Saber-rattling and domestic partisan politics

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Peggy Noonan’s recent Wall Street Journal column makes the interesting point that a sort of saber-rattling occurs in partisan politics, too.

Rather than taking partisan jabs personally (or literally), a president ought to dismiss it as political gamesmanship. (Or, the very least, a president ought not let harsh partisan rhetoric deter him from working with the other side.) But Noonan suggests that Barack Obama didn’t get the memo — and that this has cost him dearly.

Concerning the “trash-talking some Republican leaders indulged in after the 2008 campaign,” Noonan writes,

“Anyone who’d been around for a while knew the Republicans were trying to sound tough, using hyperbole to buck up the troops. It’s how they talk when they’re on the ropes. But the president and his staffers hadn’t been around for a while. They were young. They didn’t understand what they were hearing was par for the course.”

This cuts both ways. All sorts of unkind things were said about Reagan by the Democrats, as Noonan points out, but that didn’t stop him from working across the aisle with Speaker Tip O’Neill.

To be sure, times have changed, and there is little doubt bipartisanship is harder than ever. But the lesson about conflating rhetoric with action remains relevant.

And there’s also a touch of hypocrisy at play here, too. Granted, it’s not completely analogous, but liberals are usually the first to dismiss comments made by foreign leaders as “merely intended for domestic audiences.”

After all, these leaders have to pander to their base — and compared to the other options, putting up with harsh rhetoric might just be a bargain. (Conversely, conservatives are usually quick to take people at their word. After all, they reason, it’s safer to overestimate your opponent, and their intentions.)

That’s why it’s a tad ironic that, of all people, it was Obama who failed to appreciate that Republicans might just have their own internal struggles to worry about, too — that they might have to throw some red meat to their base today, in order to reach a compromise tomorrow.

Matt K. Lewis