Paul Greenberg

You knew it was going to be an exhilarating election night when among the early victors in Florida was a retired lieutenant colonel by the name of Allen West. He was declared the winner in his race for Congress against one of the best-funded Democrats in the House.

What his critics used against him -- an incident in his long and proud military career that caused him to be disciplined -- only endeared him to some of us. And explained why a lot of folks outside Florida were rooting for him.

It seems that in August of 2003, in Taji, Iraq, the colonel was interrogating an Iraqi prisoner who had information about an imminent attack on the colonel's unit. Figuring that all the prisoner needed was a little encouragement, Col. West punctuated his questions by firing his sidearm. He only fired it into the air, but that was enough to make the prisoner, a fast learner, remarkably cooperative. The information was promptly provided and the lives of who knows how many of his troopers saved.

That's not the end of the story. There's always the disciplinary hearing. At his, in December of that year, the colonel offered no apologies for his actions. Indeed, he said he'd do the same thing all over again if he had to. As he put it, "If it's about the lives of my soldiers at stake, I'd go through Hell with a gasoline can."

Any objections? Not from most of the voters in Florida's 22nd Congressional District. He won his election handily.

Incidental intelligence: Allen West is the first black Republican congressman from Florida since Reconstruction, a hopeful sign that black Americans are learning not to put all their support in just one party's basket.

The whole of Election Day was like that -- an experience in shattering stereotypes. Next morning, taking my bike ride, a working man leaning up against his pick-up must have recognized me by the picture that runs at the top of this column. "How 'bout them elections?" he shouted.

"Yes-s-s-s!" I affirmed, the way I'd learned to do at black church services.

"Right!" I heard him shout as I pedaled on.

So much for the myth about working people not rooting for Republicans.

Barack Obama isn't the first president to get a thumpin' a couple of years after enjoying a landslide victory. He joins a long and distinguished line, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. ... It's not just a pattern for a president's party to suffer a midterm setback, it's just about an American tradition.

The defeat doesn't matter as much as how the president reacts to it. Does he go into a funk or adapt? This president would do well to have a nice long talk with a former president who learned from his midterm shellacking -- Bill Clinton -- and wound up working with the opposition, not just denouncing it. The result can be real progress. In Bill Clinton's case, it was welfare reform and balanced budgets. And, oh, yes, a second presidential term.

In Barack Obama's case, the only fault this president seems able to find with his leadership is that he's failed to communicate his truly great accomplishments to us rubes, aka We the People.

This president could learn a lot from Bill Clinton. "The era of big government is over," the Comeback Kid proclaimed after the Democratic debacle of 1994. He sounded like a president properly bashed and abashed -- and, most impressive, able to learn from defeat. There's still time for Mr. Obama to follow suit. Bill Clinton could teach him a thing or invaluable two about how to bounce back from midterm rejection.

Happily, as this president well knows, Mr. Clinton always has time to talk politics. Endlessly. The challenge for Barack Obama will be not how to start the conversation but how to end it.

This wasn't Bill Clinton's best election, either. He was less the Great Campaigner than a political version of Joe Btfsplk, the Al Capp character who walks around with a perpetual rain cloud over his head, leaving disaster wherever he treads.

Every race Bill Clinton touched in Arkansas this fall, all five of them, seemed to go Republican. Right here in Arkansas, his old stomping grounds, too. All he had to do was campaign for a good Democrat like Blanche Lincoln, the two-term U.S. senator who's just lost her bid for a third, and down they went.

Those vaunted coattails of Bill Clinton in his home state proved not just short but nonexistent. Maybe his seal of approval didn't hurt, but it didn't help overmuch, either. The magic was gone. Maybe he excited the base, as the political buffs say, but the base he excited most may have been the Republican one

Savvy pols like Blanche Lincoln knew enough not to invite Barack Obama to campaign for them, not this year, not around here. They must not have realized that an appearance by Bill Clinton on their behalf would portend disaster.

If an observer will stick around to watch enough American elections, he'll find that one scripture applies to almost every analysis of the returns:

How the mighty have fallen.

It's well known that American progressives, formerly known as liberals, love the common man -- his homespun virtues and salt-of-the-earth wisdom. But just let Mr. Common Man show a little independence in a midterm election, rear up and vote Republican, and suddenly he's transformed into somebody too stupid to know his own best interests.

To kneejerk progressives, formerly kneejerk liberals, these election results proved only how ignorant and feckless, shiftless and ungrateful, dumb and disloyal the masses are. These political "analysts" bring to mind the kind of masters who were always complaining about their slaves back on the old plantation.

To quote from the wit and wisdom of Barack Obama, people just don't think straight at times -- i.e., think like him. For "facts and science and argument (don't) seem to be winning the day ... because we're hard-wired not to always think clearly when we're scared." -- Barack Obama, October 16, 2010. Instead, as he put it during his presidential campaign, Americans grow bitter and "cling to their guns or religion," the poor yokels.

At such all too revealing moments, our president sounds less interested in leading us than in examining us, as if we were some alien life form on an examining table. Condescension, thy name is Barack Obama.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.