To no one’s surprise, a few feverish days of the unprecedented—establishment media organizations beating up on Barack Obama’s leadership—are already giving way to a series of smart, nicely reasoned analyses of why the IRS/DOJ/Benghazi revelations are not genuinely scandal-worthy. (See Ezra Klein and Noam Scheiber for some of the best representative samples, and Charles Blow for one of the more in-the-tank ones). And the early revisionists are right, as I acknowledged in my previous posting, that these fiascoes have little in common with the substance of Watergate, and its nest of garden variety obstructions of justice, as well as the obviously critical distinction that Richard Nixon was caught directing those obstructions from his presidential desk, while Obama is by every account a sidelines bystander.
But it’s worth making several rejoinders to the budding “much ado about nothing” narrative. The first is that if the standard for comparison is not the most discredited president in my lifetime, but a random Fortune 500 company, that Obama’s administration struggles mightily with the threshold concept of accountability.
Three examples: (1) how does a Department of Justice with any measure of historical memory sign off on such a sweeping dragnet of reporter phone records, especially with nothing more at stake than ferreting out how the AP learned an obscure detail that compromised no ongoing investigations? Even allowing for the obvious, that Attorney Generals have no business discussing with presidents the content of secret subpoenas, the presidentially selected leadership at DOJ seemed weirdly clueless about the depth of the breach into reportorial work product. In fact, so clueless that it reflected an indifference to the axiom of any investigation that what is on paper will inevitably surface and have to be defended in a public or judicial context.
(2) When the hierarchy of the IRS learned that lower level bureaucrats were mixing political criteria with scrutiny of tax returns, what is it about the culture of this executive branch that kept that information from filtering up to Congress or to more senior officials at the Treasury Department or the White House? Why didn’t evidence of political censorship by tax officials stand out as the kind of thing Obama, or at least his senior staff or his Attorney General, might want to know?
(3) Even if one buys the rationalization that Benghazi was only so much internecine backbiting between two old rivals, the State Department and CIA, that rationalization entirely omits the evidence that a career diplomat was punished for raising internal questions about security in advance of the Libyan attack, as well as about the unofficial chronicle, or “talking points”, regarding what led to the assault. What kind of leadership is oblivious to the immediate fortunes of a reasonably high ranking whistleblower? Also, is it defensible that the White House distanced itself from the details to the point that it permitted the frontrunner to succeed Hillary Clinton at the State Department to offer a public accounting that numerous sources within the government thought wouldn’t hold up?
The emerging argument, which seems to be that the Obama White House was detached enough to rely on the expertise of its department heads to resolve the dilemmas around each event in the current spotlight, would sound strained even if it came during a presidency that was famously disengaged. That is not this White House, which has rolled its own Environmental Protection Agency when it felt like it and is in court justifying its efforts to stack the National Labor Relations Board. More fundamentally, the “we left it to our division heads defense” would not excuse any executive leadership in the public or private sector from the imperative of setting values and standards of conduct for decisions made inside the organization’s own walls, and policing the extent to which those standards survive.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that at a minimum, if you credit its defense, that this government seems more rudderless than could have been imagined eleven days ago. So much so, that poaching on journalist’s phone records, targeting political enemies for potential tax audits, and offering up dubious factual claims about the murder of four Americans all got dismissed as so much background administrative noise. And, of course, it is altogether plausible to draw a bleaker set of conclusions—namely, that there is actually very much an understood code of conduct in Obama’s regime to the effect that ends too brutally justify means, and that the superior motives of Team Obama disqualify criticism as nit-picking or partisan second-guessing.
Meanwhile, Obama’s defenders are glossing over an element of the IRS/phone records controversies that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The roughly 45 percent of the country that has consistently been hostile to the president is now armed with new corroboration about their fears of intrusive government and constitutional overreach, and it does not take right wing paranoia for them to wonder what other stones are due to be turned over.
The left’s tendency to dismiss this backlash as nothing more consequential than the anger of confirmed Obama haters will make conservatives apoplectic but it ought to serve as something else: a reminder of how much the liberal case for Obama’s effectiveness as president differs from the case in the Democratic primaries for nominating him in the first place, over the more experienced Hillary Clinton. Five or so years ago, the Obama rationale was an unabashed argument that he would transcend conventional political lines and restore some sense of national unity after the country had become strained and polarized after two decades of Clinton/Bush battles. What’s left of that loftiness is a drumbeat that, on second thought, the polarization hasn’t gone anywhere, that Republicans are meaner than ever, and that Obama has no real choice but to drive the knife into the right until it bleeds out.
