Thursday, October 21, 2010

Know Thyself

Democrats’ dire prospects in the coming election have George Packer taking stock of the sad state of liberalism. After the last election, he was rhapsodizing about the intellectually vigorous “new liberalism” that was growing into the space in our political culture vacated by intellectually exhausted conservatism. In his eyes, Obama personified that ideological ascendency.  Now Packer concedes that he was letting hope triumph over experience (my emphasis):
"As for 'The New Liberalism' [the title of a piece Packer published back in 2008], a question mark at the end would have been more prudent. We’ve seen several pieces of landmark legislation, including the most important social reform since the Great Society, health care, which is also the first significant blow to economic inequality since the trend started in the late seventies. But there’s no new or revived ism to sustain the values and ideas behind these achievements. Obama has no larger movement behind him; the one he had ended on election night. After all the analysis of his political flaws and tactical mistakes (I’ve engaged in this cheap spectator sport myself), here is the heart of his political weakness. F.D.R. had the labor movement; L.B.J. had the civil-rights movement. Obama had Obama for America. His campaign was based on the man more than any set of ideas or clear vision of the future. Everyone knew what Reaganism stood for. No one knows what Obamaism means, which has allowed his enemies to fill in the blank.
The comparison between the ideological transparency of Reaganism and Obamaism warrants some attention. Note the equivocation in Packer's last sentence. The “everyone” who knew what Reaganism stood for encompassed not only Reaganite conservatives but the liberals who opposed Reaganism. Yet when Packer says that “[n]o one knows what Obamaism stands for,” he can only be speaking for himself and his liberal comrades. Otherwise Obama’s enemies couldn't have been so successful “filling in the blank.”

No conservative will have any trouble believing, and telling you in no uncertain terms, that Obamaism is just the latest incarnation of the “tax-and-spend liberalism” they’ve been deploring for thirty years. It's looking in this election season like they’ve persuaded a lot of non-conservative voters that they may be right. Obama himself conceded as much when he acknowledged that he has “let himself look too much like ‘the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.’”

If liberals are having a hard time deciphering the meaning of “Obamaism,” it’s a failure of self-consciousness. You might even say that Obama personifies that failure. He never tires of putting his intellectual dexterity on display.  Given half a chance, he'll bend your ear off telling you about the nuances of public policy. His painfully deliberate decision-making process (think of the escalation in the Afghanistan war) admirably leaves no policy alternative unexamined, but seldom yields an unequivocal decision. After you’ve heard Obama say that so many things are his “top priority,” you can be excused for wondering whether he has any well-articulated priorities at all.

Try imagining any of Obama’s predecessors, after selling his agenda unremittingly for two years while he was presiding over some of the ugliest legislative sausage-making ever to see the light of day, saying this about himself with a straight face:
“Given how much stuff was coming at us . . . we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular.”
Obama owes a lot of his political success to the fact that, when he bounded onto the national political stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he was the spitting image of the face modern liberals longed to see when they looked in the mirror.  Has there ever been a president with so much intellectual candle power and so little self-awareness?  


Anonymous said...

George Bush was sooooo self-conscious!

Mean Voter said...

It's funny. I thought George Bush was the opposite of self-conscious. Oh well - different people notice different things.

As to Obama's "intellectual dexterity" and "candle power," I think it's overrated in a president. I'd trade a few IQ points for common sense.

Ron Replogle said...

Anon.: Let's not confuse Bush's being self-conscious enough to have priorities with our approving of them. Take enhanced interrogation. Whatever you think about his conclusions, Bush submitted to enough self-examination to determine to his own satisfaction that preventing terrorist attacks was important enough to step right up to the line separating permissible interrogation from impermissible torture (according to his implausibly agressive legal theory about where that line is). It was impossible to doubt that Bush knew what his priorities were, or that he was consciously giving them effect by signing executive orders permitting the waterboarding of three prisoners.

When Obama turns to the subject of enhanced interrogation all we get is fatuous rhetoric about rejecting the "false choice" between our security and our ideals along with a continuation of Bush's interrogation policies after he'd stopped waterboarding people. That might be because Obama really believes the absurd proposition that our ideals and our national security interests never come into conflict. Or maybe he really has figured out what his priorities are when tradeoffs need to be made but has decided not to reveal them for political or strategic reasons. I sincerely hope that's the case but I'm really not sure that it is. Are you?