The Green Lantern Canard: Max Speak, You Listen

Max Sawicky nails the problem with the ‘Green Lantern’ critique–arguing that presidential critics are being unrealistic, because presidents, unlike the Green Lantern, can’t simply will things to happen (boldface mine):

While presidential power can be exaggerated, so too can the inertia of public opinion. There are positions that enjoy massive public support but little presidential effort, such as universal background checks for firearms purchasers. That doesn’t mean Congress will just roll over in support of positions that their constituents actually support, but it does indicate political potential. If nobody is talking about it, when does anybody think a change would be possible? There are other positions where public opinion is malleable.

Speaking for myself, I’d be happy to stipulate that Obama got most of what could be gotten in the realm of domestic legislation when he had Democratic majorities in the Congress. Health care could have been somewhat better, but not much. Ditto Dodd-Frank. The first stimulus was about as big as it could have been.

The main problem in the big domestic policy cases was the cynicism that the Administration and its apologists share: that public opinion is something they are stuck with, rather than something they can influence. I do not suggest this could have been changed enough in real time to affect the legislative result. I am certain if no ambitious policies are ever put forward and motivated, we will never get them. That’s the defensible truth of the West/Frank/Kazin critique: it’s not so much the policy compromises at the end of the process, it’s the rhetorical compromises at the beginning and right on through to the end, and beyond. It’s the lack of any sustained focus on any big, affirmative national goal (Kazin’s point). The prospect of some future innovation in policy seems foreclosed. The Obama presidency is over. He has turned himself into a lame duck.

Another example is ‘judicial activism’, which went from an obscure rightwing legal concept to an acceptable talking point, largely through repeated discussion. Now, liberals will sometimes attept to play ‘gotcha’ by showing how ‘activist’ conservative courts have been. Nothing changes if nothing is proposed.

The other problem is, as Commandate Atrios notes often, that it fails to differentiate between Democrats and Republicans: differences must be sharp and stark, not middling to be able to say “we’re for X, not Y.” Rhetoric does matter over the long-term, especially when party-building (which, admittedly, is too declassé for the typical upwardly-mobile pundit).

Like we’ve discussed before, if there’s a better strategy, I’m all for it, but I’m not hearing one.

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7 Responses to The Green Lantern Canard: Max Speak, You Listen

  1. mtomasson says:

    I appreciate the points, but disagree. While public opinion may be malleable, the House of Representatives is not. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/upshot/why-democrats-cant-win.html This is something in our arm chairs we don’t have to deal with, but the president sure does. Fantasy politics is fun, sure, but IMHO Obama remains the man in the real world.

  2. MaxSpeak says:

    The House is a problem, no doubt. But we gain nothing from Obama’s ideological indulgence of them. They hate everything he says and does, including stuff they were for. And there are still the areas where Obama has executive authority.

  3. anthrosciguy says:

    The House gets malleable when they get afraid of not getting votes. An angry electorate gets them scared that the money-power nozzle might get shut off.

    If you don’t think a fired up segment of the electorate can do this, explain how a segment, fired up in exactly this “not the Green Lantern” way, has gotten the House, and the rest of our goverment, to oppose positions that Americans support.

  4. Robert L Bell says:

    Hoist the Green Lantern as high as you like, nobody ran on Single Payer in 2008 so it will take a lot of convincing before I believe that Obama’s fecklessness prevented us from getting Single Payer in 2010.

  5. anthrosciguy says:

    A lot of the invocation of Green Lantern is simple strawmanning such as Robert L. Bell did here. Actually, much of it is far worse and more simplistic than his comment, which is saying something.

  6. anthrosciguy says:

    Another interesting part of this strawmanning (and this is sort of what Mike’s earlier, linked to, post was about) is the absolute certainty that those using Green Lantern as a pejorative have about things. For instance, if we had a president, and other politicians, and hopefully some media, who in 2008 loudly and repeatedly pointed to insurance companies as a huge part of what had crashed our economy and ruined so many peoples’ wealth, and had gone after those companies and their executives with serious criminal and civil prosecutions, and kept it up, would it have been possible to get either single-payer or a French or Swiss style heavily regulated insurance system as the foundation of our healthcare. By saying over and over that we needed to cut those incompetent vultures who’d crashed our economy out of the loop? I don’t know myself. Maybe we could have and maybe we couldn’t have.

    But Robert L. Bell, and those like him who invoke Green Lantern to strawman, know for sure that we couldn’t. They somehow have absolute knowledge. I’m glad I don’t gave that easy certainty in my makeup.

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