Perhaps, as James Carville predicts, not one of this fortnight’s disclosures will exist 30 days from now outside the Fox/conservative talk radio universe. But it shouldn’t be because Obama has succeeded in not being Richard Nixon. It ought to matter that while this White House may not have staged a third rate burglary, it is starting to look more and more like the chaos of a third rate, flailing company.
No, the Obama Administration’s disaster of a week is not Watergate. Not unless Barack Obama is found scheming with his aides about how to pay “hush money” to witnesses. Not unless the foraging of journalists’ phone logs included eavesdropping with wiretaps. No unless revelations surface that Obama ordered a federal agency to shut down a criminal investigation, or that he skimmed campaign funds to build his own private network of thieves and vandals.
But this appalling seven days need not be Watergate to be something lethal and destructive of the public trust, a cascade of events that has hardened and validated the worst characterizations of this White House. The axiom on the political right that Obama’s presidency threatens constitutional freedom could seem overwrought when it was confined to insurance mandates and gun background checks. But from now on, the brief has just gotten appallingly straightforward: it sweeps in elements that are at the core of the First Amendment, in the form of the IRS digging into filers with the wrong politics, and into groups with an unapproved ideological agenda. The case that liberties are being violated—pirating the links between certain reporters and their sources for over two months, and in such an indiscriminate manner that close to a 100 working reporters might have been compromised—no longer seems to the media the stuff of right-wing paranoia.
The supposedly partisan charge that the Obama Administration was covering up details in the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi takes on more plausible colors when a diplomat describes the way he was beaten down by political appointees for asking hard questions. And the vague but toxic insinuation that high level negligence contributed to their deaths now has chilling specific details: one official’s account of a special operations rescue team being bluntly shut down when it was poised to strike, another’s description of an inter-office climate that minimized safety concerns about the American consulate as unseemly griping.
Obama has maddened his adversaries by only repeating his routine for handling public storms: indignation that his White House’s motives are questioned, and an implication that parts of the executive branch, in this case the IRS, are an island beyond his ability to influence. For his political acolytes, the effect is good righteous theater. Never mind the inconvenience that the IRS’ presidentially appointed leadership knew of political targeting, failed to stop it, and may have implicitly blessed it. Forget that the ugliness of his subordinates’ response to Benghazi is a picture supplied by members of his own government, not by his opponents but by professionals, people who until these events were trusted comrades of the appointees who ended up sacking or maligning them.
Is there a way of understanding why a campaign whose vanity in 2008 was built around its elevation from the drab of ordinary politics has morphed into a presidency that has been caught mimicking so many high and low level political abuses in Obama’s lifetime? Much of this, I think, is the vaunted self regard on the part of Obama’s loyalists that I have seen up close, the arrogance that downgrades criticism as dumbness, extremism, or jealousy. Add to this the conceit by this White House that its enemies really are unprecedented, and that they don’t deserve the full truth, much less a confession of error. And lastly, and very much on display in the IRS fiasco, there is the inevitability that this administration’s bureaucrats will take to heart its own vision, which is so quick to denigrate right-leaning ideologies as a subversive fringe. (A point Ross Douthat effectively made in his Sunday column).
It is not that Obama is the beleaguered Nixon, scribbling on his notepad about how to wreck his adversaries, or that today is the wiretapped, war absorbed early seventies. No, Obama and company are doing damage their own way: with a smile that masks a smirk, with the cloak of high-mindedness, all in the service of routing any smaller nuisance that gets in the way. Certain basic, democratic values may well not recognize the difference.
It may be a middle aged man’s perspective, but I recall the 80s as much more vivid and alluring than Joe Weisberg, the creator of FX’s “The Americans” suggests. In this drama about a pair of Russian KGB operatives who masquerade as married American travel agents in the early Reagan years, (Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Phillip Jennings) the decade is not so much MTV slick as gray in the stolid pattern of, say, the late fifties. And it is not just the deliberate pace, or the square personas of the FBI agents, or the fact that the show’s obligatory generational gap between parents and children is so sanitized that it seems to predate the furies of the seventies and sixties: the real source of drabness here is deeper, and rests on Weisberg’s characterization of the penultimate years of the Cold War as a sluggish collision between two exhausted warriors, who are stumbling around each other in a fog of confusion and blunder.
This imagining of the early 80s as one long slog without purpose works its way through every layer of the “Americans”. The Jennings are laboring through a marriage that was conceived as a cover, has run hot and cold over the years, and is complicated by the fact that ensnaring espionage targets in sex traps is part of their modus operandi. Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman, an FBI agent who strains a metaphor by living next door to the Jennings, is fumbling his way through mid-life angst: his own marriage is collapsing from too many years spent chasing criminals during irregular hours, and the affair he falls into with his Soviet informant (Annet Mahendru) seems born out of opportunism and the fatigue from keeping ambiguous moral lines straight. Both the Jennings and Beeman are true believers but they also resemble thrill-seekers, who chose daredevil careers to supply the vibrancy that would have been missing in their lives.
