A trap was set back in early 2009 for Democrats that was pretty smart at the time. Republicans in the Senate would filibuster a lot, arguing to their base and to moderates that they were preventing a tidal wave of Democratic legislation based on their conscience. In the 2009 session, they doubled the previous record of filibustered bills. Then in 2010, they set a new record. They argued that they were preventing an onslaught of evil. So it is true that Republicans filibustered a lot.
At the same time, the president was able to pass a wide assortment of legislation, including signature achievements reforming Wall Street and healthcare. His first 100 days were actually touted as the most productive of any president since Lyndon Johnson. So it is true that President Obama got a lot accomplished.
Both things were true. More was done and more was obstructed than in recent memory. Factually, both are indeed possible. In the business world, they call that efficiency. However, it is hard to wrap our brains around that level of activity and the Democrats going into 2010 felt that they had to pick a single narrative. Either tout the accomplishment or attack the filibustering. Since, they didn’t feel that they could make both arguments, they chose to argue about how much wasn’t done because of obstruction.
The trap was sprung. Right on cue. Republican leaders already knew how they would be attacked and were prepared.
Suddenly the GOP could argue about the wasted time the president had, the majorities, and all of that. How the president was a donothing. And worse, he was a narc. He blamed his failure on the poor Republicans who were merely standing up for their principles. The arguments worked and the Midterms were a titanic landslide in the GOP’s favor.
The trap indeed captured the Democrats, eliminating their strongest argument: that the president really hasdone stuff. Then the trap was reset.
Usher in the 2012 election and the Republicans are now forced to describe why they deserve to be in power. It is no longer only about how bad the other guy is, it is now about how good they are. And suddenly, their own singular answer trap is being sprung by them.
The Republicans managed to send out two separate narratives to two sets of people. To their base, they argued the president has done too much and to moderates, they have argued he has done too little. This aided the argument with moderates when the Democratic talking point was about Republican obstruction. They were able to say “See! They admit he did nothing!” But the second the light of a national election is shined on the accomplishments, the trap backfires on the GOP and catches them. They forced the Democrats to pick which argument to make, while they continued to make both. Now they are stuck, not with two wholly possible truths (that a lot was done and whole lot was prevented) but with with two wholly conflicting arguments (that a lot was done and nothing was done). The trap they are in is their own.
For me, the lesson is less about politics and more about how we handle the truth. The Republicans knew that the Democrats couldn’t make two true arguments that only appear to conflict. And worse, if they were both acknowledged, it would make the Democrats look even better: it would not simply be about what was done, but how much could be done. Government would look efficient, productive, and worst, useful. This would undercut the primary argument they wanted to make about government failure.
At the same time, the Republicans don’t trust the people to handle the complexity of the truth any more than the Democrats. They successfully made conflicting arguments at the same time for the last three years. They never seem prepared to defend both arguments at the same time.
The truth, on the other hand, can be handled by the majority when it is not being manhandled. Yet the irony of the postmodern world is that many of us are ill-equipped to comprehend the fundamental reality of truth in our era: that two things can be true at the same time, that there is no singular answer. I’m led to believe that we know deep down that these things are true, but it is the framework of our Greek-influenced, dualistic training that turns reality into a competition between two diametrically opposed constructs that must be true or false in opposition, like a teeter totter: only one side may be up at a time and the other is necessarily down. And yet, in truth, both sides may be up at the same time, primarily because they aren’t opposing polls. They are different truths. And both can be true.
I have faith that we will soon be gaining greater and greater experience in handling multiple truths and not treated as incompetent. Mostly because I have faith that we will no longer tolerate being treated that way.
[NOTE: This post was updated to fix a formatting issue and add a picture that succinctly made my point.]