Election 2012 is shaping up as a Catch-22 for Republicans. Its outcome depends on whether "more of the same" can out-point "new and improved," but those labels do not always adhere to incumbents and challengers in predictable ways, which is why even people at the levers of power often pretend to reject the establishment they represent. When Rick Santorum made news by alluding to what he called "phony theology" behind policies advanced by President Obama, a cadre of Democrats accused Santorum of playing the "Other" card. For these Democrats, the maladroit comment was a despicable attempt to marginalize President Obama as different, foreign, or alien. They pounced on Santorum's assertion by calling it "dog whistle racism" or dismissing it as stupid.
Some of the umbrage was sincere, and some of it was manufactured as a warning to other Republicans who might be thinking about the personal attacks that we're forever being told distract voters from the "real issues."
Real or manufactured (let's not forget that influential Obama chums are masters of the political technique known as "astroturfing"), the outrage over Santorum's comment revealed the Catch-22 with which conservatism both in and out of the Republican Party must contend: If you suggest that President Obama is insufficiently grounded in traditional American values, you must be a racist. Unfortunately, you cannot escape the taint of racism by calling President Obama an embodiment of the American dream, either, because that position takes a "uniquely transformative" president and lumps him with has-beens on places like Mount Rushmore. In the preferred narrative, President Obama is simultaneously "different" and "not that different," but the only people allowed to discuss the subject with impunity are loyal Democrats.
This Catch-22 shapes political discourse as definitively as Edward Scissorhands shaped bushes, and usually to the president's advantage. For example (we are told), protecting women's health is as American as apple pie, and if that goal morphs into "free contraception for all" and ignoring the First Amendment's "establishment" clause to redefine "religion" as "whatever you do behind church doors," well, that attempt to drive a wedge between work and worship is American, too. Never mind John Brown, the Great Awakening, parochial schools, the Gettysburg Address, "In God We Trust," Salvation Army bell ringers, or the four chaplains of different faiths who died together on the Dorchester in World War II. Never mind the Constitution, about which someone is bound to remind us that President Obama once lectured professionally, even though his conspicuous lack of published legal writing implies that he learned how to vote "present" long before being elected to the Illinois state legislature.
Conservatives have tried to highlight freedom-promoting alternatives to the Obama agenda, but there is no good way around a Catch-22, which is why Joseph Heller's novel reminded us that "It's the best [catch] there is."
If you can't play around an obstacle like that, you have to play through it, so let's shout "Fore!" and look again at the "Other" card.
When high-profile Republicans insinuate that Barack Obama is different, they're not casting aspersions on his humanity, his citizenship, or his skin color. Any dog whistle in the "different" label is an appeal to dispassionate judgment. Rather than caterwauling about who let the dogs out, Democrats should be asking themselves why their man might be vulnerable in this area -- except they don't want to ask, because they already know: Barack Obama is the only U.S. President raised by avowed Communists and their fellow travelers. That does not make him Communist or Marxist, but it does make him different.
He is also the only president born in Hawaii, the only president to call the Muslim summons to evening prayer "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth," the only president to shrug his shoulders over a national credit downgrade, the first to subcontract every jot and tittle of major legislation to Congressional allies, and the first to host a "White House Poetry Slam." Barack Obama is also the only U.S. president with professional rather than incidental experience in community organizing (Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times helpfully spun that as "grassroots experience" when promoting it over the "treetop experience" more common to occupants of the Oval Office).
Note that these comparisons are made to other American presidents, as of course they should be. The president's more excitable supporters seem to forget that Barack Obama himself anticipated the "Other" card and actually welcomed the chance to use it to his advantage, as when he lampooned the message of then-rival John McCain as "He doesn't look like the other presidents on the currency [and] he's got a funny name." Neither McCain nor his running mate had actually engaged in that kind of fear-mongering, but McCain never rebutted the caricature effectively. Sarah Palin could have done so, but campaign handlers unwisely kept her on a short leash because her own "otherness" (feisty, Alaskan, pro-life) befuddled them.
Befuddlement in the face of the different is a malady that crosses party lines, but because it snacks on political correctness, its effects on Democrats are more severe than its effects on Republicans. For all their talk of "tolerance" and "diversity," Democrats remain deeply ambivalent about "otherness," especially when it reveals itself as a two-edged sword that might keep people from sleepwalking toward a progressive social agenda.
Republicans are chastised for suggesting that Barack Obama might be different in anything other than a positive way, yet Democrats treat black conservatives like extraterrestrials. When a black conservative embarrasses himself, pundits at Democrat-friendly venues vie with each other to see who can say "Welcome to Earth!" with more panache (and a better punch).
Democrats think social conservatives and Second Amendment activists are aliens, too. Mindful of the red and blue political map from the previous election, Democrats mistrust people in rural areas. Lately they would also like to think that all 180 Catholic bishops in the United States are religious extremists who -- as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post wrote with willful ignorance -- "refuse to be placated." In Democrat hands, that laughably broad brush of extremism is a magical implement: It gives the race-based anger of Jeremiah Wright a free pass but lumps well-known progressives like the retired Archbishop of Los Angeles with snake-handling fundamentalists in flyover country. In this administration, as everyone from Paul Ryan and Scott Walker to members of the Cambridge, MA police department can attest, ad hominem attacks on anyone slow to get with the program are par for the course. Obama defenders seem to think that extremism is whatever the president says it is.
It's not just Catch-22 that President Obama is protected by; it's enablers like Nancy "standing with my fellow Catholics in support of the president" Pelosi, Eric "I never got the memo" Holder, and Jay "Blame the Republicans" Carney. Fortunately, the president and his team have misread greens both real and metaphorical before, because conservatism to them is the ideology of, yes, "the other."
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