Dead Center

On page 102 of The Center Holds, former Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter’s account of the 2012 election (and his second book about the presidency of Barack Obama), we learn that the president was facing a problem as his 2012 “reelect” approached: Liberals didn’t particularly care what happened to him. “Reenergizing the base was tough,” Alter writes. Fortunately, however, Obama got an assist in this task from right-wing governors such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, whose wars on public-employee unions and their pensions “proved to be powerful motivators for the base.” Clever Obama campaign people noticed the anger that these Republicans had stirred up, and they used it to organize voters on the ground in the ever-crucial swing state of Ohio.

Then, on page 161, we learn that while Obama was happy to pocket the electoral dividends that these state-level controversies generated, he wasn’t truly upset with governors who attacked the pensions paid to members of public-employee unions. “Months before Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin,” Alter writes, “Obama told aides that pensions had become ‘ridiculous—they’re bankrupting the states.’” In fact, as Alter continues, Obama sort of wanted to pull a Scott Walker of his own; he hoped “to reform the federal pension system” with the idea of slashing retirement benefits for federal workers, and he “reviewed federal sick day rules” to see how those workplace gains might be cut as well.

In other words, if you are a liberal—a member of the Democratic “base”—you just got played. But I advise you not to complain about it in a way that Barack Obama is likely to hear. Consider what befell Cornel West, a well-known public intellectual, who once traveled the country telling audiences, in Alter’s words, that “Obama wasn’t a true progressive.” This annoyed the president. As Alter tells the tale, Obama proceeded to corner West at an event in 2010 and dress him down with these words: “I’m not progressive? What kind of shit is this?” This beat-down strikes me as a little unfair, since no one would dare reply to the president of the United States in a similar way in public, but Alter suggests that it was another triumph for Obama; elsewhere in the book, he even writes of Obama “reaming out” West with the remark.

This one falls apart even faster than the story about expressing solidarity with midwestern union sympathizers. About six inches down from the paragraph describing Cornel West’s doubts about Obama’s progressivism, Alter relates in passing that Obama and his education secretary “were fed up with teachers union traditionalists” and wanted to build a coalition to fight them. Alter has just proved West’s point—indeed, he proves it many times over in the course of the book—and yet he seems not to notice.

Alter does lots of well-observed reporting in The Center Holds, which is clearly his bid to become a Bob Woodward for the age of Obama. He tells us, for example, about Obama’s “hyperrational” personal style, his peculiar relationship with Bill Clinton, and his disastrous belief, supposedly either inspired or reconfirmed by an Ezra Klein article, that presidential rhetoric is unpersuasive and therefore largely pointless. The trouble is that Alter doesn’t try to build on any of this material. His framework is simple: to lionize Barack Obama and to slag his “enemies” in the Republican Party—whose agents he describes, at one point, as “weakening the will of the people,” a phrase you would ordinarily apply to a hostile foreign power. As a result, the book feels intensely and even embarrassingly partisan.

And so the muse sings of the heroic Democrats, those men of many devices, and the woes they suffered, and the battleground states they won. We learn how they joined in an electoral combat more consequential than any other—an election that was, according to Alter, “a titanic ideological struggle over the way Americans see themselves and their obligations to one another.”

Alter proposes a duly sweeping theory to go with that titanic struggle, and it is this: Many white people circa 2012 were stricken with horror by the declining demographic dominance of white people. “The 2008 election had shown it was possible to elect a president who didn’t receive the most white votes,” he writes. “And this was terrifying to some Americans.” Naturally, they started calling back and forth to each other with “dog whistle” code words. But because President Obama was “unflappable, even cold” and the dog whistles “couldn’t rattle him,” those white people went a little bit nuts. And they started saying and believing really crazy things.