And if the characters are drifting through a moral haze, so are their respective superpowers. In Weisberg’s account, the Cold War is less ideological zeal than bureaucratized routine. The shadow boxing between the FBI and the KGB’s domestic American operations is driven by miscalculations and measured retributions for offenses that themselves were often accidental or hastily improvised. It is noticeable that almost all of the killing is either retaliatory or unplanned, and in its own way, brutal but strategically incompetent. The show is hardly clueless about Soviet cruelty, but in this narrative, it is less the dark soul of totalitarianism, more the emptiness of an amoral enterprise that runs on autopilot.
In other words, the 80s of the “Americans” is far from the idealized political landscape that most conservatives remember. Is Weisberg’s revisionism a sub rosa commentary that the dying throes of the Cold War were just histrionics between adversaries who needed the polarity of the east-west struggle to sustain their fix? To be sure, at moments, the series dabbles with a liberal-leaning perspective: when Elizabeth tries steering their adolescent, and blissfully apolitical, kids toward a leftist view of current events, Phillip later rebuffs her with a tart “This country doesn’t create socialists”, a hard to miss jab at the far right’s insinuations about a certain early 21st century president. The depiction of a black KGB operative named Gregory (Derek Luke) is provocative: he is a disillusioned American, a former 60s civil rights activist who dons a cover as a drug dealer, and in his tortured relationship with his country, there is a hint of a meme that regularly surfaces on the left—the insinuation that the 80s drug war was just the establishment’s counter-insurgency at misunderstood young black men.
Or, Weisberg may only be doing what the best television drama has been honing into a style since, well, the 80s: protagonists who struggle to resolve their ethical dilemmas, good deeds for the wrong reasons and vice versa, and the disconcerting appeal of corrupt figures who are simultaneously charming. Perhaps this familiar enough take only seems jarring when it is exported to the context of the epic global fight of the post WWII era. (and it is fair to conclude that Weisberg’s Russians are more nuanced than “Homeland’s” jihadists or the shadowy right wing conspirators lurking in “24″ or “Scandal”, or any given “NCIS” episode.)
Whatever motivates the “Americans”, the show is a reminder that history grows rust. While the truth is that the two superpowers represented contradictory visions of human dignity and potential, and that their struggle was much more freighted with significance than the weary back and forth in Weisberg’s version indicates, it’s worth acknowledging that a substantial share of the audience simply doesn’t remember. Therein lies a dilemma that at least partly explains why contemporary conservatism seems spent and dull to Americans under 35. What their textbooks recalled of the 80s was the hardening of excess into a cultural phenomenon, a style that was too affected to take seriously, and the spirit of protest morphing into a distressed, predatory inner city. In that rendition, the stirring of Walesa and the endurance of East Berliners and Czechs has easily gotten lost, as has the revival of national confidence right before everything turned sour and complex again.
To be sure, the drama’s just ended first season was invariably good, sometimes even superb, television. And the potential for parody in a show about suburban parents doubling as spies was risky enough that Weisberg deserves credit for wringing a taut, consistently high-class drama out of a premise that sounds like silliness. Could he have made it more honest by capturing the moral stakes at the heart of the Reagan Revolution? I’d like to think so: but then again, a generation of conservatives hasn’t always done such a swell job of retelling the story either.
It is not news that affluent families extend their advantage of wealth and connections to the next generation in ways more tangible than trust funds: their kids invariably compile better grades and test scores, accomplish more in extracurricular and leadership activities, and win admission to better ranked colleges with the best rates of placing their alumni in well paying jobs.
A recent essay in the New York Times by a Stanford academic, Sean Reardon, (“No Rich Child Left Behind”) has won a lot of praise for its dissection of those trends and its collection of data showing that the gap between children born in affluent homes and their middle and lower income peers is growing. But Reardon’s analysis is also worth examining for a blind spot it reveals in the left’s critique of educational inequality: despite a laundry list of mostly proposals to grow government services, Reardon never mentions two words, vouchers and parental choice. Not even in passing, not even for the purpose of debunking them. It’s as if Reardon is wholly oblivious to the idea that what plagues many parents is not so much an absence of more social welfare, but a lack of capital to buy mobility into better educational options for their children.
