October 18, 2008


The Audacity of Barack Obama (Charles Kesler, 10/18/08, Real Clear Politics)

Part of the past that Obama wants to transcend is the recent history of the Democratic Party. In The Audacity of Hope, his second autobiography (focused on his Senate years, not quite two of them at that point) and the source of his most thoughtful campaign speeches, he treats the party elders respectfully, but not exactly warmly. He mentions Teddy Kennedy three times, calling him one of the Senate's best storytellers; devotes a page to Al Gore's emotions after his "precipitous fall"; and acknowledges "the Kerry people" who invited him to speak at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Obama goes out of his way to emphasize that he is a newcomer to the party who couldn't even get a floor pass to the 2000 Convention. Reflecting on the elections of 2000 and 2004, he confesses that "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago...."

Obama praises Bill Clinton more highly than any other contemporary Democrat, because Clinton recognized the staleness of the old political debate between Left and Right and came close to moving beyond it with his politics of the Third Way, which "tapped into the pragmatic, nonideological attitude of the majority of Americans." But Clinton blew it, and the author gradually lets you know it. First, he regrets Clinton's "clumsy and transparent" gestures to the Reagan Democrats, and his "frighteningly coldhearted" use of other people (e.g., "the execution of a mentally retarded death row inmate" before a crucial primary). Then Obama notes sadly that Clinton's policies--"recognizably progressive if modest in their goals"--had commanded broad public support, but that the president had never been able, "despite a booming economy," to turn that support into a governing coalition. Finally, he gently accuses Clinton of the worst offense of all: strengthening the forces of conservatism. Due to his "personal lapses" and careless triangulations that ceded more and more ground to the Right, Clinton prepared the way for George W. Bush's victory in 2000.

In his campaign speeches, Obama can't afford to be so candid--he needs Hillary and Bill's supporters, after all--but he subtly makes his point. For example, in his Acceptance Speech in Denver, the single biggest speech of the campaign, he laid at Bill Clinton's feet the oldest backhanded compliment in the books, thanking the former president "who last night made the case for change as only he can make it...." That's a disguised double insult: it reminds the discerning ear of Clinton's characteristic bloviation, and then of his political failings (when you see Clinton, you're reminded why the Democrats need Obama).

Granted, Obama holds Clinton to higher standards than he does the other party elders. Jimmy Carter, Gore, Kerry--these gentlemen lacked the political talent that Clinton squandered, in Obama's estimation, and they were innocent of political daring. Their shortcomings are palliated, to some extent, by the fact that the times were not auspicious. Still, Obama is fairly clear that if the party is to move forward it must return to earlier exemplars, and especially to its heroes who brought about major political changes lasting for a generation or more. This was the context of his comparison of Clinton to Ronald Reagan, which raised such a ruckus early in the campaign:

I do think that, for example, the 1980 election was different. I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.

The comparison of Clinton to Nixon is delicious in its own right, but Obama's larger point is that Clinton was no Reagan, partly because the times were different but mostly, as he points out in his book, because Clinton was undisciplined and conceded too much to the Right. As tokens of Obama's seriousness about fundamental political change, The Audacity of Hope mentions Franklin D. Roosevelt more often that it does any living Democratic politician; and it features a long, interesting discussion of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the political point of which is to reestablish the Democrats' claim to speak for American ideals, the touchstone of every electoral realignment.

Thus the commentators who interpret Obama as a new kind of post-partisan political figure get it exactly wrong. It's true that he wants to stop "arguing about the same ole stuff," as he told Planned Parenthood; he wants to move beyond the decades-long debate between liberalism and conservatism. Bill Clinton wished for the same thing in 1992, as did George W. Bush in 2000. The 42nd and 43rd presidents had doctrines that they hoped would precipitate this magic synthesis--the Third Way, and compassionate conservatism, respectively. What's interesting, as political scientist James W. Ceaser noted in these pages ("What a Long, Strange Race It's Been," Spring 2008), is that Obama does not feel the need for such a doctrine. Nor does John McCain. The 2008 race is taking place squarely within the familiar ideological framework of liberalism and conservatism, but with McCain promising some maverick departures from the norm (while still accepting the norm), and Obama talking up hope and the need for change. The change needed, however, is for nothing less than a full-blown electoral earthquake that will permanently shatter the 50-50 America of the past four presidential elections. He thinks liberals can get beyond the old debate by finally winning it.

