Gibbs’ ‘inartful’ mistake

GIBBS’ ‘INARTFUL’ MISTAKE…. I was tempted to skip the story of the day, because I find the back and forth wearying. The Democrats’ progressive base gets justifiably frustrated with the pace of progress; the White House gets justifiably frustrated when the president and his team don’t get credit for their accomplishments, even from allies. This isn’t especially new, or even unique to this administration.

Nevertheless, the tensions continue to simmer, leading to foolish, preventable mistakes, which come alongside larger truths.

During an interview with The Hill in his West Wing office, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blasted liberal naysayers, whom he said would never regard anything the president did as good enough.

“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”

The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

I know why Gibbs is frustrated. I can even understand some of it. What I can’t understand is what made Gibbs think it was a good idea to complain about the left to a reporter three months before an election in which Republicans already enjoy an enthusiasm-gap edge.

Even if Gibbs is genuinely frustrated, and even if he has reason to be, where’s the upside in criticism like this, when the WH press secretary’s focus should be on President Obama’s accomplishments and Republicans’ descent into madness? Gibbs no doubt finds it deeply unhelpful when some on the left trash the White House and dampen enthusiasm of voters Democrats clearly need, but by blasting the “professional left,” Gibbs only offers additional rhetorical ammunition to those same liberals who will keep trashing the White House.

Worse, he’s painted with far too broad a brush. I suspect Gibbs’ criticism was directed, for example, at those on the left who worked with conservatives to try to kill health care reform, not those who backed health care reform but still wanted a public option. But by blasting the “professional left” broadly, Gibbs seemed to be taking a shot at his own allies.

This morning, just a few hours after The Hill story was published, Gibbs walked back his “inartful” criticism. After highlighting some of the administration’s accomplishments, he added, “In November, America will get to choose between going back to the failed policies that got us into this mess, or moving forward with the policies that are leading us out. So we should all, me included, stop fighting each other and arguing about our differences on certain policies, and instead work together to make sure everyone knows what is at stake because we’ve come too far to turn back now.”

The White House line on criticism from the left need not be difficult. Indeed, President Obama made it just last month in a video message to Netroots Nation: “What I’m asking you is to keep making your voices heard. To keep holding me accountable. To keep up the fight. Change is hard, but if we’ve learned anything these past 18 months, it’s that change is possible…. Let’s finish what we’ve started.” Gibbs’ published remarks contradicted this message in a deeply unhelpful way.

In the larger sense, something happens when the pressure’s on and the winds are moving in the other direction: some people start to lose their cool. A level head would tell Gibbs not to criticize ostensible allies on the left, even if some of the criticism is justifiable. He thinks condemnations of the White House from the left are unhelpful — and many of them are — but it’s no better when he relies on a caricature to suggest the “professional left” wants to “eliminate the Pentagon.”

If I had to guess — and admittedly, this is only a guess — Gibbs’ remarks probably weren’t part of a coordinated triangulation strategy, but rather, a moment when his emotions got the better of him. That happens sometimes; we’re human.

But for the White House, it would be wise to let this be a low point for intra-party tensions, and for it to be followed by a concerted effort to put things right. The left wants to fight the Republicans undermining the national agenda; the left wants to support an ambitious Democratic agenda; and the left wants to keep a Democratic majority on Capitol Hill.

The left, however, needs some help in making this fight happen — and making sure the fight goes well. Gibbs forgot this week just how positive a role he and the West Wing can play in leading the left/liberals/progressives/Democrats. Here’s hoping he’ll remember from now on.