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'When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?'


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Some of the most compelling political debates come within the parties. This week in New York Magazine, two writers each critiqued their own side. We heard one yesterday - conservative David Frum, who argues that Republicans lost touch with reality. In the same issue, liberal writer Jonathan Chait also uses the word fantasy in describing liberals disappointed with President Obama. Chait says they're unreasonable.

What makes you think they're unreasonable?

JONATHAN CHAIT: I think liberals have a problem with Democratic presidents. And I base this on the fact that liberals have been deeply upset with every president since Roosevelt. And even when Roosevelt was in office, liberals were fairly upset most of the time.

INSKEEP: You make a specific comparison to now. There are a lot of liberals who miss Bill Clinton.

CHAIT: Right. There's a huge wave of Clinton nostalgia, which is amazing, because I was alive, you were alive. I mean, I'm kind of surprised no one remembers this. Liberals were unhappy constantly and defensive and disillusioned. I don't think liberals have completely turned against Obama. They're planning to vote for him for the most part. But the liberal sense of Obama is so disillusioned so that even the people who defend him are completely apologetic.

INSKEEP: What's an example of the apologetic attitude you're thinking of here? Something that's happened in your life, a conversation you've had?

CHAIT: Oh, I don't want to...

INSKEEP: Oh, go ahead.


CHAIT: ...discuss conversations with individual friends, relatives or whatever. To the extent that you have conversations among liberals, and I think liberals are talking with their friends and family, the people who are defending Obama will say something like, well, he had it hard. The Republicans really made it difficult on him. Maybe he can do more in his second term. And the people who are disappointed will just be really going hammer and tongs, saying he's blown it all completely.

INSKEEP: What is the practical effect of this Democratic dismay? If liberals in the end are just going to vote for Obama, does it matter if they're cranky about it?

CHAIT: I think it does matter. I think the practical effect has two dimensions. One dimension is mobilization intensity. You're not going to have the same kind of mobilization you had for Obama in '08. The second dimension, I think, is the whole tenor of the conversation around Obama.

You could really see this during the health care debate. The debate was between conservatives who said this was socialism, this was the destruction of America, and liberals who said either it's half a loaf, it's better than nothing, or it's a complete sellout to the insurance industry.

And I think that was communicated to the public. And the idea was that this wasn't very good. This was a sellout. No one's really defending it. I think that really helped shape perceptions of the health care bill.

And I think the same dynamic has really affected the whole Obama presidency. There's really no one out there strongly defending the guy anymore.

INSKEEP: And I wonder if there's been another effect. President Obama has been campaigning for what he describes as a jobs bill this fall. And the Republican critique of Obama is essentially this: He's not proposing something that we're willing to pass. He's just playing politics. He's just trying to improve his base support. Is the president, in fact, tacking left in order to try to recapture these disenchanted Democrats?

CHAIT: I don't think that's a fair description. I think he is trying to recapture disenchanted Democrats, but I think he's also trying to speak to the center. And I think he probably has captured the high ground of public opinion, because public opinion is strongly in favor of both the individual measures in his jobs bill and the ways he wants to pay for it with raising taxes on the rich. But it does show the degree to which he's really lost his base.

INSKEEP: Lost his base.

CHAIT: I don't think he's lost his base in the sense that he has to worry about liberal Democrats voting for him. But I think the enthusiasm is a problem. And politics works at an individual level. It works where people listen to other people talk. And when no one's defending a president, that does affect the overall climate of opinion.

INSKEEP: You yourself, in your article, acknowledge that some people will listen to you or read you and conclude that you're just an apologist for Obama.

CHAIT: Right. Well, look, I think a couple points need to be made. Number one, not all the complaints about Obama are wrong. And I've made many of those complaints myself. Number two, there is a role in constructive complaints, even unreasonable constructive complaints.

What I'm trying to critique is going from making these complaints to making these complaints the entirety of your perspective. So my perspective is it's been the most effective domestic presidency in more than 40 years, and Obama has made a series of mistakes on top of that, as all presidents do. But I think the overall shape of the liberal view is distorted.

INSKEEP: Were you excited to vote for President Obama in 2008?

CHAIT: Yeah. I'm not an excitable guy, but I was optimistic about that. And my expectations have been fulfilled.

INSKEEP: Are you excited for the opportunity to vote for him in 2012?

CHAIT: Um... You know, like I said, I'm not excitable, so excited might be a bad verb to use for me. I feel like I've got a chance to vote for what's going to be one of the best presidents of my lifetime. Obama's probably about as good as it gets in American politics. I've tempered expectations for what you can do in politics. Obama's pretty much at the top of what I can expect to get out of a politician.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Chait's article in New York Magazine is called "When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?"

Thanks very much.

CHAIT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Chait and David Frum in New York Magazine provided two of many perspectives on debates within the political parties. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.