And while Reardon captures the extent to which affluent parents are gaining an edge for their kids by pouring cash into extracurricular programs and by devoting more of their own time and knowledge to their child’s life after school hours, he oddly gives no consideration to the most vital thumb these parents place on the scale: they cut the check necessary to enroll their child in the most elite private school they can find, or they buy a home in a neighborhood with a track record of sustaining top flight schools.
Reardon is perceptive in his suggestion that fixating on school quality can shortchange other decisive factors like parental involvement. But that insight does not challenge the obvious: parental support can still be undermined by weak or poorly run schools, and what the most engaged parents bring to the table can be augmented by schools that are exemplary. For those reasons, liberals and conservatives have spent a lot of energy attacking the problem of failing schools, with the right tending to focus on more accountability from teachers and principals, and the left embracing challenges to state funding formulas that disadvantage low income districts in various ways, typically by leaving them too dependent on inadequate local property tax bases.
To be sure, conservatives have sometimes been guilty of seeming more enthusiastic about reining in teachers unions than they are about the plight of under-served minority and low income youngsters. But most left-leaning critics are guilty of a blatant contradiction: they spend enormous energy worrying about the deficit between richer and poorer school districts while seeming unengaged in the even more prevalent reality that richer parents have a considerable edge in maneuvering the menu of school options.
Empowering middle and lower income parents, in Reardon’s view, requires expanding their access to an array of social services, from day-care to pre-K. He is right about that, and it’s worth acknowledging that notably red states like Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma have been trend-setters in setting up ambitious pre-K programs. But providing those parents the full range of empowerment means strengthening their ability to participate fully in the educational market: it means giving them the flexibility to transfer their kids out of a failing district and giving them vouchers or tax credits to pay tuition at private schools that are ordinarily out of their reach. Or, in other words, recognizing that school choice really already exists in every jurisdiction in America, but typically only for the affluent, and that reducing inequality means widening the choices of families whose circumstances let them only imagine those options today.
The world is still waiting for an unpredictable take on George W. Bush, whose dedication of his presidential library has spawned mostly commentary that can be pegged from knowing the writer’s pedigree: liberals who downgrade Bush for a war he could have declined and a recession he arguably could have avoided, but cite his relative moderateness as proof that today’s Republican Party is caught in a fever; hard-core conservatives lamenting that Bush spent promiscuously and short-changed social issues, and appointed the Obamacare-saving John Roberts; and center-right conservatives observing that Bush at least understood the value of a conservatism that appealed beyond the Republican base. (a point that I have made in past columns on Karl Rove and Jeb Bush).
I’ll forego those arguments for now to make another observation that Bush’s admirers and detractors gloss over: Bush happens to be the rare president who made a practice of being indifferent to the legacy building implications of his office. He said as much on several occasions (and was ridiculed for it) and his comments reflected a mindset which governed largely in the moment with no pretense of a signature governing vision. Consider the many plays this ad hoc style played out.
Where Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had specific and in their case diametrically opposed conceptions for the long term relationship between the world’s military superpowers, Bush’s foreign policy was really just a stop-gap. He bought into the intelligence that Iraq was a budding security threat, wiped its leadership out, and spent five years massaging the results with little trace of a broader strategic design (the neo-conservative rhetoric about democratizing the Middle East never got much more than lip service from Bush, who easily accommodated the region’s other autocratic regimes). While Ronald Reagan actively sought to dismantle the framework of liberalism, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama openly attempted to redefine their party and their opposition, Bush seemed notably uninterested in weaving a long term or even distinct short-term ideological blueprint. His signature domestic victory, No Child Left Behind, was technocratic and did not lean hard to the left or the right; the prescription drug benefit was similarly ambidextrous: insubstantial and loophole filled on one hand, the first expansion of Medicare in forty years on the other. And once the drug benefit passed, he barely mentioned it, much less tried to expand it into a template for how a conservative reformer might tackle health care in its broader dimensions.
Even when Bush overreached, as I argued then and would still argue now, in the way he waged the war on terror, it should not be forgotten that the bulk of what he sanctioned happened in the shadows, without Bush ever outlining in any concrete way a new formulation of American interrogation or surveillance policies. When “caught”, the Bush team, more often than is remembered, either reined themselves in or minimized the scope of their departure from preexisting laws. And Obama’s wholesale adoption of those same techniques, only substituting drones for torture, makes them already look more like another chief executive pushing for more authority than some uniquely Bush based doctrine.
It’s worth remembering that Bush actually tried to preserve an assault weapons ban, but never spoke of it; tried to roll back farm subsidies while doling out new oil subsidies; pinched pennies in specific agencies without even faking a grand deficit reduction strategy. The absence of any memorable Bush speeches on domestic policy is not entirely a function of his famous inarticulateness, but reflects the fact that so few Bush initiatives kept his own administration’s attention.
