December 5, 2011

It is said that, when Napoleon was asked what qualities he looked for in his generals, he responded, “Just one — that they be lucky.” This is a quality President Obama has in abundance — just look at the mess Republicans have made of their presidential race. Things turn out for Barack Obama. They always have, and it seems they always will.

Shall we start with the latest unemployment numbers? At 8.6 percent, the jobless rate is lower than it has been in 21 / 2 years and is heading in the right direction. Lots of people are still out of work, and they will continue to be because the problem is structural, but the economy is improving, and there is nearly a year until the presidential election — time for a new reality to overcome the old perception. Amazingly, the United States is about to become a net exporter of petroleum products. The last time this happened was in 1949, which was 12 years before Obama was born. Talk about luck!

Two of the great American auto companies have survived their close call with going belly-up and now are making money. Along with the financial system, they were saved by government programs that Republicans characterize as pretty close to neo-Stalinist. Call them what you may, they worked. Jobs were saved. You got a problem with that?

The war in Iraq, George W. Bush’s own stimulus program, is coming to an end, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. Osama bin Laden is totally dead, his ranks vastly reduced by drones. And while the Middle East policy has been something of a mess, even the Israelis have come around on Obama: A majority now have a favorable view of him. Mazel tov!

Some of this is the vagaries of fortune, and some the bounty of good policy. But Obama’s most astounding bit of good luck is the motley crew of opponents the Republican Party has coughed up. It is simply amazing that in a country of 313 million people, many of them literate, the political opposition consists of ignoramuses, dimwits, contrarians, Christian jihadists and, now, two men so thoroughly hollow that a moral principle would make a rattling sound inside them. I am talking of course of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. (I don’t know how to categorize Jon Huntsman, and neither, it seems, does the Republican Party.)

I call these people the Clarifiers. Name the issue, and they will clarify it for you. Have some qualms about abortion, and the GOP candidates will insist that an embryo is a person and, in so doing, remind you of why you’re pro-choice. Have some doubts about Obamacare, and the Republicans will make you yearn for socialized medicine. Wonder what to do about illegal immigrants, and the GOP will make you want to station Welcome Wagon ladies at the border. Think government is too big, too slow and too inefficient, and these guys will make you love it the way it is. They can even clarify the problem of Iran. Romney, for one, virtually promises war on Day One. Maybe there’s another way.

The ideological, political and philosophical opportunism of both Gingrich and Romney are by now well-known and somewhat breathtaking. Gingrich is a jolly demagogue — an exaggerator, a fabricator, a concocter of calumnies. Dorothy Parker said, “Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.” This is Newt.

But Romney is in some sense worse. By running a campaign spot that rips an Obama statement out of its specific context, Romney proves that he will not allow the mere truth to stand between him and his objective. As a businessman, that objective was profit; as a politician, it’s victory at the polls.

The context in this case is not fuzzy. When in the 2008 campaign, Obama said, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,” he was quoting an aide to John McCain. The Romney ad has him saying it on his own. This is a lie. Romney supports the ad. What does that make Romney? A liar.

This is more of Obama’s good luck. In Romney, he had an opponent who appeared honest. He is a flip-flopper, but that’s an occupational disease — like sports figures citing the fans for their every act of selfishness. But the ad is different. It’s a lie, a lie about truth, and to my knowledge that is something Obama has never done. He’s not an especially tall man, but luck has brought him a field of political pygmies.

cohenr@washpost.com

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