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Clive McFarlane: The art of the possible in politics

 
By Clive McFarlane
The Telegram & Gazette
Posted on 9/16/2015, 10:33 AM

Despite the strong headwinds President Barack Obama faced in his 2012 re-election campaign run -- high unemployment rate, slow economic growth and dissatisfaction with Obamacare -- he triumphed.

John Dickerson, a Slate political columnist and the moderator of CBS's "Face the Nation," summed up the reasons for the president's success thus:

"In the end, Romney was right. It was all about the economy. But Americans seemed to want more than someone who cares about fixing the problem; they want someone they think cares about them.

"It was the empathy, stupid. When voters were asked which candidate cared more about them, Obama won more than 80 percent of those voters.

"The president won among African-Americans, who were 13 percent of the electorate, by 93 percent to 6 percent. He won among Hispanics, 70 percent to 30 percent. Romney's poor performance with Hispanics, in particular, is likely to start a wave of soul-searching in the party about how to reach out to the country's fastest-growing minority group."

How surprising is it then to find that Donald Trump, the man who has characterized most Mexicans entering the country as criminals, drug dealers and rapists; the man who wants to wall off Mexico from the United States is the darling of the Republican primary season.

Not too surprising, according to Jim Penman, a social theorist and author of Biohistory: Decline and Fall of the West.

To Penman, many of the antics with which Republicans have governed and which candidates such as Trump espouses mimic many of the developments preceding the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

In a press release promoting his book, Mr. Penman classified those developments - patterns as he calls them - as economic stagnation, a growing gap between rich and poor, cynicism about government, political deadlock and the rise of mavericks whose sole appeal is that they are against "politics as usual."

Sounds familiar?

"The Trump phenomenon is a frightening sign to what the future holds (and) may be an early sign of the end of American democracy," Mr. Penman said of the businessman's uncontested dominance thus far of the Republican presidential primary season.

Mr. Penman may well be onto something. But perhaps a simpler explanation may be that modern day Republicans are simply viewing politics as the art of war (without actually studying war's effective principles), rather the "the art of the possible."

I interpret the latter point of view, attributed to German statesman Otto von Bismarck, to mean getting the best outcomes possible when conflicting political interests collide.

Whether or not you agree with his policies, you would have to say President Obama has used the "art of the possible" approach to perfection against congressional Republicans who have waged a running war against his presidency since its inception.

By focusing on what was possible, rather than on annihilating his opposition or by taking an all-or-nothing approach, Mr. Obama, to observers such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, has emerged as one of the most successful and consequential presidents in American history.

The art of the possible is why he succeeded in passing comprehensive health care reform, when many of his predecessors talked about it, but couldn't get anything accomplish.

And in that health care battle, he didn't allow his superior force - his control of both chambers of Congress in his first term - to push him to exhaust his resources on achieving the then impossible - a one-payer system.

The art of the possible is why he joined forces with Republicans to win congressional approval of a significant Pacific Rim trade deal, despite strong opposition from members of his own party and democratic interest groups, such as labor unions.

When Republican intransigence blocked progress on issues such as comprehensive immigration reform, he used his executive powers to secure small victories, as he did with his "Dream Act" executive order that prevented the deportation of children born of undocumented immigrants in this country.

Again, this is not about whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Obama's policies. This is about him as a shrewd politician, getting things done by concentrating on what is possible.

On the other hand, Republicans by constantly focusing on the impossible, such as on deporting all undocumented immigrants and stopping all illegal entries into the country before addressing immigration reform, seem to have eschewed statesmanship for the vain glory of ideological and suicidal warriors.

Oh, by the way. They are talking about shutting down the government, again.