That ever shifting nature left Bush looking like neither the movement, conviction based politician, the grand strategist, nor the savvy tactician looking to broaden his party’s electoral base. To his critics, this is all proof of, take your pick: either unprincipled leadership or ineptitude in plotting bold masterstrokes. But there is also a way of understanding Bush’s style as self-consciously managerial, more aimed at resolving specific tensions as they presented themselves, and modest about changing the overall trajectory of national policy.
The liabilities of such an approach are all over Bush’s record. They are contained in his failure to get in front of warnings about the potential of pseudo-private institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to distort the home lending market, or to restrain Wall Street’s recklessness in seeing in that distortion the opening to make a killing. They surface in the missed opportunities to lay any groundwork for his failed (and in the pattern of many non-Iraq Bush initiatives, quickly abandoned) reforms of immigration law and Social Security. The ill-conceived reconstruction in Iraq stands out as another side-effect of Bush’s tendency to blunder into dead-ends without a long range game plan.
But there is one other feature of the Bush approach worth noting and respecting. Ross Douthat hints at it in a recent column: Bush at least had the wherewithal to reorient his administration when it seemed to have stumbled into a crater, a correcting instinct that led to the surge as well as the formulation of TARP in late 2008. A presidency with grander international ambitions might have resisted the other side of the surge, which was the devolution of authority back to an Iraqi government that looked weak. A more ideologically confident administration might have been too dogmatic to throw out the playbook, and to keep revising TARP’s structure and objectives to win congressional approval and pacify skittish markets. Both instances of presidential flexibility can be viewed as virtues of Bush’s managerial tendencies. And there is a related reason that the Obama Administration had so few qualms about replicating Bush’s approaches in war-fighting and stabilizing the capital markets: they were not at all a product of an ideological brand that a president of another party would have normally resisted making his own.
Bush’s failure to paint with broader philosophical strokes, or to tie together his approaches into a vision of government (“compassionate conservatism” was a 2000 centerpiece hardly mentioned in the next eight years) has such obvious costs that it is practically the antithesis of what most consultants war-gaming 2016 would urge on their candidates. But one facet of 2012 shouldn’t be overlooked. Mitt Romney’s best night, the debate where he decimated Obama, happens to be the one moment where he was positively Bush-like: his description of his governorship echoed Bush’s war stories in 2000 about forging deals with Democrats, his nods toward a more targeted health-care effort, his concessions on the unfairness of some corporate tax breaks and ultimately his “whatever works we are open to trying it” rendition of his economic agenda left Obama flummoxed for an hour and a half. What an irony that a president who ran against Bush’s shadow got spooked when he saw himself face to face with what looked for a moment like Bush’s ghost.
This article also appeared on Ricochet.com on April 20, 2013.
Who knows what this tortured week in Boston means for the future? After all, the hunting down and killing of Osama Bin Laden hardly lifted America out of the morass that has distorted politics for the better part of five years, not even a little bit. There was agony at the shooting and maiming of a congresswoman while she was attending to her constituents, and the misery of knowing that a child died that day while on an outing to see democracy in action. Those tears haven’t washed any of the anger out of our campaigns, and they haven’t slowed down the denigration of public service.
But permit me one burst of wishful thinking. It goes like this. If only the fanaticism of two brothers who twisted themselves into killers would remind us that America faces threats worse than anything our left or right fear of each other. If only the intensity of the Tsarnaev brothers’ hatred makes the values we clash over, from immigration to gun laws to the weight of government, seem not unimportant but not worth surrendering our civility over, either.
If only both sides of the ideological divide will forego the politics this one time: the fact that one killer turned into a radical under the protection of a student visa, and that another plotted how to sever bodies months after becoming a citizen, tells us much about the unpredictable warp in human souls, but next to nothing about the immigration deal Marco Rubio is trying to save. The agents and officers who wove this case together in four days from thin air can’t be lifted up enough, but spare us any side lectures on sequestration or talking points about the limitations of federalism. Save it for a week that doesn’t keep punching our gut.
If only we could savor one moment, let it be the faces in the crowds gathering in Watertown to celebrate a return to the ideal of being safe in one’s own home. I spent enough time as a student in metropolitan Boston to know that the blacks and whites and browns, and Catholics and Arabs and Jews don’t ordinarily mix so easily on those streets after dark. They often clutch their purses and roll up their car windows, and clench when they see each other. What a striking thing to watch them unclench their mutual suspicions for even a little while. It only took two bad seeds to make those gritty, divided neighborhoods re-imagine the meaning of “us” and “them.”
