If you've nothing to say, it's not a good idea to spend 54 minutes saying it.
After listening to President Barack Obama's much ballyhooed speech on the economy in Cleveland on June 14, Peggy Noonan wrote: "Politicians give 54-minute speeches when they don't know what they're trying to say."
The consensus among even liberal journalists was that the president said nothing new, little that was true, and droned on for much too long.
"Instead of going to Ohio on Thursday with a compelling plan for the future, the president gave Americans a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy," wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.
Though few others demonstrate it at such length, it's not just the president who has run out of substantive things to say. For all but a handful of liberals, invective has replaced argument. Columbia Law School professor Jerome Michael explained why years ago:
"If the facts are on your side, pound the facts," Mr. Michael advised his students. "If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table."
Liberals pound the table chiefly because Obama administration policies are such conspicuous failures that they can't be defended with facts or logic. All liberals can hope to do is to change the subject.
There's another, darker reason liberals rely so much upon name-calling. Democrats generally, Mr. Obama in particular, have been influenced by Saul Alinsky, the Chicago Marxist and pioneer community organizer. The most famous of his Rules for Radicals (1971) is: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."
Democrats have followed that rule faithfully, with considerable success. But they've become like a football team that runs the same play over and over, without regard to down or distance.
As the political outlook for them has darkened, Democrats and their allies in the news media have escalated their rhetoric:
• Opposing the Obama administration's effort to require religious institutions to include what they think is morally wrong in their health insurance policies constitutes "a Republican war on women."
• Supporting efforts to boost domestic energy production means Republicans "hate clean air and clean water," and are "getting away with murder."
• Requiring voters to produce photo identification means Republicans "want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws." Any criticism of any kind of the president or his attorney general is "racist."
Becoming more shrill can make an argument less effective. But liberals can't think of anything else to say. That happens when you are morally and intellectually bankrupt.
To be a liberal in the Age of Obama requires extraordinary flexibility of principle:
• Big budget deficits were terrible when George W. Bush was president, but the much larger deficits run up by Mr. Obama are of no concern.
• When Mr. Bush bugged the telephones of terrorists overseas without getting permission from the courts, an "imperial presidency" loomed. But there is nothing to fret about when Mr. Obama asserts the power to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism without a trial or even an indictment.
• It's OK to leak national secrets if it will make the president look good. But if documents sought by Congress might make him look bad, the president should claim executive privilege.
Keeping up with the twists and turns in the party line can be exhausting. But the greater problem for liberals is intellectual exhaustion. Our self-styled "progressives" look only backward -- to ideas that are more than a century old, were put into practice half a century ago, and have failed for decades to produce the results liberals promised.
Their model of governance has failed, but liberals won't acknowledge it. They want to cling to power. But liberals have no answers for the mammoth problems we face today -- problems largely of their creation -- except to do more of what got us into this mess.
Not many Americans find that attractive, liberals realize. So they pound the table.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1476. First Published June 29, 2012 4:00 PM