It was the day after Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination, and all was not well at MSNBC. Lawrence O’Donnell took to the cameras to accuse Paul of being “empty-headed” and pulling a “stunt.” The Kentucky senator was guilty of “spewing infantile fantasies about a serious subject” that might turn off mature critics of President Obama’s drone program.
O’Donnell then brought in guests E.J. Dionne and Ryan Grim. Usually the interview segments on Lawrence’s show consist of everyone sitting inside a warm intellectual bubble, exchanging insufferable smirks and musings about how Republicans don’t believe in the Theory of Relativity. Then someone inevitably exacerbates his carpal tunnel from patting his own back too many times, O’Donnell takes a commercial break, and returns five minutes later for his “Rewrite” segment where he shouts at the camera in a fake Boston accent. But this time was different. Dionne and Grim (tepidly) defended Paul, leaving the flaxen-haired host sputtering. “Rand Paul is stark-raving mad!!” O’Donnell projected.
Paul’s filibuster has produced some lane-swerving on both the right and left. For conservatives, it came in the form of tension between the small-government and hawkish wings of the movement. For liberals, it was bumbling confusion, with a few standing with Rand, others mumbling caution, and many more calling him a lunatic.
This debate on the right was always going to occur. Following the difficulties of the Iraq war and the ascendancy of Barack Obama, conservatism has been moving in a more libertarian direction. But for the left – the same people who spent the Bush Administration in high dudgeon about civil liberties abuses, and often spoke in far harsher terms than Paul -- there is no excuse. Liberals across the board should have been hailing Paul’s filibuster as a necessary check on executive power.
So why weren’t they?
Some of it can be explained by the fact that their guy is in the White House. This is a problem not just for the left, but political parties in general. If Rand Paul were filibustering President Bush’s drone program, it’s difficult to imagine the GOP Senate leadership paying him any heed, let alone joining him on the floor. Likewise, Democrats are going to be reluctant to criticize Barack Obama. Such is politics.
But I think there’s something deeper and more sinister at work here: The American left has dedicated much of its energy over the past three years to marginalizing its political opponents. Whether the right is asking for spending cuts, entitlement reform, or an investigation into the Benghazi attack, the response is always the same: conservatives are deranged nuts and their argument is the new Birtherism.
The urge to cry crazy has run deep into the roots of American liberalism. Newspaper columnists have devoted gallons of ink to the seemingly limited proposition that House Republicans are insane. Some writers, like the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky, seem incapable of writing about anything else. MSNBC commentators chortle their way through segments, utterly impervious to the notion that someone out there might take deficit reduction or the strict constructionism seriously. Those ideas, you see, are crazy.
It’s often asked whether conservatives have become too hateful of the president. This is a fair question; hatred, though it wakes you up in the morning and keeps the embers burning at night, can only advance you so far before logical argument must take over. But there’s a flip side to this question that rarely gets asked: Have liberals become so contemptuous of Republicans, has calling conservatives insane become so burrowed in the leftist critique, that the left risks marginalizing itself?
Consider the recent health care arguments before the Supreme Court. Conservatives started making a constitutional case against Obamacare in 2009. A New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 68% of respondents supported overturning either some or all of the law. Yet the left remained in smug hibernation, fully content that the Supreme Court would see through conservatives’ craziness. “[J]ust a few years ago,” wrote a drowsily awakening Linda Greenhouse a few months before the ruling, “the constitutional argument against the [Obamacare individual] mandate struck most people who thought about the matter as frivolous.”
After the justices knocked around the Obama Administration’s lawyers, the left sat bolt-upright in bed. “I’m telling you all of the predictions – including mine – that the justices would not have a problem with this law were wrong,” said a panicked Jeffrey Toobin. Were it not for John Roberts’ waffling, the Supreme Court would have struck down Obamacare entirely on the basis of a legal argument the left derided as nuts and unworthy of serious debate.
The left didn't mothball their "crazy!" accusations then. But now there's some evidence that things are starting to change. It began with the sequester. Republicans decided early on to let the automatic spending cuts take effect, and several liberals responded by instinctively calling this crazy. But then the debate aligned in an unfamiliar way: conservatives were rationally explaining why sequestration cuts would have a minor impact, while the president was embarrassing himself with apocalyptic fantasies of starving first responders and poison in the food supply. Since it was Obama who seemed outlandish, the cries of crazy didn’t stick.
Then came the Paul filibuster, which twisted liberals into horrible contortions. If their conduct during the Bush Administration is any indication, most progressives support Paul’s concerns. But to say so would be an acknowledgement that Paul, a man who they’ve spent the past three years fitting for a straitjacket, is not only right, but did more to sound the alarm about civil liberties abuses than they ever have.
For many, the solution was to seize on a few of the rough edges from Paul’s 13-hour speech and use them to dismiss the filibuster altogether. Paul had cited George Orwell’s 1984 and raised an entirely hypothetical and hyperbolic example of a drone bombing Jane Fonda. Thus James Carville could still comfortably compare everything to Birtherism. The smirks were back in place. Crying crazy could go on.
But as with Obamacare, their dismissiveness is running against the trend. Paul’s filibuster energized the GOP, brought conservatives and libertarians together, aligned Republicans with young people, and gave the right a much-needed dose of passion. It’s a lot harder to smirk someone down when the popular culture (even Jon Stewart!) disagrees with you. Suddenly the left appears vacuous and hypocritical.
George Will wrote in 2000 that “The Gore campaign is like an old jalopy with one gear -- fear overdrive.” Today the progressive’s functional gear isn’t fear (although that still comes up), but dismissive accusations of insanity. The left, which once fought for civil rights and liberties, is becoming a clutch of mandarins, holding the Overton Window in place and emitting grunts of superiority towards any who try to move it.
As we’re now seeing, this can only work for so long. “Crazy,” like “stupid” and “dumb,” is a fine adjective when you’re engaged in interlocution with first-grade boys on the swing set. But as the crux of a political argument, it gets a bit stale.
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