To be a Democrat in Trump’s America is to sign on as the permanent designated driver in a nation of drunks. It’s not much fun, and there’s a permanent temptation to have a couple of rounds yourself if only to prove that you’re one of the guys. I assume that’s the rationale of a common response to Obama’s recent speech on Isis. Lots of folks who criticize him about it don’t really have an alternative to his strategy. They simply figure that it is politically necessary to do something stupid in order to appease the public. You don’t have to go balls-out Trump or Cruz. Just some infringements of the rights of Islamic Americans, just some profiling, just some terror bombing of Eastern Syria. A homeopathic dose of fascism. Surely the Muslims will understand. I’m reminded of the Constable in Fiddler on Roof who assures Tevye that the pogrom won’t be all that bad.
It’s not that politicians can ignore the visceral responses of the public. They can’t. The Hell of it isn’t that Presidents can’t afford to be morally pure—dirty hands are part of the job description and the good ones are masters at playing rope-a-dope with the idiot press. The problem is that going along with the short-term enthusiasms and panics of the public really can be a slippery slope. Obama, after all, has already made accommodations. He’s getting a great deal of heat now for the deplorable state of Libya (Benghazi!), but his participation in the campaign to oust Qaddafi was anything but enthusiastic—that’s what leading from behind is all about. It may have been worthwhile on balance to see off the dictator in that instance, but the administration knew perfectly well what it was getting in to. Public pressure, here and especially in Europe, had a thumb on the scales. I’m not privy to secrets of state, so I don’t know if the unintelligent policy of supplying arms to Syrian rebels was a similar partial surrender to political reality; but I expect it was. It’s just too easy granted the quantity of lubricant the pundits spread on the road to the bad destination. If Obama succumbs to political gravity and ends up putting substantial numbers of American soldiers on the ground against Isis, i.e., doing exactly what Isis wants us to do, he will have made a mistake that won't be the end of it but the first of many.