It has been an awful two decades. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan, he did not leave people feeling depressed, even hopeless. Then came four years of George H.W. Bush—an honorable man, but hardly an inspiration. And his tax and regulatory policies were largely indistinguishable from those of the Democrats.
Then we endured eight years of the Clintons. Bill was embarrassing enough, devoting perhaps too much attention to the White House intern program. This freed Hillary to spend her time attempting to socialize the medical system and punish the Clintons’ enemies. Given his nonsensical interventions and wars (Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo) and the mere presence of the atrocious Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, January 20, 2001, could not come quickly enough.
That was before President George W. Bush and his neoconservative Greek chorus took us on a glorious crusade to Mesopotamia while letting Osama bin Laden get away; before the President centralized control over education and created a vast new welfare program, the Medicare drug benefit; before the White House baptized the elections in Palestine that brought Hamas to power; before the President followed Louis XIV in declaring “L’État, c’est moi,” claiming the right to declare an American arrested in America an “enemy combatant” beyond the reach of the Constitution; and before the President and his Republican friends in Congress increased domestic spending as fast as Lyndon Johnson did.
After almost eight years of George W. Bush, who in America doesn’t hope for “change”?
Almost anyone, other than the crazy warmonger from Arizona, would offer a positive contrast to President Bush just by voicing a couple of coherent sentences. But how likely is Barack Obama to put real flesh on the promise of change and hope? Alas, the passion and eloquence with which he speaks do not make up for the absence of substance. Change from a mixed economy could just as likely mean socialism as capitalism. Change from crazed neoconservative interventionism overseas could as easily mean loopy liberal interventionism as conservative noninterventionism.
Still, a glimmer of hope remains—but only a glimmer.
Obama is no dummy. Of course, many smart presidents have done lots of dumb things. Intelligence is no bar to ideological inanity. Still, consider Bill Clinton. He did not like having to care what the financial markets thought of his economic policies, but he moderated the Democratic Party’s worst excesses to avoid ruining America’s financial reputation. That is more than we can say for George W. Bush and his “permanent Republican majority,” who together turned a budget surplus into a growing deficit.
Obama taught at the University of Chicago Law School. Granted, mere proximity to “Law and Economics” professors does not guarantee anything. But at least through osmosis he should have assimilated some rational thoughts about economics and policy. How could anyone attend the university home of Milton Friedman and not gain at least a passing appreciation for the free market?
Occasional glimpses of rational policy have peeked out from beneath the blizzard of stupid campaign promises designed to win the Democratic Party nomination. There have been hints that Obama understands the value of educational choice and genuine Social Security reform. As an Illinois state senator, he was one of the few Democrats to voice opposition to the Iraq invasion. He has offered occasional criticisms of the Bush administration’s war on civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.
And, yes, there is that basic assumption: How on earth could it get any worse? As Joe Biden reminded us, Barack Obama takes a shower, dresses well, and sounds good when he speaks. What more is needed to improve upon the present situation?
As George W. Bush so dramatically taught us, it is very dangerous to assume that things could not get worse. And there are many reasons to think that they might. First, there is the overarching hubris, the apparently sincere belief of Obama and many of his followers that he really is different from any other candidate ever to appear on an American ballot, and that he has been uniquely anointed to transform the United States. Lots of politicians have spouted lots of nonsense over the years, but Obama’s rhetoric is more silly than most.
There is also the informal, unofficial Obama campaign. He came to represent the fondest hopes and dreams of the left. That is not all bad—for the most part, the left wants us out of Iraq and denies that the executive branch has the power to imprison and torture people at will. But the left remains the left, which means big government, massive social programs, political correctness, socialized medicine and education, and more. Obama has occasionally made dissenting noises—declaring, for instance, that affirmative action should be based on class, not race. And he has sometimes double-crossed his backers, pulling back from advocating a swift withdrawal from Iraq and conceding the Bush administration’s unlawful FISA surveillance program. But his heresies almost always yield bigger, more intrusive, less lawful government.
And there is Obama’s background as a community organizer. How many community organizers really favor community over government? Many genuinely do not like public bureaucracies, but most want to seize government power, not dismantle it. And while hanging out at the University of Chicago, that bastion of libertarian thought, Obama never took the slightest step to suggest sympathy with that tradition. For an ambitious black law professor, how better to get some attention than to unveil some previously hidden right-leaning beliefs? He was either playing a very deep game—acting the lefty to win the presidency—or he has no right-leaning beliefs to flaunt.
There is his record as a state and federal legislator. The main thing we know about his Illinois service is that he worked very hard to ensure that every abortion yielded a dead baby. As for his federal time, his voting records tell us that he is the most liberal member of the Senate, though his supporters contend that this ranking unfairly reflects a number of missed votes. Even if that is true, there is no evidence to suggest that those votes would have moved him to the right of the Democratic caucus. Given the opportunity to turn his rhetoric into reality by building bipartisan coalitions and looking for unconventional solutions, he chose to stay in the liberal hive.
There also are his positions on the campaign trail. One must look long and hard to find anything that strays from statist orthodoxy. Of course, he may not believe his own rhetoric. Who really thinks that John McCain was on the road to Damascus when he recognized the importance of giving taxpayers back their money and of drilling for oil on the Outer Continental Shelf? Politicians rarely have qualms about tossing their old, unpopular positions overboard to get elected president. Obama and McCain almost certainly are the same in this regard.
Might Obama be willing to disregard his strong backing from the teachers’ unions to defend the role of parents and local communities? Might Obama tell the social-welfare lobbyists who have rendered so much help that he has decided that only private accounts can save Social Security? I won’t hold my breath. Those who are cowards when running for office rarely become heroes when holding office. And without making the case for this sort of real change during his campaign, he would lack any electoral mandate to advance such programs.
Even on foreign policy there is little reason to hope for much improvement. There would be no more Iraqs, perhaps, but Obama spoke at AIPAC and genuflected before the assembled worthies over the dire global threat posed by Iran’s nonexistent nuclear weapons. His response to Russia’s retaliation against Georgia for invading South Ossetia was McCain-lite: We have to do something, and that includes bringing Tbilisi into NATO, but we just should not be so mean to Moscow. There is not one issue—stealing Kosovo from Serbia, protecting South Korea from North Korea, dumping more foreign aid on more foreign countries—on which he differs from liberal interventionist orthodoxy. And his 300-plus foreign-policy advisors reek of discredited Clintonistas, humanitarian interventionists, and Democratic Party apparatchiks. On balance, I would prefer their foreign policy to a strategy concocted by the überneocons for crazy John McCain, but that is not much of a choice.
We have an awful lot of awful experience with politicians like Obama, and all of it offers a pessimistic vision for the future. Yes, a very small glint of hope remains. Maybe Obama is the true Manchurian Candidate, a dedicated free-market, limited-government, libertarian/paleoconservative who decided to infiltrate the liberal movement and seize control of the Democratic Party. Is that any more farfetched than the theory that George W. Bush was actually a liberal plant intended to wreck conservatism and the Republican Party?
There is still a case to be made for Obama. Bob Barr is not likely to win, and John McCain is likely to expand government power almost as far and fast as Obama would, while triggering one or more wars. But unfortunately, Obama almost certainly is what he appears to be: a liberal internationalist, interventionist, and redistributionist. Any case to be made for him is purely negative.
Can the republic survive an Obama presidency? Actually, the republic has been dead and buried for a long time. But the country likely will muddle along. If we can survive George W. Bush, we can survive anything. At least, I hope and pray we can.