Part 1—Believing O’Donnell: For decades, we liberals had it good in the tribal wars of self-esteem.
In 1988, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show went nationwide. From that point forward, we liberals could hear Limbaugh’s clownish misstatements as they aired coast to coast.
We also could hear conservative listeners speaking to Rush, declaring themselves “ditto-heads.” Following Limbaugh’s groaning misstatements, we could hear reflexive affirmation from millions of gullible followers.
Among liberals, this produced the widely-voiced belief that we were the smart ones, the “nuanced” observers, the people who play the game straight. Our self-esteem soared in the Limbaugh/Fox years, even as we took a series of painful political hits.
These were the happy years. We got to believe that we were smart—that their side featured the very dumb players. We got to believe that our leaders are honest—that their side is run by dissemblers.
We often blamed our political failures on the dishonesty of their side’s leaders, matched with the dumbness of their followers. Even as we lost political ground, this view of the world was extremely good for liberal self-esteem.
Except among the proudly deluded, that era has come to an end. Increasingly, we liberals are creating a world which crawls with disingenuous leaders—and with highly gullible followers, our own liberal ditto-heads.
Limbaugh pioneered this culture, but this is how our own world works at this point. For one small example, consider a segment from last Thursday evening’s Last Word.
Three days earlier, President Obama had made a peculiar statement concerning the Supreme Court’s review of the health care law. Almost everyone saw the strangeness in what the president said:
OBAMA (4/2/12): With respect to health care, I'm actually—continue to be confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the law. And the reason is, because in accordance with precedent out there, it's constitutional. That's not just my opinion, by the way. That's the opinion of legal experts across the ideological spectrum, including two very conservative appellate court justices that said this wasn't even a close case.Say what? Almost everyone saw the oddness in Obama’s formulation. Whatever he might have meant, Obama had said that it would be “unprecedented” to “overturn a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”
Ultimately, I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.
And I'd just remind conservative commentators that, for years, what we've heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I'm pretty confident that this—this court will recognize that and not take that step.
In fact, the health care law had passed the House by a narrow, seven-vote margin. But however strong a congressional majority may be, everyone knows that the court has the power—indeed, the duty—to overturn a law if fails to pass constitutional muster.
Beyond that, everyone knows that this wouldn’t be an “unprecedented” act by the court. In context, the use of the term “unelected” only seemed to add to the oddness of Obama’s remarks.
Whatever Obama might have meant, he had actually said an odd thing—and virtually everyone knew it. Lawrence Tribe, dean of liberal law professors, said that his former student “obviously misspoke.” Obama began to walk back his own statement one day after he made it.
Obama made a peculiar statement. Unless you were watching Lawrence O’Donnell’s cable “news” program last Thursday night.
O’Donnell’s show airs on MSNBC, a corporate-run “news channel” aimed at liberals—a channel which has increasingly been aping the practices of Fox. In line with that emerging culture, O’Donnell seemed to suggest that criticism of Obama’s statement had been—what else?—a form of Republican hypocrisy.
That’s hard to do if you actually quote the relevant part of Obama’s statement. So O’Donnell took a different approach.
As he introduced Thursday night’s segment, O’Donnell quoted a different part of Obama’s statement—a single sentence which, standing alone, actually makes perfect sense. He then pretended that this was the part of Obama’s statement which had been disputed. (To watch the whole segment, click here.)
This is the way the segment began. O’Donnell’s conduct represents the end of an era—the end of a childish dream:
O’DONNELL (4/5/12): So Republicans and the noise machine at Fox News think it’s perfectly OK to say this:Quoted on its own, that part of Obama’s statement is perfectly accurate. But that isn’t the part of the president’s statement which has been widely critqued.
GEORGE W. BUSH (videotape): It’s the only branch that’s unelected and whose officers serve for life. Unfortunately, some judges give in to temptation and make law instead of interpreting it. Such judicial lawlessness is a threat to our democracy and it needs to stop.
O’DONNELL: And Republicans and Fox News world think it is a high crime to say this:
OBAMA (videotape): I just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.
O’DONNELL: Joining me now is Politico’s chief White House correspondent Mike Allen [and] Salon.com senior writer and MSNBC political analyst, Steve Kornacki.
Soon, O’Donnell offered the nugget around which his segment would turn. On his worst day, Limbaugh himself couldn’t have played the game better:
O’DONNELL: Mike, tell us what’s going on here? They are suddenly very, very upset that a president, actually quoting Republicans, not saying they’re— He was using the Republican phrase about them being unelected saying, “This is what you guys used to say.” And they can’t take it when he says that.It’s true. Down through the years, Republicans have often referred to judges as being “unelected.” But that wasn’t the part of Obama’s remarks which has been widely critiqued.
O’Donnell’s segment proceeded as planned thanks to the help of a couple of friends. Surely, Allen and Kornacki each understood that O’Donnell was working a bit of a scam—that he wasn’t quoting the part of the statement which had been so widely discussed.
But so what? Each pundit politely played along, as their counterparts frequently do on Fox. The result?
Everyone else in America knows what Obama was criticized for. But if you relied on O’Donnell last week, you still have no idea.
O’Donnell’s segment was one small part of last week’s programming on MSNBC. But the silly deception involved in this segment typifies the larger drift now on display at this “liberal” “news channel.” Most remarkably, MSNBC has run a remarkable series of scams in recent weeks concerning the killing of Trayvon Martin. In the course of its many deceptions and misstatements, an era has come to an end.
For decades, we liberals got to think that we are the smart and honest players. We got to believe that our leaders are honest. We got to believe that liberal voters are too smart, too nuanced, too intellectually honest to accept a ditto-head role.
No one watching MSNBC can continue to hold such a childish belief. In endless ways, this channel’s recent conduct—and the conduct of its viewers—has represented a type of “childhood’s end.”
Tomorrow: Our own ditto-heads
But why would Obama do that: On Thursday evening, there was one small break from the pretense that Obama had said nothing wrong. Responding to the question we’ve cited above, Mike Allen—and O’Donnell himself—made these peculiar remarks:
O’DONNELL: Mike, tell us, what’s going on here? They are suddenly very, very upset that a president, actually quoting Republicans, not saying they’re— He was using the Republican phrase about them being unelected saying, “This is what you guys used to say.” And they can’t take it when he says that.But why in the world would Obama do that? Why would he “march it back a little bit?” Why would he do that “every day?” Unless you already knew, O’Donnell gave you no way to know why Obama would so such a thing. A similar scam occurred Wednesday night, with Van Jones and Richard Wolffe cast in the role of dissembling helpmates.
ALLEN: Well, both sides here are working the refs, the ultimate—the ultimate swing vote. Here you just have one vote on the margins.
I think the president also would take back some of what he said. There’s going to be plenty of time in—
O’DONNELL: He marched it back a little bit.
ALLEN: Yes, every day, he has.
(To watch that segment, click this. In that case, you do see the tape of Obama’s peculiar remarks. The misdirection proceeds from there.)
This is how Limbaugh has always treated his gullible conservative listeners. As liberal viewers start accepting this treatment, a childish dream, of three decades’ duration, has finally come to an end.