"Are you really a Democrat?" someone wrote to me recently, after I wrote a column criticizing the president's decision to go on vacation in Martha's Vineyard while so many people — especially in the tourist-challenged Gulf — are suffering.
What kind of Democrat would begrudge the president his choice of a place for much needed respite? Do I really think it makes such a difference whether — or where — he plays golf? Since when have I gotten so superficial as to elevate style over substance?
The president works wherever he goes. I know that. He needs a vacation, more than the next person. If it's his family members who are angling for the Vineyard, a place full of old friends, what's wrong with a guy who cares about his family's pleasures? In the long run, the fate of the Gulf doesn't depend on where the president plays golf.
But if you care about winning, perception matters. Politics isn't just about substance. Whether people think you care about people like them may count for more than whether you actually do. I've supported many fine candidates who cared deeply, even if the people they cared about didn't know that, and who had many excellent plans that never got put into action because they lost. Plenty of time to vacation then. Or ruminate. Or regret.
The most troubling defense of the president I've heard lately — from Democrats, I mean, ones who would tell you they understand our president better than I do — is that he really doesn't care if he ends up a one-term president. Doing the right thing is more important. He doesn't fixate on his popularity ratings because what matters are substance and accomplishment.
Is that really the way he thinks? Is that the mark of a true capital-D Democrat? I hope not.
Winning may not be the only thing, but in politics, it's the thing that makes everything else possible.
Being a one-term president is a badge of failure, not success, even if it comes by being true to your convictions. Being a one-term president means that, for the next term, someone who rejects those convictions will be making the decisions that count. How can that be a good thing?
Of course, in an ideal world, you do what you believe is right, everyone applauds, and you live happily ever after in the White House for eight wonderful years. I wish that for President Obama. I really do.
But so far, it isn't working quite that way. He has the courage of his convictions; I have no doubt of that. My question is whether he has the courage to compromise on those convictions — whether it's about matters of perception, like where to go on vacation, or matters of substance, like budgets and taxes.
The president has been truer to his word than most politicians, enacting a comprehensive stimulus package, comprehensive healthcare reform, comprehensive financial reform. History should be good to him on that score.
I am sure that is some comfort to him and to his advisers as they look at poll numbers that can only be described as pretty lousy. If only the economy were doing well, he'd be flying high. If my grandmother had wings, she would be, too — she'd be a bird.
Yes, I'm a Democrat. I'm a Democrat who can remember when we got killed on principle and when we won by compromise. Winning by compromise is definitely better. I'm a Democrat who remembers candidates who didn't give a darn about perception and those who studied it endlessly.
Give me a choice, and I know which one I'll pick. If that makes me less of a Democrat, the opposite will certainly make the party less of a force.
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