The Magazine

The Unity Fantasy

The donkey and the elephant are not about to lie down together.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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This is more than rhetorical license. By positioning himself as the third way between two absurd alternatives that no one favors, Obama has persuaded voters of his reasonableness and moderation; and thus of his ability to get things done. That illusory advantage will go poof soon enough, though. Think about his third way in education reform. There he sits, or so he says, nobly perched between the (nonexistent) more-money and more-reform factions. President Bush, if I can mention the unmentionable, thought he was putting himself in the same position in 2001. He managed to bring his "conservative reformers" together with liberals like Senator Edward Kennedy, water carrier for the educational establishment. Together they produced a complicated and expensive set of reforms that appeared to lasso every warring faction into a united effort.

The unity didn't last long, as you've probably noticed, though in a way, I suppose, No Child Left Behind did prove a unifying force: When put into practice, it managed to frustrate and anger nearly every interested party--for contradictory and irreconcilable reasons. When the law lapses next year, President Obama will find himself smack in the middle of these crosswires, where every move touches off an explosion, often on time-release, set to blow when you least expect it. If we're lucky he won't go back to blaming criminal CEOs and sleazy lobbyists. But we probably won't be lucky.

Like vacation brochures or soft-core pornography or TV ads for Ronco's Chop-O-Matic, political campaigns are exercises in fantasy. They sell something that could never exist in the real world, at least in its advertised form. Certainly the campaign of Obama's opponent--who promised, among much else, to balance the federal budget in four years--was built largely on fantasy. Reagan sold some fantasies of his own, as his critics never tired of pointing out. Obama's chief fantasy is that he's a politician who will relieve us of the burden of politics. He may wind up, like Reagan, a successful president. But if he does, it will be because, like Reagan, he engaged his ideological and political opponents in ferocious battles and beat them. Maybe unity will ensue--but only in hindsight, 20 years on or more, after we've forgotten how we got there.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.