be ungrateful, given the president's record on labor issues. I know, gratitude is not plentiful in politics, but as Teamsters President Jim Hoffa announced with pungent intensity, it's time to "keep the eyes on the prize. Let's take these sons-of-bitches out and give America back to America where we belong." Good luck to any union that sits out or sloughs off in 2012; if they end up with Romney or Perry, it could mark the end of organized labor in America.
As the criticism of Obama swelled, congressional Democrats who should know better chimed in, too. An unnamed staffer attributed the Weprin loss to the "crater[ing]" of the president's approval ratings. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer's tepid support sounded like barely disguised piling on: It was "probably correct" that the outcome will be "interpreted" as a verdict on Obama.
Meanwhile, too many members of his own party in Congress who pushed the president for a jobs bill, paid for by taxes on the wealthy, are now validating Will Rogers's observation that they "don't belong to any organized party. [They're] Democrat[s]." Some of them are beginning to pick the bill apart, pursuing parochial interests or complaining about one provision or another. Sen. Sherrod Brown warns that Democrats have to "compromise to get this [jobs bill] up and running"; everybody can't have all they want. He's right, and so is Nancy Pelosi that Democrats can recapture the House — if they hold their nerve and stand with the president. But if they seek refuge in blaming him, or running away from him, well, that's a prescription for ensuring that Hoyer remains — or more decisively becomes — the minority leader.
Finally comes my friend James Carville to argue in a pyrotechnic CNN piece that yes, the White House should "panic." There is no more time for "explanations" — although it usually helps to think things through before making what Carville calls "a complete change [in] direction." And what does that change consist of? "Fire a lot of people" — which Obama won't and shouldn't do. So thus, the "geniuses" of 2008 become the scapegoats of 2011. Playing a hasty game of musical chairs would turn Obama's ship of state into the Titanic. It's a reflex, a gimmick — and it's ahistorical. As Bill Clinton's campaign chief in 1992, Carville didn't panic — he certainly didn't fire himself — in the early summer of that year, when Clinton was in last place, at 22 percent, in a three-way race with Ross Perot and the first George Bush.
Carville also wants Attorney General Eric Holder fired — boy, that will set off a popular pro-Obama groundswell. And the Ragin' Cajun recommends that the Justice Department "indict people," presumably a host of people and presumably on Wall Street — a white hot populist gesture that could cripple or crash financial markets. In any case, Obama wouldn't debase the law to score political points; we had enough of that in the last administration. In this one, indictments have been made and will be — but on the merits.
Carville is on target about one thing: Obama has to "make a case like a Democrat." But that's what this president is doing now. Day after day, he is drawing the dividing lines. He does have to keep at it — and show as well as say that he's the one fighting for ordinary, hard-working, and out-of-work Americans. That's been the right course for some time — and with Obama on course, he doesn't need to be told, "Fire. Indict. Fight." It's a catchy aphorism, but it's only one-third right.
Ever since the pains of August intensified, Republicans have increasingly hoped, and Democrats have feared, that Barack Obama is another Jimmy Carter. The GOP is doing its best to block recovery as a conscious strategy to reclaim the White House: kill jobs to get the job. But there is grave risk for Republicans in this transparent cynicism; the president has the voice, and we've learned before that he has the strength of will to set the choice and win the big battle. Indeed, that's what makes the comparison with Carter absurd; from health reform to financial reform to the salvation of the auto industry and the prevention of depression, Obama has a historic record of achievement.
The next step is to consistently push for jobs and growth. The president may not pass his bill — the odds are against it — but you can bet he won't be a prisoner of Republican intransigence. Obama is a fourth quarter player. And the fourth quarter has come. It's time for the crybaby chorus to leave the critic's row and get in the game. The president will do his part. And then his victory in the 2012 election will be remembered long after his phony defeat in a peculiar special election fades into a footnote.
The panic isn't justified — and Democrats can't afford it. Grow up. As Carville might say, there's too much at stake, stupid.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Here comes the Pentagon's newest space plane
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- Did the media get Ferguson wrong?
- Gamergate has backfired spectacularly on its nincompoop perpetrators
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Let us now praise Billy Joel
Subscribe to the Week