Give the New Republic’s Adam Winkler credit for laying some of the blame for the collapse of background checks on gun sales not just on NRA sophistry but on a poorly executed, badly timed, overly polarizing campaign by the Obama Administration. As Winkler points out, the over-reach of going after an assault weapon ban boomeranged badly, serving only to galvanize opposition and define even incremental regulations as a wedge to confiscate guns. And the virtues of a go-for-broke strategy, whatever they were, never compensated for the fact that no assault weapons ban had even a remote chance of passing the House.
I would add an additional point that goes much deeper than tactics and the debate over guns. To a degree that could not have been anticipated, and seems doubly odd for a reelected president, Barack Obama smothers his own initiatives. He has the capacity to lend eloquence to his own followers’ views, but no demonstrated ability to organize them behind any cause other than putting him in office. He moves literally no sector of the electorate that didn’t vote for him. His intervention in a legislative fight seems good primarily for preserving gridlock. Obama wins elections but through pathways that close quickly and elevate few specific policy aims: in 2008, a backlash against George Bush’s unpopularity and an airy promise of a post-racial society, and in 2012, a relentlessly negative siege against Mitt Romney. And the country that has elected Obama twice is still split to the core, more so today than when he was a senator signing book contracts. And the deepest splits are more around the country’s perception of Obama than around any singular issue.
None of this means, of course, that there are not a variety of other elements that contribute to the hyper-polarization of the past four years, from the internet’s inevitable pipeline for misinformation, to the continued weight of interest groups like the NRA, to a cable culture that dismisses any efforts by politicians to craft a middle ground as expediency. But it would take an element of willful denial to ignore the fact that Obama occupies the single most divisive space in American politics since Nixon, and that one of the costs is a presidency that is frustratingly weak at persuasion.
It is not too early to wonder if Obama a generation from now looks weirdly like, of all people, Margaret Thatcher: a highly effective campaigner whose victories spun off the unintended consequence of an entrenched cultural opposition, and whose “conviction politics” seem like a relic. Twenty plus years after Thatcherism formally ended, it has been supplanted by a run of center-leaning British prime ministers with a penchant for downplaying sharp ideological rifts. It is not hard to imagine that Obama’s successors won’t be similarly preoccupied with navigating away from the intense divisions of the Obama era.
And that’s no slighting of Thatcher, who enabled several trends that were necessary to Britain’s solvency: most importantly, the unleashing of the country’s then rickety, sclerotic markets and the delegitimizing of organized labor as a counter-governing force. It is the recognition, however, that as even glowing Thatcher obituaries admitted, her tenure ultimately strained and exhausted the electorate. The more centrist leadership styles that followed her were as vital to restoring the national interest as her policies were.
Nor is the Obama/Thatcher comparison an argument that Obama’s achievements will stand up as historically sizable a shift as Thatcher’s re-founding of her country’s economy. Much more than Thatcher, Obama seems to have merely ridden social movements that he did not really shape, his signature triumph on healthcare is already fraying, and his efforts at strengthening the public sector have been fiscally costly without really altering the framework of the social contract. But assuming that Obama’s eight years do amount to an enduring, Thatcher-like movement in a new ideological direction, it seems likely that the national mood will still be weary of the stress marks from Obama’s time in power. The perpetual fight over every domestic priority, the hardening of the left and the right into barbed wire zones of mutual contempt, may prove as unsustainable as the rancorous eighties in the UK did so many seasons ago.
The structural differences in British and American governance produce the place where the Thatcher comparison ultimately breaks down, to Obama’s detriment. The nature of a parliamentary system is that Thatcher’s personal wins translated into a decade of rewritten British law. Obama, obviously, has not been spared the need to bargain and stitch together coalitions with an independent congressional branch. His continuing failure to do that even on initiatives the public favors, and even when he is the only compelling figure on the national stage, is a working exhibit of how the successful politician can still be a stunningly unsuccessful leader.
Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University yielded about what would have been expected. The media focused on the crowd’s tepid reactions. Various liberal pundits dwelled on Paul’s awkward moments: the senator unwisely choosing a “did you know” riff that assumed his audience’s ignorance about certain historical points of reference, while he blanked on the name of Edward Brooke, a Republican who happened to be the only black man in the 20th Century who won a Senate election; and Paul’s tortured effort to contextualize his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
If Paul was simply showing up as a token of “courage”, the kind of symbolism consultants push on candidates, he deserved the dismissive results he received. After all, at the root of such a strategy is not really bravery, but a cold willingness to use the kids who attended as props whose indifference lets him demonstrate resilience.
