President Barack Obama had hoped for a quick, convincing strike on Syria, but growing opposition and Great Britain’s stunning rejection of the attack has thrust him into the uncomfortable position of go-it-alone hawk.
Just how Obama, whose career sprung from the ashes of George W. Bush's Iraq policy, got to this extraordinary moment in his presidency is a tale of good intentions, seat-of-the-pants planning and, above all, how a cautious commander-in-chief became imprisoned by a promise.
Andrew Sullivan used to say that we needed to elect Barack Obama because he was the guy who was going to save us from the Clintons and their generational peers, all of whom were still endlessly re-fighting the Vietnam War decades later. But more and more, it's starting to look as if the generational cohort we need to rid ourselves of is one that includes both Obama and the Clintons. It's the cohort that came of age in national politics in the past thirty years.
The Republicans in this cohort are crazy, of course. But the Democrats are problematic: stung by the success of Reaganism, they're in a defensive crouch, desperate to prove that they're post-liberal, at least on the biggest issues. They don't want to frighten bankers or Joe Scarborough's pals. They especially don't want to frighten heartland white people, who, they assume, are all still Reaganites -- obsessed with government spending and determined to be muscular in foreign policy.
I supported Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 because I thought Hillary, like her husband, would tend toward precisely this sort of don't-frighten-the-centrists timidity. It wasn't just that she initially backed the Iraq War -- it's that she tended toward panders like her support for a ban on flag-burning. I feared she'd frequently tack right as president, under the slightest pressure. I thought Obama might do so less often -- I thought preemptive surrender to right-wing demagoguery was a Clinton family tic.
Alas, it seems to be a tic common to virtually every big-league Democrat who lived through the Reagan years (and, for that matter, the Dukakis campaign).
And so we get Obama's craving for an economic "grand bargain" (although he at least insists on a quid pro quo, which means he'll never get a deal, because Republicans don't compromise). We get Obama's surveillance regime and drone policy and, now, an impending go-it-alone war. It's because no Democrat his age or older with national ambitions would ever dare to venture left of Reagan Lite.
Now, I still support Obama, and I'll support Hillary in 2016 if she's the nominee because, well, consider the alternatives -- Republicans are crazy on everything, except Rand Paul, who's crazy on everything except militarism. But I'm wondering when, if ever, we'll see an A-list Democrat who's not terrified of deviating from centrism on defense or economics.
I say this because I'm in New York and I'm watching Bill de Blasio break away from the pack in the mayoral primary -- two new polls this week show him with a double-digit lead -- based on an expressly progressive campaign focused on reducing economic inequality and dialing back stop-and-frisk (crime-fighting being the city's version of foreign policy).
It was assumed that de Blasio wouldn't do very well, that a city where Rudy Giuliani won twice and Mike Bloomberg won three times would go for a moderate Democrat pledging a significant level of continuity with Bloomberg, someone like Christine Quinn or Bill Thompson. But talking about inequality and hyperaggressive police tactics is actually striking a chord here. It's not because de Blasio comes off as a bomb-thrower a la Alan Grayson (or even Anthony Weiner in his congressional days) -- it's because he seems like a steady guy who's also progressive.
I know, I know -- that's how Obama has campaigned, twice. And yes, he's given us a health care law of some progressivity and some significant breakthroughs on social issues. And he did raise taxes on the wealthy. And he's certainly saved us from the right's worst excesses.
But de Blasio, in attacking stop-and-frisk in particular, is veering toward the very shoals where Democrats have foundered in this city. The last Democratic mayor (David Dinkins, for whom de Blasio worked) lost reelection because it was widely believed that he was a squishy liberal who'd failed on crime. The rap on Democrats here has long been that they're soft on crime the way Democrats nationally are said to be soft on defense. Obama never stops overcorrecting to rebut the latter belief. De Blasio doesn't seem to care about the former. And it's working for him.
I don't see any Democrat on the horizon willing to test the premise that being skeptical about militarism and being in favor of economic progressivity could actually be acceptable to heartland voters -- or even quite appealing. So I'll settle for the Dems we've got. But I wish we could do better.