Kabuki is defined as a highly stylized form of classical Japanese dance-drama in which actors often wear elaborate makeup and engage in precisely dictated movements, a useful metaphor for the current American political process which can't seem to break out of old patterns even as the nation hurtles from crisis to crisis.
Although Barack Obama won the presidency on a platform of "change" - and millions of Americans are tired of Washington's destructive habits - U.S. politicians, the news media and significant parts of the electorate refuse to transform how they have operated over the past several decades.
Like a kabuki performance locked in a stale past, the various players interact in predictable ways, moving about each other with elaborate yet tiresome maneuvers: the Republicans and the right-wing media posturing as bullies, the Democrats cowering in fear, the mainstream press obsessed with the superficial, and many on the Left carping from the fringes.
A good example of how this kabuki continues to play out was in the criticism of President Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.
His judgment - though shared by former President George W. Bush and key members of that administration - was viewed by Republicans and right-wing talk radio as an inviting new "wedge" issue. They sounded the alarm about the supposed danger of transferring detainees to U.S. super-max prisons or resettling some, like the Chinese Uighurs, who have been judged no threat to the United States.
As the "not in my backyard" furor built - and some Americans panicked over scary fantasies about Islamic terrorists breaking out of super-max prisons and roaming the countryside - congressional Democrats retreated rather than stand their ground. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid joined a 90-6 vote in deleting $80 million that Obama had requested for closing down Guantanamo.
The U.S. press corps also bought into the Republican exaggerations of dangers - much as occurred in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. The New York Times again played a key role with a misleading May 21 article touting a Pentagon report done in the last month of the Bush administration claiming that one in seven of 534 previously released Guantanamo prisoners had "returned to jihad."
The evidence in the report turned out to be flimsy - with a later examination by two terrorism experts putting the percentage of former detainees later connected to violent activities at about one in 25, not one in seven.
"Bizarrely, the Defense Department has in the past even lumped into the recidivist category former prisoners who have done no more than criticize the United States after their release," analysts Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann wrote in an op-ed.
Nevertheless, the fear-mongering worked. Former Vice President Dick Cheney's complaints about Obama putting America at risk were treated with respect by the U.S. news media despite Cheney's long history of exaggerating and misrepresenting terror threats. The press billed the dueling addresses by Obama and Cheney on May 21 as a heavyweight match-up.
For his part, Obama appeared defensive, reacting to the harsh attacks from "no-middle-ground" Cheney and other right-wingers.
"My single most important responsibility as president is to keep the American people safe," Obama said in his May 21 speech. Using a passage reminiscent of former President Bush, Obama added: "That is the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It is the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night."
Like many Democrats before him, Obama avoided hard truth-telling: that the American people must show courage today as their forebears have done so many times in the past, that the United States must never be a nation of cowards ready to trade its founding principles of freedom for cheap -- and likely empty -- promises of greater security. Instead he talked of a new program for "prolonged detentions" without trials.
Yet, as the Democratic congressional leadership cowered and Obama wavered, the kabuki played out predictably.
As New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted, "the déjà vu in the news media was even more chilling. ... Most of the punditocracy scored the fight on a curve, setting up a false equivalence between the men's ideas. Cheney's pugnacious certitude edged out Obama's law-professor nuance." [NYT, May 31, 2009]
Despite last year's election results - and despite the news media's abject failures during the Bush years - the Washington press corps remains remarkably stagnant. With only a few exceptions, the media is dominated by the same talking heads on TV, the same high-profile commentators in the Washington Post and other major newspapers, the same neocon alarmists and talking-point political strategists.
As with the terror debate, the kabuki also is playing out in Obama's Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor as Republicans and right-wingers yank some quotes out of context to denounce her as a "racist," leading Obama and other Democrats to start backtracking and pleading with the Right to be nice.
The Kabuki's Origin
Essentially, today's Washington kabuki was set in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the rise of the right-wing media and the political clout of the Reagan-era Republicans. Those forces went on the offensive and made it clear that anyone who got in their way would be smeared as a "blame-America-firster," become a target of 30-second attack ads for politicians, or face accusations about "liberal bias" for journalists.
As the right-wing media grew and the Republicans became more powerful, many Democrats and most mainstream journalists learned that to survive they had to accept their assigned roles. Democrats became practiced at apologizing, equivocating and seeking accommodation; mainstream journalists mastered the skill of bending over backwards to appease the Right.
In that sense, the early Obama era continues to look a lot like the early Clinton era. In 1992, the voters also reacted to a recession by handing the government to the Democrats, but Clinton and other Democratic leaders then shunned any serious investigations of past Republican crimes, saw their extended hand of bipartisanship swatted away, and soon were cowering again in the face of GOP belligerence and the right-wing media's scandal-mongering.
By then, the mainstream news media knew its role, too. Tired of right-wing accusations about "liberal bias," the major news outlets, included the New York Times and the Washington Post, chose to be tougher on a Democratic administration than they had been on Republicans, especially during the Reagan era when the national press corps did its best to look the other way on Iran-Contra, Iraq-gate, contra-cocaine trafficking, etc., etc.
By contrast, the U.S. news media transformed even minor "scandals" about Bill Clinton, like his Whitewater real estate investment and some firings at the White House travel office, into breathless front-page news.
The American Left also played its own negative role, albeit a mostly passive one, by avoiding any significant investment in media infrastructure - opting to excoriate the "corporate press" - and telling voters that there was "not a dime's worth of difference" between Al Gore and George W. Bush when the two faced off in 2000.
After eight disastrous years of President Bush - and another nasty recession -- American voters again threw the Republicans out of the White House and elected a strong Democratic majority in Congress. President Obama also made clear that he intended to be a transformational leader who would address many of the deep systemic problems that three decades of Republican dominance had left behind.
But the U.S. political/media system remained remarkably static. With the exceptions of Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and MSNBC's experimentation with a few liberal hosts during its evening hours - and some under-funded Web sites and radio outlets - the American media still functions under the old rules, with an inordinate amount of time and space given to Republicans despite their weak minority status.
If anything, Fox News and right-wing talk radio have escalated their rhetoric; CNN, the Washington Post and other "centrist" outlets have pandered to Republican voices; and the premier business network CNBC behaves as if its treasured "free-market paradigm" had not been shattered by the ruinous behavior of Wall Street banks and major corporations, like AIG and GM.
But this pro-Republican bent of much of the news media had a predictable impact. Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration shied away from confrontations, refusing to hold the Bush administration accountable for its crimes and playing defense, whether in foreign affairs ("weak on terror") or on economic policy ("socialist!").
The American Left also stayed true to form, still unwilling to engage seriously in the political/media process. As it did during the Clinton-Gore years, the Left spends its energies criticizing Democratic failures (a reprise of the Bush-Gore "not a dime's worth of difference" chant) rather than investing in and building media and other institutions that might help change the dynamic.
So, more than four months into the Obama era - with the United States staggering through a major economic crisis and with global challenges mounting - the political/media kabuki continues.
The same ornately costumed characters - snarling Republicans, angry right-wingers, cringing Democrats, careerist media personalities and an ineffectual Left - maneuver around each other in a stylistically choreographed dance of national failure.