Assuming that Paul had a nobler goal, that of actually winning converts among Republicans’ single hardest to crack demographic, African Americans under 29, I would still call it a missed chance, from his perspective as well as theirs, and a reminder of why the gap between blacks and the political right is such a chasm.
First, there was Paul’s fixation on historical alignments that predate his audience’s grandparents. The men and women who heard Paul could have used a primer not on 19th century history or even pre-Voting Rights Act Dixiecrats, but on the GOP’s contemporary pattern of electing blacks, Latinos, and East Asian Indians to governorships or Senate seats. It would have been worthwhile to tell the many southern born black kids at Howard that it is Republicans who put a black man in Strom Thurmond’s old seat.
Paul devoted a lot of time to the dirty hands another generation of Democrats brought to the debate over race. But it would have been much more relevant for Paul to push his audience on why poverty and inadequately funded black school districts stayed so persistent during the decades of Democratic legislative rule in the South, a run that in the states many of Howard’s students return home to every summer, just ended in the last six years.
I wish Paul had given education reform a rationale instead of the catch phrase “civil rights”. I wish he had spoken more bluntly about the black children whose schools are too often promoting them without preparing them, or the middle class black couples who can’t buy their kids into the social capital and better prospects in the elite private schools across town, or even the award winning public school district in a neighborhood outside their price range.
I give Paul points for having the guts to denounce the comparison between voter ID laws and the cruelest tactics of the segregation era. But I wish he had made an additional point that a roomful of young black adults would have understood well: black people trying to navigate the modern commercial world without an ID face a lot more hurt and inconvenience than missing an election, and that pushing them to get the license or ID photo that makes them more functional strengthens a community instead of suppressing it.
I wish that Paul had understood history better himself, at least enough to know why African Americans resist a rhetorical vocabulary that depicts government as a threat to liberty. Howard’s undergraduates know that line from their textbooks, and they know it in the worst morally plausible context, that of segregationists trying to twist the constitution into a line of defense for Jim Crow. Paul would have done well to blast that misuse of the concept of liberty, and to spend time explaining that he knows events have made an absurdity out of it. The admission would have separated his libertarianism from the ugliness that preceded it.
On the subject of federal assistance, Paul rightly held his ground that more is not always better. But his mantra that “I want a government that leaves you alone” had no chance of resonating with students who view government as a source of student loans and Pell Grants, and to whom being left alone might well mean being uninsured during a health crisis. Paul avoided making the case that a conservative agenda might actually outperform liberal goals in the area of poverty or education. And in a university setting that teaches the value of offering evidence for one’s propositions, Paul mentioned no specific policies that would address the interests of people about to enter an uncertain job market while straining to pay down the debt of financing a degree.
In other words, a would-be president who has talked forcefully about his party’s need to refashion itself did no more than repeat a narrative that neither black nor white conservatives have managed to sell to black audiences. Paul had a chance to demonstrate something bolder than the willingness to endure a hostile crowd: that is, if he had the nimbleness to couch his arguments in the interests of the people he was trying to reach; and the empathy to show that economic inequality, entrenched poverty, and the rising numbers of blacks under 35 who aren’t reaching their parents levels of economic performance are the kinds of things he worries about.
Instead, Paul gave Howard what it expected to hear. So, both Paul and the crowd that turned out can say that they both stood the other’s company. The truth is they both left a little bit diminished.
This article also appeared on Ricochet.com on April 4, 2013.
Sometimes, a hackneyed, unoriginal argument still has a virtue: in this case, capturing the left’s laziness and mendacity in such an unabashed manner that it provides the perfect occasion for rebuttal. So, consider Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take-down of Ben Carson in the New York Times.
Coates’ theory is that Carson is the latest phase of an eight year initiative, “a Republican plan”, to locate a black conservative to counter Barack Obama. As evidence, the existence of four black men who have flickered in and out of the spotlight during Obama’s ascension: Alan Keyes, Michael Steele, Allen West, and Herman Cain. In pulling together these loose strands, Coates overlooks an array of inconvenient facts—that only one of them, Steele, emerged as the product of any sort of party-wide process; that West openly complains that national Republicans ignored him during his failed congressional reelection; that Cain was about as much a product of a grand Republican strategy as Michelle Bachman, who surged for about as long as Cain did; and that Keyes was not so much hand-picked, more a self anointed sacrifice with a history of parachuting into quixotic races.
