Friday, December 18, 2009

The Obama Administration Loses its Touch in Cyberspace

Irrationality is often an excellent symptom of desperation, particularly when it involves losing grip on your best strengths. This lesson goes all the way back to the Old Testament. The Israelites lost the strength of their faith as soon as they decided to take the Ark of the Covenant into battle (a confusion of symbol with substance that has followed us all the way through history into the Bush II Administration, if not further). God punished them for losing their grip, and they were soundly defeated.

The days when the Obama Administration boasted that it came into office by leveraging the strength of cyberspace now feel as distant as those of the Old Testament. Now, with the future of health care reform on the ropes, Senior Advisor David Axelrod seems to have reinvented the take-the-Ark-into-battle strategy in a rather bizarre way. Here is Ari Melber's account from The Notion, the collective blog site managed by The Nation:

The White House swiftly organized a blogger conference call on Thursday evening to rally support for health care reform, in a bid to stem fallout from progressives over recent compromises in the Senate. Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod devoted most of the time to taking questions, as bloggers from OpenLeft, Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars and Huffington Post pressed for answers on why recent concessions seemed so one-sided.

Say what? Did that text really say "conference call?" Did Axelrod deal with the urgency of the situation through POTS technology? What happened to chat rooms? If he wanted to keep participation at a manageable level, he could have done that; but there is something really disquieting about organizing such a strategic event without leaving a text trail for the rest of us to examine.

As we read on in Melber's account, we get the impression that it may not have taken Axelrod long to realize that he was in a hole, to which he responded by digging himself deeper:

MyDD's Jonathan Singer said he was channeling another blogger, Duncan Black, to ask whether Axelrod's recent "insane" remark about Howard Dean's position also applied to Ben Nelson's willingness to scuttle the entire bill. "I'm not professionally qualified to judge insanity and maybe I should have used a different word," Axelrod said, and he noted that "everybody's a little on edge at this point" in the long legislative battle. He also stressed his respect for allies in the "progressive community," but reiterated his view that it would be "wrongheaded" to squash all of health care reform at this point, which is "infinitely better" than the status quo.

It is as if some wrathful divine power (perhaps that same figure from the Old Testament) had decided to bring down the follies of at least two previous administrations on Axelrod's head. Judging insanity is not quite as off-the-wall as debating the semantics of "is;" but, at the very least, it indicates that the discourse has shifted from insanity to inanity. For that matter, if a key attribute of insanity is a detachment from reality, then Axelrod may be the one facing that detachment, since Dean is far from a lone voice in the wilderness; he just happens to be the one with enough chutzpah to raise his voice from some bully pulpits. That detachment from reality brings us, of course, to the immediately preceding Administration, which tried to cast everything in terms of right and wrong (even if "wrongheaded" was too many syllables for them to handle) and never seemed to have trouble playing fast and loose with an adverb like "infinitely."

The problem with having to handle second-hand accounts, even when they come under the banner of a progressive organ like The Nation, is that we may never know if anyone on that conference call shifted attention from Dean to the Clara Peller question he was raising: "Where's the reform?" The only real question that remains is whether the health care reform train has run out of steam or whether the insurance industry dug up the rails, leaving the train to crash colossally into a ditch. In either case any sense of reform has left the Capitol with the same finality with which Elvis has left the building. As one of our Presidential ghosts would say, "Make no doubt about it!"

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