For folks scared of a President Obama and Democrats in control of the Executive and both chambers of Congress, the Unicorn Rider's miscalculation here should be comforting. He's rightly terrified of being seen as a stock liberal, but rather than run on the Third Way which he lauds Bill Clinton for, he's chosen to run on nothing but identity.

If it is true that his vision of victory is that it would represent a mandate for returning to the Second Way of the '30s through the '70s, rather than a mere personal affirmation, then he would almost certainly duplicate the Clinton train wreck of '93-'94. To a degree one would not have thought possible in the modern media age, Mr. Obama has benefited from being able to stay a near complete blank, a tabla rasa upon which people project their own notions of who he is and what he'd do. Inevitably, once he is forced to do anything he is going to start disillusioning people. If when he starts to act he does so in such retrograde fashion and reveals himself to be the oldest sort of liberal he will set off the same sort of psychic dissonance that Bill Clinton did with tax hikes, gays in the military, gun control, Lani Guinier's advocacy of racial spoils, Joyceln Elders's attempts to sexualize children, Hillarycare, etc.. But, where Bill Clinton was fortunate enough to have the GOP landslide summon him back to the principles he'd initially run on, what would even a blowout in 2010 do for a Barack Obama who doesn't believe in the new politics that has dominated the Anglosphere for a couple decades now?


It’s Not Easy Bein’ Blue
: America remains a center-right nation—a fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril. (Jon Meacham, 10/27/08, NEWSWEEK)

It is easy—for some, even tempting—to detect the dawn of a new progressive era in the autumn of Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency. Eight years of Republican rule have produced two seemingly endless wars, an economy in recession, a giant federal intervention in the financial sector and a nearly universal feeling of unease in the country (86 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with how things are going, and 73 percent disapprove of the president's performance). Obama—a man who has yet to complete his fourth year in the United States Senate—is leading John McCain, and Democrats may gain seats on Capitol Hill. In 2007, the Pew Research Center published a 112-page report subtitled "Political Landscape More Favorable to Democrats," and the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 55 percent believe Obama's views are neither too liberal nor too conservative but are "about right."

But history, as John Adams once said of facts, is a stubborn thing, and it tells us that Democratic presidents from FDR to JFK to LBJ to Carter to Clinton usually wind up moving farther right than they thought they ever would, or they pay for their continued liberalism at the polls. Should Obama win, he will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal—a perennial reality that past Democratic presidents have ignored at their peril. A party founded by Andrew Jackson on the principle that "the majority is to govern" has long found itself flummoxed by the failure of that majority to see the virtues of the Democrats and the vices of the Republicans.

The pattern has deep roots. FDR had a longish run (from 1933 to 1937), but he lost significant ground in the 1938 midterm elections and again in the largely forgotten wartime midterms of 1942. After he defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964, LBJ had only two years of great success (Ronald Reagan won the California governorship in 1966) before Vietnam, and the white backlash helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968. Jimmy Carter lasted only a term, and Bill Clinton's Democrats were crushed in the 1994 elections. The subsequent success of his presidency had as much to do with reforming welfare and managing the prosperity of the technology boom as it did with advancing traditional Democratic causes. [...]

According to the NEWSWEEK Poll, nearly twice as many people call themselves conservatives as liberals (40 percent to 20 percent), and Republicans have dominated presidential politics—in many ways the most personal, visceral vote we cast—for 40 years. Since 1968, Democrats have won only three of 10 general elections (1976, 1992 and 1996), and in those years they were led by Southern Baptist nominees who ran away from the liberal label. "Is this a center-right country? Yes, compared to Europe or Canada it's obviously much more conservative," says Adrian Wooldridge, coauthor of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" and Washington bureau chief of the London-based Economist. "There's a much higher tolerance for inequality, much greater cultural conservatism, a higher incarceration rate, legalized handguns and greater distrust of the state."

The terms we use in discussing politics and culture can be elusive and elastic. The conservative label is often applied to people of all sorts and conditions: libertarians, evangelical Christians, tax cutters, military hawks. (There are just as many, if not more, varieties of liberal.) But in broad strokes I mean "conservative" in the way most of us have come to use it in recent decades: to describe those who value custom over change, who worry about the erosion of the familiar and the expansion of the state, and who dislike those who appear condescending about matters of faith, patriotism and culture. (In other words, think of figures ranging from Edmund Burke to Thomas Jefferson to David Brooks to Sarah Palin. It is an eclectic crew.)

The argument I am making—that we are at heart a right-leaning country skeptical of government once a crisis that requires government has passed—is probably going to look dumb, or at least out of step, for many months to come.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2008 6:11 PM
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