The only vague line connecting all four, much less all four and Carson, is their sharing of the same skin color. Coates takes that and runs with it, with the very same snide cynicism that he charges conservatives have practiced in elevating these “Black Hopes of the moment.” It is the left’s usual penchant for dismissing conservatives, with the underlying innuendo that a black conservative’s advancement is a fraud that could never transpire without conspiracy or the hand-out of affirmative action. In other words, the same poison that Coates’ writings routinely suggest is at the root of any right-winger’s skepticism of black accomplishment, from Obama all the way down to the corner office.
I have no doubt that a part of Carson’s appeal is that he is vivid proof that not every black embraces an activist, expanding government. But at the risk of upsetting both Coates’ and Sean Hannity’s narratives, I see Carson more in the vein of, say, a Bill Gates or a Mark Zuckerberg, spectacularly successful achievers whose run of success earns them a public policy stage. That makes Carson not a race pawn, but the beneficiary of a common American archetype of making all purpose experts and role models out of gifted people.
There is sadness in Coates, an African American, not seeing a Gates in Carson, and the hypocrisy of slagging the conservatives who stress Carson’s race while Coates paints with the same insultingly broad brush. This is no apologia for Carson, whom I wish would acknowledge more often that his rise is hardly a readily available pathway; that it is the exception that reminds how many unearthed black talents are languishing in failed schools and fatherless families; and whose stature gives him the burden of taking seriously the dignity of people even when he rejects their moral authority. But have the decency to evaluate Ben Carson the thinker, not Ben Carson the black man.
This article also appeared at Ricochet.com on March 28, 2013.
It would not surprise me if there were six votes on the Supreme Court for getting and keeping the federal government out of the business of recognizing marriages. That would mean that when federal benefits and tax treatment turn on what is or isn’t a valid domestic union, that Washington has to defer to the state where a couple resides, and that state’s definition of what constitutes matrimony. It would also mean that the Court refused to put the evolving conversation over same sex marriage beyond the reach of actual voters and state legislatures.
That mixed bag, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act but declining to recognize that same sex marriages are a fundamental national right, would be roughly consistent with how the Roberts Court has navigated politically charged battles: upholding the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate under Congress’ taxing power instead of the more sweeping commerce clause; wiping out the most punitive provisions of Arizona’s immigration law but rebuking the Obama Administration for trying to thwart local law enforcement from sorting out whether criminal suspects even have a legal right to be in the country. To be sure, the high court can look suspiciously like politicians searching for a compromise, but their approach has virtues conservatives relish: appropriate skepticism about Washington’s tendencies to grow by swallowing major chunks of state authority, and deference to a public that still prefers the ballot box and the legislative chamber as the deciding grounds for disputes.
The more unpredictable question is how the left, which has been so ascendant on gay marriage, would react to being invited into a state by state contest that, based on the reactions to last week’s arguments, it is hoping to avoid. I will venture two predictions: first, liberals have probably passed through the easiest part of the fight. To date, their strategy has been one of stigmatizing opposition to gay marriage, and guaranteeing a social and professional price in establishment circles to any contrary point of view. It is a course that has built a narrative in the media and run up a string of victories in heavily Democratic states where social conservatives are suspect. National Republicans, who depend on that same media for oxygen and who have to raise cash in New York, Chicago, and Washington boardrooms as much as Democrats do, have been thrown on the defensive.
But if the Court won’t hand out the kind of sweeping victory that seemed possible before oral argument, putting gay and lesbian couples on an equivalent legal footing everywhere means that gay marriage champions will have to venture into deep red states. In other words, the places where a majority of voters have proved immune to the mainstream media’s enthusiasms, and which liberals are used to writing off at the national and statewide level. It will put the left in the position of finding common ground with the same faith oriented, cultural traditionalists which liberals have not only ignored in the Obama era, but aggressively marginalized as representatives of the dying throes of the Republican base.
Second, there is no reason to think that same sex marriage will not face the same countervailing winds that every other elite consensus eventually runs up against. There will be the hardened, dismissive attitude toward opposition that always stirs up a populist backlash; the unforeseen consequences that unravel elements of an unwieldy coalition (what will African Americans make of the inevitability that the single largest class of children in GLBT homes will be the overwhelmingly black foster and adoptive population? How long will it take the fastest rising social demographic under 35–non-married but cohabiting heterosexual couples–to assert their own privacy rights?)
One final note: the likeliest outcome is that the landscape on gay rights will and should continue to shift away from the national stage, where it seems to function primarily as a diversion: a pathway for Democrats to reach young adults whose economic prospects deteriorate on their watch, and an easy vehicle for libertarian conservatives to broaden their elite appeal as they stay painfully silent on poverty and the working class’s decline. Diminishing the impact of both cheap moves would be a very good thing.