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Worn-Down Wedges

Every now and then a journalist pens a piece which seems to state the obvious, but actually provides a useful summary of what really matters about things we think we all know. That's true of Politico's Jonathan Martin today, with an article entitled: "Obama skates while Right fumes."

Here's Martin's basic thesis:

Several times a month in his young presidency, Barack Obama has done things that cause conservatives to bray, using the phrase once invoked by Bob Dole, “Where’s the outrage?!”

The outrage is definitely there, in certain precincts of Republican politics. What’s notable, however, is that it mostly has stayed there — with little or no effect on Obama.

He has been blithely crossing ideological red lines and dancing on cultural third rails — the kinds of gestures that would have scorched an earlier generation of Democrats — with seeming impunity. Obama’s foes, and even some of his allies, are a bit mystified.

Martin goes on to note that Republicans have been going nuts over nearly everything the new president has been doing or saying, but it's not sticking, particularly when it comes to culturally symbolic matters. And every time the conservative base of the GOP gets lathered up over Obama words and deeds that other Americans don't find that scandalous, the Right marginalizes itself a bit more, making the next round of unechoed outrage look even stranger.

The piece quotes all sorts of folks in both parties who speculate over this pheonomenon, and some cite generational change, some cite Obama's solid personality and careful style, some cite the experience Democrats gained during the Clinton years, and still others cite the economic circumstances that make symbolic politics less evocative.

You can read it all yourself, but the question I have is less about the effect of this dynamic on Obama, than its effect on the credibility of the Republican opposition. How many times can they go to the well with wedge-politics attacks that just don't work anymore? How relevant can they be when perpetually trotting out the rhetoric of the 1990s, particularly when it's the less-than-credible spokesmen of the 1990s, like Newt Gingrich, who's hot to trot? And at a time when Republicans have no obvious national leader, who is in a position to police the cumulative party message? Certainly not RNC chairman Michael Steele, who is on permanent probation.

If, of course, Barack Obama's agenda fails to work in the real world, Republicans will get some traction in criticizing him, and maybe they'll even grow some new leadership. But right now they are giving the new administration a lot of breathing room by resorting to worn-down wedge issues, offered by worn-out politicians, to the self-destructive excitement of a whipped-up activist base that thinks Glenn Beck makes sense.

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An important element in the failure of the Republican wedge charges to "stick" is the extremely broad front on which Obama has chosen to move forward. With new initiatives begun across almost the entire range of domestic and international issues in the first 100 days, he has left the Republicans launching so many howls of outrage that they are, in effect, colliding and competing with each other.

Ask yourself: what are the top four Republican complaints this week? Last week? In the last month? If every day brings a new outrage, all one is left with is "we really, really don't like him - at all - not even a little-we really don't"

Compelling, it ain't.

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