The problem with this theory is not only that it is based on interpreting something you can’t hear, but also that Alter is wrong about the shocking novelty of having a president who doesn’t win “the most white votes.” All of the Democrats to come out ahead in presidential elections since 1960 with the exception of Lyndon Johnson (which is to say, Kennedy, Carter, Clinton, Gore, and Obama) did so while losing the white vote. This phenomenon may offend some, but it is not even remotely new. (In fact, Obama’s 43 percent showing among whites in 2008 means he was actually more popular with that demographic than Al Gore was in 2000, and far more popular than Bill Clinton was in the three-way contest of 1992, when the Man from Hope took just 39 percent of the white vote.)

In saying this, I do not mean to minimize the role of racism in America. Obviously it is huge, and having a black man in the Oval Office is momentous and healthy in a hundred different ways. But as a general explanation for what went on in America during the first Obama term, reducing so much to racial anxiety misses an even larger point. Yes, there were millions of white Americans who were frightened by the prospect of living in a country that is growing less white than it used to be, but there was also something even scarier and more immediate in the headlines during the early Obama years.

They called it the “great recession.” It was, like, a global economic catastrophe. There had been epic financial fraud. Several big banks collapsed, and many others were clearly poised to follow. The stock market had crashed. Unemployment had exploded. The government was bailing out Wall Street. The government was bailing out Chrysler and GM. Federal regulators had this phrase, “too big to fail,” that they sometimes used to describe institutions that might take the nation’s economy down with them if they collapsed. Take my word for it: It was all really, really scary.

And indeed, as Jonathan Alter writes, “public and private polls showed overwhelmingly that the economy was the number one issue for voters” in 2012. However, by the time this phrase appears in The Center Holds, the author has suggested in numerous ways and in alarming detail that the number one issue of those days was in fact white supremacy. There has been a chapter on right-wing racism, which was supposed to be at a fever pitch; a chapter on right-wing cultural insularity, which Alter attributes to “racists” such as Rush Limbaugh; and a chapter on right-wing voter-ID efforts, which Alter also attributes, in part, to racism.

Alter tells us plenty about “the economy,” of course, but it never really fires his interest, for what I suspect is the obvious reason: Barack Obama doesn’t look particularly valiant when considered in this light. Beating up crazed bigots, however, is a mission for a champion. And so Alter turns to the operation that meted out that beating, Obama’s reelection organization, which he inelegantly dubs “The New Chicago Machine” (because it was based in Chicago, you see) and which he studies in its every heroic detail. It is the true protagonist of his story.

And it was, indeed, a campaign operation of unprecedented sophistication—maybe the first time Democrats have bested the GOP in this regard. What it represented was the transplanting of big-business practice into Democratic Party machinery—Alter says its metric-mindedness was “the product of a revolution in the business world in the 1980s and 1990s” and that the Chicago office “took on a Silicon Valley vibe”; he dwells on the eccentric japes of its staffers almost as dotingly as he does upon the emotions of Obama himself.

Unlike Obama’s creaky and insincere efforts to placate (in rhetoric, anyway) the Democratic Party’s working-class base, this New Economy model of politicking was very much the real thing. This point comes through loud and clear in Collision 2012, another inside account of the 2012 presidential contest, by Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, who reconstructs the tale of Obama’s victory without Alter’s hero worship. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, “toured Silicon Valley tech giants to tap their expertise,” Balz notes, while Obama strategists adopted corporate standards for testing brand messages. They even “recruited a whole group of pro bono executive coaches,” Messina tells Balz. Explains another campaign official: “We wanted their advice on how to be a manager.” While the Republicans, with their gigantic war chest, counted on a campaign that indiscriminately carpet bombed the TV airwaves, the Obama people made every shot count. They embraced Big Data. (Uh-oh.) They didn’t waste money trying to persuade voters who were lost to them; they tested every e-mail ad; they even wrote proprietary software that linked the lowliest doorbell ringer on the street to headquarters in Chicago. Balz’s summation: “The campaign’s attention to detail rivaled that of the best corporations.”

This is highly ironic given the loud enthusiasm of the corporate class for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and given Romney’s own past as a management consultant. Even more ironic is what all these modern business methods convinced Team Obama to do next: Go populist.

