It is almost accepted wisdom among political punditry that in recent times, American political and cultural life is characterized by two revolutions: the Fiscal Rectitude one and the Cultural License one. The former was won by the Republican party: it is committed to austere deficit reduction and budget balancing by attenuating social programs and tax cuts to ‘wealth makers’ as an essential component of trickle-down economics. (These serve as vital prongs of polemical and rhetorical attacks on big government and serve to provide the Tea Party much of its bombastic ballast.) The latter was won by the Democrats: it is committed to gay marriage, feminism, gay rights, and multiculturalism (among other things; please insert your own favored Godless activity here).
This is an exceedingly crude picture–and certain to appear to be a caricature to supposed ideologues on both sides of the political and cultural spectrum–but it works as a rough heuristic. It is especially crude when one considers that most Americans benefit from Big Bad Scary Government and would like some form of it to continue to loom large in their lives, and conversely when, for example, women and African-Americans still do not find themselves adequately represented in either economic or political leadership, and when gays, outside of urban concentrations, still need to keep their heads low. But, like I said, it’s a rough picture.
It is an apparent consequence of these two ‘revolutions’ that in the Battle of Who Can Display More Fiscal Rectitude Democrats have steadily moved rightwards in an effort to minimize their electoral losses, thus slowly coming to occupy much of the so-called center, which, much like the magnetic pole, appears to be a shifting locale; thus, the current American political center is certainly rightward of many of its earlier positionings. This current location of the ‘center’ and the Democrats’ move towards it perhaps explains why in the first presidential debate Barack Obama found himself in so much agreement with his opponent.
For instance, on Social Security:
You know, I suspect that on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker — Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Barack Obama also found himself in so much agreement with his opponent, because besides being a matter of substantive policy, like the free-market-and insurance company-friendly healthcare plan called Obamacare, he is a compromiser first and foremost, even when in possession of a strong political hand. Psychological analysis of this need to be approved of by his opponents is already a favored pastime among many who gnashing their teeth over his invertebrate tendencies. It is unsurprising then too, that Obama found himself unable to summon up much passion when it comes to debating policy details. Wow could anyone generate heat and light in the midst of broad agreement? By quibbling over details? Hardly the stuff of fire and brimstone debates.
I do not doubt audiences for the second and third debates will see a different Obama, one prepared to be more contentious. His handlers will have apprised him of the disastrous feedback from ‘focus groups’, I’m sure. But those prepared to look beyond the huffing and puffing, will, I’m afraid, resemble nothing so much as the creatures clustered around Mr. Jones’ Manor farmhouse, looking in, desperately trying to find a distinction with a difference.
Note: Many will find my characterization of Obama and the Democrats unfair: surely, they are better on the environment, on their commitment to healthcare, and so on? But the devil lurks in the details, and it is in the bare particulars of actual legislation that we find broad agreement among those who inhabit Capitol Hill.