Watching Barack Obama and John McCain over the past week has left pundits and armchair psychologists alike scratching their heads. While the two foes from the 2008 presidential election couldn't be more different, their puzzling performances
December 4, 2010


Watching Barack Obama and John McCain over the past week has left pundits and armchair psychologists alike scratching their heads. While the two foes from the 2008 presidential election couldn't be more different, their puzzling performances over tax cuts for the wealthy and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell have the Washington commentariat paging Dr. Freud.

Matthew Yglesias and James Fallows reflect the stunned reaction to McCain's increasing mania over allowing gay Americans to openly serve in the United States military. Despite his past promises to support the military leadership if and when it concluded DADT should end, McCain has since concluded that the policy must remain in place until the last bigot has left the service. As Yglesias lamented:

I really wonder what's happening, subjectively, inside the heads of people who oppose repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. Do any of them think they're on the right side of history here? That people are going to look back from 2040 and say "if only we'd listened to John McCain thirty years ago?"

For his part, Fallows worried that McCain's descent was something more pathological than mere grumpiness.

I'll stress the incredible part, because much more than my colleagues I can remember when McCain seemed to be a potentially Eisenhower-ish, as opposed to an increasingly Bunning-like, figure in American public life. Broad-minded, tolerant, eager to bridge rather than open divides -- this was the way he seemed to so many people starting from his arrival in the Congress in the 1980s.

Seeing him now is surprising not simply because it reminds us: this man could be the sitting president, but also because it again raises the question, how did he end up this way? Even if his earlier identity had been artifice, what would be the payoff in letting it go?

Fallows concluded his brief psychoanalysis of McCain, "John McCain seems intentionally to be shrinking his audience, his base, and his standing in history. It's unnecessary, and it is sad."

He could have been describing President Obama's shocking collapse over the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

To be sure, Obama is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. His popular campaign promise to end the Bush tax cuts for households earning over $250,000 retains its strong public support. A new CBS poll showed that only 26% of respondents - and just 46% of Republicans - want the budget-busting Bush tax cuts to continue for the richest Americans.

And yet President Obama is on the verge of folding a great hand, possibly without even securing GOP pledges to allow votes on extended unemployment benefits or the START treaty. It's no wonder Ezra Klein shook his head at Obama's "bad poker" and Robert Reich lamented that "the President legitimizes everything the right has been saying."

This blogger has long fretted over Barack Obama's counterproductive fetish for bipartisanship. (For example, see, "Obama's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" and "The 'Thank You Sir May I Have Another' President".) Now, sympathetic columnists and pundits are at a loss to explain Obama's missing cojones and apparent penchant for punishment.

Howard Fineman was floored after Team Obama's surreal paean to compromise after Tuesday's White House meeting with Republican leaders:

What planet do he and they think they are on? And have they paid any attention to Sen. Mitch McConnell?

The president emerged from the meeting yesterday to say, hopefully, that he had suggested that they work together not just on taxes and spending, but on the other issues pending, including an extension of unemployment insurance.

But at that very moment McConnell and the rest of the GOP Senate leadership were beginning work on a plan to force the Senate to do just the opposite: a unified GOP threat to filibuster debate on anything but taxes and spending.

Three weeks ago, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne foreshadowed what was to come. "The lame-duck session of Congress that kicks off this week will test whether Democrats have spines made of Play-Doh," Dionne predicted, "and whether President Obama has decided to pretend that capitulation is conciliation." And on Thursday, he had a sinking feeling that he had his answer:

Is President Obama's strategy of offering preemptive concessions destined to make enemies of his potential friends in the electorate without winning over any of his adversaries?

... What we are witnessing here is the political power that comes from the Republican Party's single-minded focus on high-end tax cuts and the strategic incoherence of a Democratic Party that is confused and divided - and not getting much help from its president.

Obama's same recurring pattern on display in producing the too-small stimulus and watered down health care bill was at work again in the tax cut debate Democrats should have convincingly won months ago. And it's all too much for Paul Krugman. He's seen this movie before, and doesn't he like the ending.

Mr. Obama, who has faced two years of complete scorched-earth opposition, declared that he had failed to reach out sufficiently to his implacable enemies. He did not, as far as anyone knows, wear a sign on his back saying "Kick me," although he might as well have...

It's hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama's measure -- that they're calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it's also hard to escape the impression that they're right.

The real question is what Mr. Obama and his inner circle are thinking. Do they really believe, after all this time, that gestures of appeasement to the G.O.P. will elicit a good-faith response?

Obama's Democratic allies know the answer. House Democrat Barney Frank called the President's looming surrender, "gravely mistaken" Iowa liberal Tom Harkin warned, "I just think, if [Obama] caves on this, then I think that he's gonna have a lot of swimming upstream [to do]," Harkin said, adding, "He would then just be hoping and praying that Sarah Palin gets the nomination." And outgoing Ohio Governor Ted Strickland asked Obama out loud what others have just been thinking:

"After all of this you don't realize these people want to destroy you and your agenda? How many times do you have to be, you know, slapped in the face?"

Compared to John McCain and Barack Obama, understanding the inner workings of the mind of George W. Bush was relatively straight forward. But his actual and would-have-been successor are another matter altogether. This week, the bizarre behavior and puzzling positions McCain and Obama have confused friend, foe and Freudian alike.

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)

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