The classic modern American political debate calls for timid Democrats to temporize on their real beliefs and for dishonest Republicans to attack them anyway for ever having harbored the ideas on which theyre timidly temporizing.
That way the Democrats manage to offend both their liberal base by downplaying what they really believe and conservatives for really believing what theyre downplaying.
So we end up with Democrats separated from their souls while Republicans spout easy slogans.
You want examples? Here is one in two words: Health care.
Democrats ran away from the public option to pass a bill that actually delivered millions of new customers to a private industry. Republicans cried government health care, anyway, and even socialized medicine.
Actually, though, we have a fresher example, from Tuesday night, when President Obama tried and mostly failed to get serious and dramatic and tough on the oil spill with a rare Oval Office address, not his best venue.
He tried to make a case for using the horror of the oil spill as an impetus for moving boldly on energy reform to get us weaned from oil and fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
Obama noted that the U.S. House of Representatives had passed his climate bill, which was euphemistic for that cap-and-trade measure by which, quite sensibly, our large emitters would have to pay more for dirty carbon emissions than for clean ones.
But instead of then calling on the balking U.S. Senate to get on board with what amounts to a carbon tax, he shrank from his own shadow and from the very notion of a carbon tax. He said he would welcome somebody elses different idea so long as it didnt give up the noble fight for energy independence and cleanliness.
So how did that play? Not well.
Liberals were angered that their own president wouldnt absolutely commit to a basic precept of his yes, we can candidacy two years ago. They asked: How can we pass something if we run from it?
Republicans? From Michael Steele to John Boehner to the pliant right-wing punditocracy, they simply ignored the retreat and clung to the talking point that what Obama really would like to do is put a carbon tax on industry that would kill jobs and be passed on to consumers.
Implicit in this Republican message is that Obama would get cap-and-trade done if it werent for the brave filibuster of Republicans, though, in truth, its Obamas own coal-state Democrats who keep cap-and-trade from passing.
And it was his own coal-state Democrats he was protecting by backing off.
Obama didnt want to put them on the spot. So he suggested that somebody offer some other idea, as if the purpose of our political institutions was to work together to solve problems.
The Republicans benefited as always from crafty sloganeers and quipsters, who said that what we needed to do was cap the well, not cap-and-trade.
It was too good a line not to use even if it wasnt quite relevant.
It seems that Obama more fears criticism for losing a legislative vote than he fears the dire effect of abandoning policies that he and the base of his party believe to be best.
On health care, he wanted to pass a bill. Just a bill. Cap-and-trade is the public option of energy reform.
We may get an energy bill with some soft, unambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions. Some liberals are talking about what they call a direct carbon tax, rather than this cap with a price penalty that effectively amounts to the same thing, but thats starting to remind me of the opt-out, opt-in alternatives on a public health insurance option. The Republicans will manage to wage their assault, anyway, mostly on the basis of what Democrats actually would do if they had any nerve.
And the great American political battle will go on between Democrats and their shadow, and between the timid center and the sloganeering right.
John Brummett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock.