Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Stand[ing] Athwart History, Yelling Stop"

“Let’s face it: Unlike Vienna, it seems altogether possible that did NATIONAL REVIEW not exist, no one would have invented it. The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that, of course; if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
These admirably self-conscious words from William F. Buckley appeared in one of the founding documents of movement conservatism, the inaugural edition of National Review published in 1955. I’m reminded of them because Buckley’s irony presents an interesting contrast to what influential liberals are saying about Obama’s speech about the deficit.

It’s been a long time since Obama’s words generated euphoria in liberal circles. Now liberals are grateful just for the opportunity to take some quiet satisfaction in what Obama says. Hendrik Hertzberg’s rave review of yesterday’s speech, entitled “Obama Cuts his Rhetorical Deficit,” captures the present mood:
“By the time the President got to his own four-step proposal, which calls for higher taxes on the rich (euphemized as lowering “spending through the tax code”) the Republican alternative was a smoking ruin. Given the position his own reluctance, until now, to stake out a clear ideological divide had left him in, Obama succeeded in constructing a reasonably solid fortification for the fiscal battles to come. Even Paul Krugman was pleased. Me, too."
Hertzberg’s title is perfect because what's pleasing him isn't so much what Obama proposes to do about the deficit—that only merits a single subordinate clause in the piece—but what Obama managed to say about it. Hertzberg's breathing easier because he's decided that, by “stak[ing] out a clear ideological divide,” Obama recovered some of the rhetorical ground that was lost to Republicans when Paul Ryan introduced his budget.  That's enough to evoke Hertzberg's contented sigh of relief.

When you look a little more closely at his equivocal martial metaphors, however, you can detect the repressed recognition that Obama's bravado masks a surrender of ideological ground. Yes, the President went on the rhetorical offensive, but only to “construct[] a reasonably solid fortification” to help him play defense on the field of public policy. Generally speaking, you don't reduce an enemy asset to a "smoking ruin" by retreating to a secure bunker.  That should remind us that the political battle raging here between Obama and Republicans, and more urgently in Europe, isn’t about whether to roll back longstanding progressive public policy ambitions, but by how much.

The sad fact is that, when it comes to the current debate over the size and scope of the welfare state, Paul Ryan isn’t the guy standing athwart history yelling stop! That irony is lost entirely on Hertzberg and the progressive community. They’d do a better a job of defending the cause of social and economic equality against conservative aggression if it wasn’t.

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