This time, it’s personal.
For months the Democrats’ internecine fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — President Obama wants it, and his co-partisans on Capitol Hill generally don’t — relied on abstract scaremongering. Then populists began turning to contorted procedural objections, arguing that the president was somehow forcing a constitutional crisis by asking Congress to promise an up-or-down vote on a final agreement. Never mind that Congress has granted every president since 1974 some version of this supposedly unconstitutional “fast-track” authority.
Now, apparently, Obama is not just undemocratic; he’s a bigot, too.
Or so suggested Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). This week, Brown said that Obama’s rebuttal of left-wing, anti-trade rhetoric was “disrespectful” of one high-profile spokeswoman for the cause: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). He also suggested that Obama’s comments were driven by Warren’s gender.
The comments Brown objected to were these, from a recent interview with Yahoo News: “The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else,” Obama said. “And you know, she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there. And I understand that. And on most issues, she and I deeply agree. On this one, though, her arguments don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny.”
You’ll have to squint to locate the sexism in this quote, but somehow Brown excavated it.
Specifically, according to Politico, Brown objected to Obama’s “calling her ‘another politician,’ ” and “referring to her as first name, when he might not have done that for a male senator.” The president of the National Organization for Women endorsed this interpretation, telling the Hill that Obama delivered his critique “in a sexist way” and that his “clear subtext is that the little lady just doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” An official with Public Citizen, a liberal organization opposed to the trade deal, piled on, calling Obama’s comments “shockingly disrespectful.”
Now, I’m certainly sensitive to gendered language; as a “little lady” who has covered the dude-dominated world of economics, I have sometimes found myself on the receiving end of grating remarks. But Brown’s insinuations are patently absurd and serve his cause poorly.
Obama has referred to male senators — “Sherrod” included — by their first names plenty of times. He’s also called Warren “Elizabeth” in public on many occasions, usually when saying something nice about her. To my knowledge, such language was never before denounced as an exercise in derision or disrespect. As Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) noted on MSNBC, had Obama instead referred to Warren as “Senator Warren,” then “someone would have said, ‘Oh, he’s giving her the cold shoulder.’ ” She added: “I would be freaked out if he didn’t call me by my first name.”
Besides, if we’re going to insist on formality, recall that it was considered endearing when Obama’s predecessor reportedly called staffers and fellow heads of state by choice nicknames such as “Turd Blossom” (Karl Rove) and “Pootie-Poot” (Vladimir Putin). Referring to people by their real first names seems like a step up on the respectfulness scale, if you ask me.
Brown’s objection to calling Warren a “politician” is even more puzzling. When did correctly identifying the occupation of a person who holds elected office become a grave offense? Only in Washington could it be considered slanderous to describe a politician as “a politician.”
Understandably, the White House has suggested that Brown issue an apology for the low blow. White House press secretary Josh Earnest appeared on “Morning Joe” to passive-aggressively remind viewers that Sherrod — er, “Senator Brown” — is “a stand-up guy. And I’m confident that after he’s had a chance to take a look at the comments that he made yesterday . . . that he’ll find a way to apologize.”
Brown’s office, for its part, has instead asked Obama to rescind his own remarks and accused the president of being the one who’s gotten too “personal.” In the days since, the sexism bandwagon does not appear to have gained new passengers, but accusations abound that Obama continues to “disrespect” progressives by disagreeing with them.
This ad hominem hysteria may have helped populists win in the short-run — on Thursday, the Senate passed a bill addressing currency manipulation, a condition many Democrats demanded before they would allow fast-track to move forward — but it will do them no favors come 2016. Somehow, the trade debate has turned left-wingers into the thin-skinned, victimhood-seeking, trigger-warning-requiring caricatures that conservatives always imagined them to be and that Republicans will be happy to campaign against.
No disrespect intended, of course.