Thursday, February 24, 2011

Glenn and Me: Just Like Old Friends

Sometimes when my fevered imagination gets the better of me, I think Glenn Greenwald and I could be good friends if we knew each other in real life. The kind of friends who drive each other crazy, who bicker all the time over virtually everything but still like each other because deep down each knows the other wants what’s best for the country. I’ve always had friends like that, friends of virtually every conceivable political persuasion from just about any point along the political spectrum. And sometimes it seems like the hardest ones to get along with are fellow liberals who, like me, tend to think they know everything.

I’m reminded of this passing fantasy – hey, not that kind of fantasy – reading today’s piece by Mr. Greenwald on Salon: “Partisan Bliss.”

The premise of today’s piece is that even though everyone on the left seems to agree that Pres. Obama did the right thing by deciding no longer to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, the President’s supporters are (once again) a bunch of hypocrites because they have, in the past, supported the President’s decision to defend DOMA (and/or other odious Clinton- or Bush-era policies) in court:

For two years now, the Obama DOJ has been defending the constitutionality of DOMA in federal courts around the country. In response to objections from gay groups, Obama officials -- and their supporters -- insisted that the President had no choice, that it’s the duty of the Justice Department to defend the constitutionality of all laws enacted by Congress, and that it’s dangerous for the President to pick and choose which laws to defend or not defend. That’s actually a reasonable position; there is a genuine danger in having the President selectively defend Congressional statutes (although many past administrations have refused to defend particular laws where they believed they could not in good faith do so). Although I believe it is appropriate in rare cases for the DOJ to refuse to defend a statute or even affirmatively argue for its unconstitutionality (provided it continues to enforce the law until it’s repealed or struck down), there is a valid concern on the part of those who argue -- as Obama supporters did for the last two years -- that it’s never appropriate for the DOJ to refrain from defending a statute or, at least, that it would be wrong to do so in the DOMA case.

But for those loyal Obama supporters who spent two years defending the administration’s DOMA position on this ground: if they have even a minimal amount of intellectual honestly, shouldn’t they now criticize the President’s reversal, this new refusal to defend DOMA? If they really believed what they were saying for the last two years -- that a President is required to defend the constitutionality of all statutes -- then shouldn’t they be vocally condemning Obama now for doing exactly that which they insisted he has no power to do? Of course -- as the torture photo and civilian trial controversies also demonstrated -- one of the joys of partisan fealty and devotion to a leader is that one need not have any actual beliefs or positions: you get to say whatever you need to say at any given moment to justify the leader’s conduct, even if it completely contradicts what you said months or weeks earlier in service of the same objective. Justifying the leader’s behavior is the sole prism through which the entire political world is viewed; one is blissfully liberated from the need to formulate any actual views or principles.

This, it seems, is a constant theme for Mr. Greenwald: That there are armies of mindless drones out there for whom “[j]ustifiying [Pres. Obama’s] behavior is the sole prism through which the entire political world is viewed.” And I suppose people like that probably do exist. They’re not called “Obamabots,” though; they’re called “sycophants,” and they exist in close proximity to virtually every politician who’s ever existed. Creepily loyal hangers-on are a curious byproduct of our democracy, and there’s never been an American president who didn’t have them. Even today, there’s a small but fiercely loyal cadre of George W. Bush supporters – people who ask, with a straight but deluded face, whether we “Miss [him] Yet?” Heh. Really?

But the thing is, I see no evidence that Pres. Obama has any greater or lesser number of sycophants than any other president. Certainly, Pres. Obama has no more mindless, reflexive defenders than Bill Clinton had, yet liberals walked in lock-step behind Clinton for eight years while he gave us NAFTA, welfare “reform,” Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell … and, yes, DOMA. If anything, after our experience with Clinton I’d say liberals are, in fact, pretty wary of anything any Democrat does or says – and that includes Pres. Obama. Which is fine with me, because I figured out a long time ago there are no perfect Democrats.

So what Glenn Greenwald is talking about – i.e., those who “say whatever you need to say at any given moment to justify the leader’s conduct, even if it completely contradicts what you said months or weeks earlier in service of the same objective” – represents, at best, a very narrow slice of the political left, even among those of us who generally do support the President. In reality, even those of us who consider ourselves to be his supporters take a close look at every decision he makes. We’ve agonized over the mistakes he’s made (like, as Mr. Greenwald points out, his failure to stick to his guns when it comes to trying terror suspects in civilian courts). And when it comes to DOMA, most of us have agonized over the very issue that Mr. Greenwald touches on: We hate – hate – this law, yet we recognize, as does Mr. Greenwald, that “there is a valid concern on the part of those who argue … that it’s never appropriate for the DOJ to refrain from defending a statute.”

In fact, I said just yesterday that while I can’t criticize Pres. Obama for refusing to defend DOMA in court because I likely would have made the same decision were I in his shoes, I also see the inherent danger in the decision not to defend DOMA: That it will serve as precedent for the next Republican president’s decision not to defend, say, the Affordable Care Act against legal challenges on constitutional grounds. Without patting myself on the back, I think my approach is actually fairly typical of Pres. Obama’s supporters: We recognize that he’s been handed an enormous heap of problems to wrestle with – problems that were not of his making, but were mostly caused by his two predecessors – and he’s struggled to deal with all of them. He’s made missteps, to be sure, but he’s also had significant accomplishments. So, rather than attack him at every turn, some of us at least try to appreciate the difficulty of tasks he’s faced.

And the decision whether or not to defend DOMA in court was precisely that kind of extraordinarily difficult decision. There never was an easy answer to that question, and so I’m not inclined to bash Pres. Obama or his supporters for struggling with it, even if it meant changing their minds over the course of the past two years.

I’m sorry that some of us lack the absolute moral and constitutional certainty of Glenn Greenwald, and I mean that in as non-sarcastic a fashion as possible. I actually respect Mr. Greenwald’s absolute certainty, even though I rarely share it. It would be nice, though, if Mr. Greenwald would have the same kind of respect for those of us who, in good faith, wrestle with some of these admittedly difficult issues and are less certain – rather than accusing us of lacking principles.

In other words, I don’t think we on the left should go all Bolsheviks-vs-Mensheviks on each other every time we disagree.

So whaddya say, Glenn? Are we pals?

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. The real truth, as much as us on the left may not agree, is that Obama had to run his administration in the middle to have a chance at a second term since the deciding factor in elections are the folks in the middle in America. And that's exactly what he's been doing. However, unlike Clinton, he's been able to get way more done on his agenda in the first 2 years. If you thought it was bad for Clinton after the first 2 years, we are already seeing what the GOP has in store for Obama. But the good news is that they don't have anyone with a chance to run against Obama in 2012.

  2. I am a big fan of Dave and Glenn. I think Dave has written a nice invitation to Glenn to be pals. Both are the kind of men I would choose as friends, too.

  3. This! Times one thousand! Mr. Greenwald has a perverse talent for repelling people like me who should rightly be his allies, and who agree with him on a wide swath of issues. It's as if he absolutely denies that those of us who support our complicated President, warts and all, in these incredibly dangerous and highly fraught times, are even human beings.

  4. I figured it out a while back. Glenn Greenwald's first book was about the Manichean world view of the Bush administration (everyone can be seen as either good or evil, no gray in between). It was a masterful book that truly put the Bushies in their place.

    It wasn't until the last two years that I came to realize that Glenn Greenwald is himself a Manichean. He either thinks you are on the side of the angels or on the side of the demons and there is no middle ground between them. The only difference is that he has a different definition of good and evil.