There are few sights more intriguing to political reporters than an internecine fight within a movement or political party. There are few of those more silly than Firstnamegate, the sideshow that threatens to overshadow the substantive split on the Left over free trade. Instead of hashing it out rationally, though, the Left has fallen back on victimology, with some thought leaders reviving the charge that Barack Obama is sexist — among them Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH):
"I think the president was disrespectful to her by the way he did that…made this more personal." – Sen. Brown on Obama's Warren attacks
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) May 12, 2015
More Brown: "I think referring to her as her first name, when he might not have done that for a male senator, perhaps–I've said enough."
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) May 12, 2015
Buzzfeed notes that Obama has used Brown’s first name in public on at least three occasions, so it’s not quite clear that the sexist charge is terribly sustainable. NOW’s Terry O’Neill jumped in with Brown regardless:
“I think the president was trying to build up his own trustworthiness on this issue by convincing us that Senator Warren’s concerns are not to be taken seriously. But he did it in a sexist way.”
Ashe Schow wonders whether this makes Barack Obama the most sexist President in history … at least to his fellow progressives:
So now calling a woman by her first name is sexist. (You must all call me Schow from now on, if you can pronounce it correctly.) And I guess when Obama said “Harry” – referring to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid – he was being…what exactly? Anti-Mormon?
Are we supposed to use AP style in our conversations now? …
O’Neill added that Obama’s “clear subtext is that the little lady just doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” Or he could just disagree with her politically, but that’s a ludicrous suggestion, right? In the Obama era, a large segment of the media has dedicated itself to proving that such disagreements are always cover for some kind of bigoted attitude.
This just proves that today’s outrage culture and offensensitivity (to use a wonderful term coined by Berke Breathed in Bloom County nearly three decades ago) is self-immolating by its very nature. It demands a lock-step groupthink and punishes any criticism as bigotry or worse. It’s the exact opposite of both tolerance and plurality, plus the nature of this particular offense — calling someone by their first name? — exposes the high degree of insecurity among those involved in the debate, and their desperation to shut their critics up, even if it’s the most progressive President since LBJ.
That still leaves the bigger issue of the substantive basis for the schism. As I note in my column for The Fiscal Times, this is clearly a vote of no confidence in a President who has been the champion of progressives, and a signal that they want to push the Democratic Party even farther to the Left. That will be a huge problem for Democrats in 2016:
The bigger picture is the stunning break within the party between the most progressive president since LBJ and the rank-and-file progressives who make up their congressional delegations. The US federal system does not have an explicit analogue to the parliamentary system’s votes of no confidence, as the states elect the executive in the American system separately from the legislature. This is as close as it gets, though, as Democrats have literally expressed a complete lack of confidence not just in Obama’s trade policy, but in his personal integrity and reliability.
Perhaps they have learned not to trust White House reassurances that if you like your wage and environmental protections, you can keep your wage and environmental protections. If so, progressives arrived at the party a little later than the rest of the nation.
This does complicate the next presidential election for Democrats, though, in a way that will end up leaving them vulnerable in November 2016. The entire Democratic caucus has now pushed the party to the left of Obama, whose progressive policies have failed to produce sustainable economic success while costing a fortune in debt and regulatory burdens.
Hillary Clinton has begun tacking to the left in her campaign, going where the wind blows, but she will have trouble inspiring the kind of turnout that protected Obama from the failures of his first term in the 2012 election – and Republicans will likely offer the kind of fresh face and record of executive success that Hillary lacks.
Ironically, the Clintons came to Washington almost a quarter-century ago to prevent this very outcome, offering a centrist Third Way to rescue the Democratic Party from the marginalization progressives wanted to impose on it. Hillary may well end up making that impossible to avoid.