The Magazine

2009: Could Have Been Worse

Obama's First Year.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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We survived 2009.

Without minimizing the damage that's been done--yes, we're aware of a minor piece of health care legislation whose passage looks likely--we can take some reassurance from this: The Obama administration (so far) hasn't succeeded in doing too much damage to the American economy. Major parts of American society and the American polity are resisting the allure of a slide into European decadence. The climate change fearmongers are increasingly discredited, and Copenhagen was a farce.

What's more, our soldiers' remarkable achievements in 2007-08 in Iraq aren't being frittered away, and General Stanley McChrystal is getting more troops to try to achieve a similar outcome in Afghanistan. The Iranian regime looks shakier than it did a year ago--though no thanks go to the Obama administration on this one. Gitmo is still open, and most of the detainees are still there. In foreign policy in particular, the Obama administration has been mugged by reality. The question, as the late Mike Scully once put it, is whether they will have the nerve to press charges.

The American public seem to have decided--personal goodwill toward the man notwithstanding--that President Obama is not doing a particularly good job, that more big government liberalism is the last thing we need, and that, yes, American exceptionalism isn't a bad thing or an out-of-date idea.

So our Man of the Year is the American citizen. He's sensible, resistant to being herded around like a sheep, and invigorated with, in the words of Federalist 39, "that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." (Needless to say, our Man of the Year includes many women--it's striking how much of the resistance to Obamaism has come from spirited American women.)

Resistance is admirable, but it's not enough. It needs to be accompanied by a winning political and governing agenda. Indeed, one might say that the success of our political experiment in self-government depends on the right today having a compelling agenda for the future.

The good news is we've seen promising work which begins to lay out the first elements of that agenda. Admittedly some of the ideas are in tension with one another (as the elements of any sensible political agenda are), but it's striking that there is invigorating, fresh, and sometimes deep thinking in all of the conservative camps--libertarian, traditionalist, neoconservative.

Of course, as conservatives, we also know many of the very best ideas are old ideas. And I'm struck by how many people are rediscovering Hayek's The Fatal Conceit, Irving Kristol's Two Cheers for Capitalism, or Tocqueville's account of soft despotism in Democracy in America. There seems to be a renewed interest in learning from these works and adapting their lessons to our time. As Whittaker Chambers put it at the close of his last letter to Bill Buckley, "Each age finds its own language for an eternal meaning."

Chambers wrote those words on April 9, 1961--at the beginning of what turned out to be a tumultuous decade of change, much of it for the worse. These next years may feature similar upheaval. Perhaps we conservatives will simply end up standing athwart the history of this decade yelling "Stop!" Or it might turn out that this next decade could prove as eventful as the 1960s--but in a very different way. It could be the decade in which conservatives re-create the institutions of a free society as effectively as the left damaged them almost half a century ago, and during which the 9/11 generation ennobles the meaning of America as fundamentally as the Baby Boomers tried to degrade it.

Meanwhile, it sure would be nice to defeat that health care bill.

--William Kristol