Sunday, July 3, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Know Thyself

If the current debate over the debt ceiling reveals anything it's that Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, are either a lot less able or a lot less willing to enunciate their governing priorities than Republicans.  That presents us with one more occasion to ask ourselves whether Democrats are keeping their priorities to themselves for tactical reasons or whether they're so flummoxed by the present state of the political economy that they've lost track of what their priorities are.  This post from 10/21/10 reminds us that this isn't the first time that we've had to ask ourselves this question:

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 ascendancy. 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 Reagan-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 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. The president 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 and most insistent politiking ever to see the light of day, saying this about himself with a straight face (my emphasis):
“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.”
Has there ever been a president with so much intellectual candle power and so little evident self-awareness?

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