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The Santelli contagion
 

And so a loudmouth demagogue masquerading as a reporter ascends to his fifteen minutes. Never mind that CNBC’s Rick Santelli conducted his rabble rousing opposition to President Obama’s housing rescue plan on the floor of an exchange where traders previously had inflated the financial bubble and celebrated obscene bonuses for their reckless colleagues. What we should mind is that behind the faux populist invective of Santelli and his ideological cohorts, there is . . . nothing. They simply offer no alternative plan to stem a gathering tide of home foreclosures.

Santelli complained that Obama’s plan to modify loans on endangered mortgages won’t help the 90 percent of homeowners who aren’t in trouble. (Does he also promote giving unemployment compensation to the employed?) Despite his own job strutting the market floor, Santelli apparently doesn’t understand that if 10 percent of housing prices collapse, everyone who owns a home will suffer from another sharp drop in value.

Santelli may be a knave, but his outburst was not an isolated event. It revealed the dark underside and Manichean subtext of a far broader conservative opposition to Obama. Indeed, the new president’s call for civility has been answered so far by an escalating wave of incivility.

On television last week, Karl Rove eschewed Santelli’s histrionics, but he shamelessly blamed Obama for the economic crisis the president inherited from Rove’s former boss. Rove doesn’t need to raise his voice when telling a whopper about WMDs or W’s channeling of Herbert Hoover; distortion is second nature to him. His preposterous blame-placing is of a piece, however, with the ugly, uninformed, and misleading attacks on the Obama presidency that permeate the right wing.

The Drudge Report, which elevated Santelli’s philippic to the level of, say, a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process, has conducted a journalistic jihad against every Obama economic move. The links are selective: “WSJ: ‘Obama’s rhetoric is the real catastrophe.’” The “worst” is predicted—“BANK NATIONALIZATION”—in the obvious hope that it has to happen, enabling the right to decry the latest “socialist” outrage. The legions of resentment and reaction seem eager to trigger a depression as the price for a Republican comeback.

The animus toward Obama is not just ideological, however, it’s personal. With the pretext of defending free speech, Drudge featured a story on Oklahoma state troopers warning a driver about a bumper sticker’s call to “Abort Obama, Not the Unborn.” The New York Post published, defended and only under pressure half-apologized for a cartoon that undeniably compared America’s first African-American President to a chimpanzee shot dead in the streets.

The animus will heighten as conservative critics score Obama for proposing to “raise” taxes once the recession abates and Bush’s tax cuts expire. They’ll pound in the false impression that he’s raising taxes on everyone, not just the wealthy. Hell hath no fury like a conservative who has to pay for government.

The New York Post has already put a transparently hyped headline on a dubious Fox poll: “Obama’s Approval Rating Dips.” Yes, from 65 percent to 60 percent, while CNN’s poll shows it at 67 percent. Some liberals grumble that maybe the President has to do more to “explain” himself and his policies. But the American people seem to get it just fine—and to dismiss a do-nothing, say-anything, oppositionist Republican Party and its amen corner.

Uncharacteristically, Democrats have shown discipline in standing with the President—with one characteristic exception. Last week, Bill Clinton all but explicitly criticized Obama for not sounding more upbeat, for not announcing that “he’s confident and feels good”—that is, for not being more like Bill Clinton. The comments came, perhaps predictably, as Hillary was making a notable debut in Asia as Secretary of State. But Clinton’s upstage acting is a harmless distraction that will soon be forgotten.

The same cannot be said of the Santelli contagion sweeping Republican precincts. It will continue to be a blot on the public dialogue. But Obama’s dialogue with the public is the one that matters now. Obama, who arrived at the White House pledging to bridge divides, may finally have to tell the people, as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1936: “Never… have the forces of greed and privilege been so united in their hatred for one candidate.” But they didn’t stop that New Deal. And they won’t stop this one either.

 

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