One of Team Obama’s innovations was a campaign of voter research so advanced it was almost anthropological—strategists called one part of it an “ethnography project”—and it repeatedly confirmed the same thing: Voters were furious about the economy and about the bailouts. Here is a typical passage from their findings, summing up the views of a disgruntled Obama voter from Iowa, as related by an Obama adviser to Balz:

I can’t send my kid to college next year. I can’t do it because my house is underwater now and I was going to refinance it to pay for tuition. I don’t think any parent knows how hard it is to tell your kid I can’t send you to school. I haven’t had a raise in five years. I’m paying more for health insurance and getting less. My 401(k) that was supposed to be the reward for doing everything the right way is gone. I am sick and tired of giving bailouts to the folks at the top and handouts to the folks at the bottom. I’m going to fire people [politicians] until my life gets better.

Had the election been a “referendum on the president’s economic stewardship,” Balz writes, Obama probably would have lost, or so Obama’s aides believed.

But of course it wasn’t that, thanks to the prodigious folly of the Republicans, who decided that this awful economic time was the moment to nominate Mitt Romney, one of the richest men ever chosen by one of the two major parties—plus a plutocrat who just happened to have made his pile in investment banking. For decades now, the secret to Republican victory has been a bitter resentment of elites—a form of populism that was, in fact, everywhere during the Tea Party election of 2010—but Romney himself seemed to know nothing about it. The political incompetence of the man is hard to fathom, especially when you consider the kind of bottom-line people who were funding his run. With one of his boasting, blundering remarks, he successfully made a perennial right-wing signifier, “NASCAR,” into a winner for Democrats; with another, he famously wrote off half the population of the country.

Beating rich-kid Romney, blue-ribbon fat cat, would be easy for the Democrats. All it required of them was a return to their own populist form, which began in earnest with Obama’s famous speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011. Instead of a referendum on the economy, they would make the 2012 election a choice between two would-be leaders, and while Obama might not have had the solution, they would point out that the other guy was actually “the problem,” as one devastating Obama advertisement put it. The Democrats’ message was so simple it barely required thought: As an anonymous Obama adviser explained it to Balz, Romney “may get the economy, he may know how to make money, he may have made hundreds of millions for him and his investors. But every time he did, folks like you lost your pensions, lost your jobs, jobs got shipped overseas.” (Interestingly enough, Romney’s wealth was one of the main sources of his fatal inability to appeal to Latino voters, according to an anonymous Romney adviser who spoke to Balz: “It wasn’t the immigration stuff, it was his wealth, the sense that he’s out of touch.”)

And that’s how the campaign of 2012 came to feature the starkest proletarian appeals in many years. That’s how the Democratic convention became a long exercise in lighthearted class animus. And that’s how a Democratic super PAC came to air an absolutely shattering TV commercial in which a worker at a paper company that had been taken over by Romney’s firm recalled how his new bosses instructed him to build a stage; when he had finished the job, those bosses climbed up on that stage and fired that worker and everyone else at the company. The commercial was so brutally pitiful, so shockingly maudlin that, according to Balz, voters in Ohio could recall “specific details” about the spot even after it had not aired for seven weeks.

Here is the point in this essay where, as someone who used to spend his days encouraging Democrats to talk about class when they faced Republicans, I guess I am supposed to claim credit and take my victory lap. Hooray! Populism worked for the Democrats!

Well, whoop-de-damn-do.

Yes, Democratic populism was everywhere in 2012, but it was always just rhetoric, it was only just rhetoric, and both of these authors are content to analyze it strictly as rhetoric, as strategic messaging that might be more or less effective than some other approach. They judge it the way a writer for Advertising Age would judge a campaign mounted by a corporation to sell a tablet computer or a really expensive T-shirt. It had absolutely nothing to do with governing. The entire point of the populist appeal was that Barack Obama was closer to your values than old moneybags Mitt; it required the president to do nothing differently than he had in the past.

