Monday, October 17, 2011

Presidents, Near-Presidents and Conviction Politicians

Greg Sargent is just one informed observer reporting that Obama will be running against Wall Street in 2012:
“Whose side is the GOP on, yours or Wall Street’s? With Occupy Wall Street snowballing, it’s looking increasingly like that question will be at the center of the Obama/Dem message in 2012. Republicans plan to build their campaign around the question Ronald Reagan famously posed — are you better off now than you were four years ago? If the answer to that question is “No,” as Obama himself has admitted, Obama and Dems are increasingly embracing a sharp populist argument that directly faults Wall Street for that state of affairs, unabashedly positions Wall Street as the antagonist, and charges that the GOP is Wall Street’s number one enabler.”
Maybe this will work, but you've got to admire the chutzpah. If it does work it will be because voters either have very short memories or don’t much care about a presidential candidate’s ideological authenticity. Perhaps voters will have forgotten by Election Day how much money Obama raked in from Wall Street in 2008, all the people with intimate Wall Street connections he appointed to high-ranking administration positions (Geithner, Summers, Emanuel, Daley et al.) and all the times he pulled his punches against Wall Street in 2009-10 (the latest Ron Suskind book is a good way to refresh your recollection on that score).

Then again, maybe voters do remember such things but don’t hold them against a presidential candidate. You’d certainly get that impression from watching how things are developing on the Republican side of the presidential campaign. That party is supposed to be beholden to its Tea Party wing.  Yet it’s looking more likely every day that Republican primary voters who viscerally loathe ObamaCare are ready to credit Mitt Romney’s promise that the father of RomneyCare is just the guy to get it repealed.

We all know the difference between conviction politicians and political operators. The former are esteemed by their ideological comrades because they have the doctrinal ballast to chart a steady course on a range of political issues despite stiff political crosswinds. In the Republican congressional caucus you have people like Jim DeMint, Paul Ryan and Michelle Bachmann, in the Democratic caucus you have people like Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank and Tom Harkin. (This isn’t the time to contemplate the immensely important fact that the Republican Party’s conviction politicians are young and rising while the Democratic Party’s are old and decrepit.) None of these people are easy to confuse with, say, Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid. It takes both conviction politicians and ideologically flexible operators to make our political world go round.  Obama and Romney shouldn't be confused with conviction politicians.

But ask yourself this: what conviction politician has gotten close to winning a major party’s presidential nomination since Barry Goldwater sneaked through as a Republican insurgent in 1964? Granted, Ronald Reagan is one (although straight-laced conservatives could have found lots to detest about his record as Governor of California, like signing the most permissive state abortion law in the nation). But try naming another politician who secured a major-party presidential nomination without undergoing a pretty substantial eleventh-hour ideological conversion.

George W. Bush got reelected as a neo-conservative warrior determined to stay the course in Iraq, but he got elected as a foreign policy realist in the mold of his father promising a humble foreign policy. John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon? Operators all.  Same thing on the Democratic side: John Kerry was an ex-Vietnam war protester suddenly reporting for duty with a chest full of medals to wipe away the stain of his vote against the Gulf War; Al Gore ran for president as the most conservative Democratic candidate in 1988, only to start the championing the interests of the “the people against the powerful” in 2000; Clinton changed his stripes dramatically between 1994 and 1996; Dukakis . . . you get the point.

None of these people, I submit, were distinguished by their ideological authenticity.  Generally speaking, you don't get to be a major party presidential nominee without having occupied either an executive position or a leadership position in a legislative body.  Both sorts of jobs require their occupants to take their share of ideologically impure positions.  Conviction politicians make great legislative backbenchers, but they affect presidential elections mostly by inducing ideologically inauthentic presidential candidates to pander to them.    That helps explain why, for all their ideological slipperiness, all the presidential contenders I've referenced above managed to present the electorate in a general presidential election with a pretty substantial choice between alternative approaches to government.

As things now stand, the 2012 general election is shaping up as another orgy of ideological inauthenticity, a contest between candidates with few verifiable convictions pitching poll-tested narratives. The only surprising thing about it is how many people seem to be surprised.

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