The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart is a penetrating observer of today’s politics, and the other night–while delivering a very funny review of Clint Eastwood’s “dialogue” with an empty chair at the Republican convention–he delivered one of those “Aha” moments.
Stewart noted that he’d had trouble getting his head around many of the accusations Republicans leveled at Obama, but that now he understood: there are TWO Barack Obamas, one of whom only Republicans can see! It’s the invisible guy they keep talking about!
There’s more than a little truth to that, and it is unfortunate for a lot of reasons.
I’m not the only person who has been mystified by charges that a moderate Democrat implementing a healthcare program devised by Republicans is somehow a “socialist,” or that a President who has presided over the slowest growth in government spending since Eisenhower is engaged in ruinous and unrestrained spending. I’ve been stunned by accusations that a man who entered the national consciousness with an “only in America” speech at the 2004 Democratic convention is routinely accused of “hating America.”
Stewart is right, of course, as he usually is: the Barack Obama who is the target of these accusations isn’t the Obama who actually occupies the White House. It’s the Barack Obama of fevered–and let us be honest here, essentially racist–imaginations.
There are two major problems with the nature of these attacks. The obvious one is that the Romney campaign’s willingness to “go there,” to engage in dog whistles and worse, exacerbates an ugly divide that America has tried hard to erase. It is analogous to picking at the scab on a still-unhealed wound. If the strategy wins–if, in the wake of the election, Romney is perceived to have benefitted from it–racial tensions will make it even harder to rebuild a politics of reason.
The other problem with the Republicans’ fixation on an imaginary Obama is that it has foreclosed debate on the actual policies of the actual Obama. This President–like all of his predecessors–has implemented, or failed to implement, a wide variety of policies that deserve to be critically examined. Like most citizens, I agree with some and disagree with others. Elections are intended to provide citizens with discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of policy positions held by the candidates, as well as giving voters a sense of the character of those who are asking for our votes.
That discussion–that reasoned critique of this Administration’s performance and priorities–has been virtually absent from this campaign. It has been drowned out by hyperbole and outright fabrication.
The campaign against the real Barack Obama has been obscured by the one directed at the invented version sitting in the empty chair.