In fact, as I write this, Barack Obama is preparing to use the political capital that populism bought him to push Larry Summers, the architect of bank deregulation, into the chair of the Federal Reserve Board. A few months ago he picked another disciple of Robert Rubin’s to head the Treasury Department. His efforts to cut back on federal-employee pensions continue. And not only has he done jack to bring the fraudsters of 2008 to account, but his Justice Department actually issued wildly inflated numbers on the subject just prior to the 2012 election.

The election “settled little,” Balz writes. “Billions were spent to produce a status quo outcome in the balance of power in Washington.” Alter agrees, but having declared 2012 to be a “titanic ideological struggle,” he naturally understands the glass to be half full. What it means, he declares, is that nothing really dramatic will happen to the best-known remnants of the New Deal or the Great Society. “The United States would remain a highly partisan and often gridlocked nation, but a centrist one,” he writes. Nothing changed. Nobody did anything really meaningful. What a great result!

What is it about our nation that makes our political class so allergic to novelty and originality? Consider idealistic Obama, chasing his hopeless “grand bargain” far beyond the point where most people would have thought to try something different; and straitlaced Romney, a man who probably wouldn’t have done anything with the NSA spying outrage during the campaign even if he’d known about it. The glimmers of inspiration in this world are so few they stand out vividly. For example, there is a paragraph deep in Alter’s book (another bit of great reporting) that relates how Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan advised Romney to turn the tables by criticizing Democrats for being too close to Wall Street—“to attack Dodd-Frank [the bank regulatory act] from the populist left.” It is just about the only spark of creativity to illuminate the entire sordid story of 2012, and it might even have worked, considering how keen everyone was to woo disgruntled former Obama supporters. But except for one brief public reference to the idea, Romney would have none of it. Like everyone else in American politics, he would stay in character to the end, even though it was obviously going to cost him the presidency.

I would extend my pessimism to political journalists as well. Consider the sterile cultural world Jonathan Alter inhabits. You can virtually check off the progressive talking points as he recites them: Lee Atwater, the racist remarks of. William Rehnquist, the racist past of. The Powell Memo. The New-Right schemes of Paul Weyrich. The Koch brothers. ALEC. Newt Gingrich as master of messaging back in the ’90s. Mitt Romney as a “throwback to the 1950s.” Every candidate’s need for a “Sister Souljah moment.” It’s not that Alter is wrong about any of these items; it’s that they are substitutes for thought, cues for ready-made interpretations.

And consider the shriveled intellectual life of the nation he describes, a place where an idea doesn’t exist unless some celebrated centrist person utters it. How Obama liked an essay by Ezra Klein. How Obama consulted with Doris Kearns Goodwin (Bonus points: he consulted with Doris Kearns Goodwin about going populist!). How the pundit John Avlon once counted the number of books published that denounced Obama. How Steven Spielberg dropped some heavy wisdom on Jim Messina. How Alan Blinder is “Bill Clinton’s favorite economist” and therefore OK even though he says something that is suspiciously leftish. (Balz, for his part, actually relives with us a succession of pundit tweets emitted during the first Obama-Romney debate.)

And maybe that’s what is really meant by Alter’s title phrase, “the center holds.” We have just come through a wrenching economic disaster, an earthquake that shook people’s faith to the ground. And yet as the crisis grinds implacably on, the system has emerged unchanged. Yes, the voices of noncentrist nonexperts were occasionally heard in the focus-group rooms, but they were easily contained. The pundits’ views were vindicated. The serious party prevailed. Everything stayed the same. And now we have a collective scrapbook to commemorate it all, a groupthink souvenir that happy, prosperous liberals can open up ten years on so that they can get nice and warm remembering how they spent the Great Recession agreeing on everything, e-mailing the same New Yorker articles around to one another and chortling over the tweets of their favorite commentators. The line between a vital center and vicious circle, it seems, is remarkably thin.

Thomas Frank writes the Easy Chair column for Harper’s Magazine.