Former State Department official Eliot Cohen nails the Obama administration and many of its critics for deeply unserious behavior:
Often, members of the Obama administration speak and, worse, think and act, like a bunch of teenagers. When officials roll their eyes at Vladimir Putin‘s seizure of Crimea with the line that this is “19th-century behavior,” the tone is not that different from a disdainful remark about a hairstyle being “so 1980s.” When administration members find themselves judged not on utopian aspirations or the purity of their motives—from offering “hope and change” to stopping global warming—but on their actual accomplishments, they turn sulky. As teenagers will, they throw a few taunts (the president last month said the GOP was offering economic policies that amount to a “stinkburger” or a “meanwich”) and stomp off, refusing to exchange a civil word with those of opposing views.
In a searing memoir published in January, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes with disdain the trash talk about the Bush administration that characterized meetings in the Obama White House. Like self-obsessed teenagers, the staffers and their superiors seemed to forget that there were other people in the room who might take offense, or merely see the world differently. Teenagers expect to be judged by intentions and promise instead of by accomplishment, and their style can be encouraged by irresponsible adults (see: the Nobel Prize committee) who give awards for perkiness and promise rather than achievement.
He does not spare Republicans. (“The teenage temperament infects our politics on both sides of the aisle, not to mention our great universities and leading corporations. The old, adult virtues—gravitas, sobriety, perseverance and constancy—are the virtues that enabled America to stabilize a shattered world in the 1940s, preserve a perilous order despite the Cold War and navigate the conclusion of that conflict.”)
With regard to the Obama crew, no one should be surprised. He ran a campaign in 2008 designed by and for young people. Fortune-cookie phrases became the mantra of the man running to be leader of the Free World. Obama girls swooned. We also see teenage behavior from media organizations, many of which have been deeply unserious in their choice of topics, in their willingness merely to regurgitate White House spin, in their obsession with contrived personality fights (remember Majority Leader Eric Cantor vs. House Speaker John Boehner?) and in their refusal to diversify their ranks with reporters who don’t subscribe to cool-kid liberalism.
Some blame the culture generally for this phenomenon. But while the culture has dumbed down the country, made language more coarse and people less polite, commerce still gets done, parents raise kids, soldiers fight magnificently well — all using a healthy mix of common sense and expertise. Compare the way pols talk and act with the tone and conduct of parents, co-workers, business owners, military men and women (not the Beltway-tamed pseudo politicians) and professionals you interact with outside of politics. Frankly, a disturbingly large number of politicians bear as much resemblance to working adults as sitcom TV parents do to real ones.
What else has been unserious of late?
* Appointing Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. Imagine a CEO of the company hiring someone so obviously in over his head and unable even to effectively work from a script. (Might the shareholders think the CEO has lost it?)
* Running around hollering that the sky is falling if the sequester goes through. Would you want to rely on a co-worker who at the first sign of trouble rolled out a parade of phony horribles? (Might you prefer to work alone in the future?)
* The Senate majority leader, like the wide-eyed grouch screaming for kids to get off the lawn, making a Senate election about two rich donors in a sea of rich donors. Imagine a doctor, instead of rendering germane medical advice, going on rants about Big Pharma’s conspiracy to take over medicine. (Might you get another doctor?)
* U.S. senators shutting down the government because “the important thing is to fight.” Imagine a Marine with such a nonspecific and self-destructive mindset, blowing up his own facility just to show he can do it. (Might his commanding officer initiate court martial — or medical — proceedings?)
* The media fixating on a senator drinking from a water bottle in a response to the president’s State of the Union address. Imagine a parent obsessed for weeks about a dropped fork at the dinner table. (Might the spouse inquire whether something is wrong?)
This gap between everyday experience and politics is one reason average citizens rate politicians so poorly. But the voice of conscience and maybe fear (for the country) still beckons. The interest in GOP governors or ex-governors to run in 2016 is in large part a search for maturity. Governors certainly are perceived as less politically infantile in large part because they have to do things (e.g. pass budgets, deal with Medicaid). The incentive for silly stunts is much lower at the state level while the consequences of gridlock, bad governance and extreme policies are acutely and swiftly felt.
And Republicans, no matter how much they dislike Hillary Clinton’s politics and can accurately recite her policy flubs, should be aware that to most voters she comes across as serious and mature. Putting up a fire-breathing nominee with a bunch of silly ideas and little depth of knowledge would be like sending a Little Leaguer up to bat against the Detroit Tigers.
So where is the GOP grown-up? Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is impressing donors and conservative wonks in large part because he talks, doesn’t scream; explains, doesn’t regurgitate catch phrases; and seems comfortable in his own skin, rather than inhabiting a cartoon role. Other governors, including Indiana’s Mike Pence and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, do the same.
Many Republicans seem to have recognized that they have been fed a steady diet of junk TV and cotton candy, and crave some substance, something more fulfilling. The noise from the teenage crowd is deafening, but one sign of maturity is the ability to ignore the racket and engage listeners in more important pursuits. But first, one or more Republicans has to decide to give grown-up politics and governance a shot.