In his latest Bloomberg column, Ezra Klein pushes back on the GOP critique of the president. As far as he is concerned, the president is really a pragmatic center-leftist.
“President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial,” Mitt Romney says. But fear not, because the former governor of Massachusetts “will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense.”
Romney makes it sound as if he’s running against Vladimir Lenin. But what has Barack Obama actually done or proposed to do? He continued the Bush administration’s rescue of the financial system and auto industry. He passed a health-care law modeled on reforms Romney passed in Massachusetts. He passed a financial-regulation bill that erected a protective scaffolding around the banking system, but shied away from fundamentally reshaping it. He wants to extend most, but not all, of the Bush tax cuts. He has insisted that deficit reduction include some tax increases, though he has signaled he is willing to accept as many as three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar in increased taxes. He wants to raise the effective tax rates of people making more than a million dollars annually. He wants to invest in infrastructure.
You can disagree with this list without pretending it is radical or somehow inimical to free enterprise. Obama has pursued an ambitious, center-left agenda. Capitalism will survive his efforts to use market-based means to accomplish traditional liberal ends.
From a certain perspective, I think Klein is right: Obama is not “radical,” at least not in the way we usually define the concept. But that actually points to the big the problem with this president and his worldview. The progressive ideology dating back to the turn of the last century, and in which Obama is comfortably situated, was never really about overturning the established order, but rather in co-opting it.
For instance, the Bull Moosers of 1912 wanted to regulate the “great malefactors of wealth,” as TR put it, but they also were happy to keep the protective tariff regime, which was the source of that wealth in the first place. Similarly, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) – the two hallmarks of the First New Deal – were all about grand bargains between government, labor, farmers, and capital owners. The point was to draw all classes to the bargaining table, with the meeting chaired by the progressives, naturally. So it goes for modern-day progressivism. Both Clintoncare and Obamacare did not try to implement “socialized medicine,” but rather strike a grand bargain that would encompass all of the “stakeholders” to manage the nation’s health care.
So, Klein is also correct in that Obama has not set out to destroy capitalism. He is no socialist in the traditional sense of the word. He is not interested in controlling the means of production, as Marx put it. He’s happy to let commerce and industry remain in private hands, but that does not mean he's a free market advocate in any politically relevant sense of the phrase. He wants the free market to do its thing, so long as the government can socialize an ever-greater amount of the profit, and also take an intimate role in managing the private sector to “socially beneficial” ends.
This view of government has long provoked a very intense, negative reaction from a broad class of Americans. Skepticism of an interventionist government date back to Jefferson and Jackson, who both feared the nexus of big business and big government. Woodrow Wilson designed his “New Freedom” program precisely to combat TR’s “New Nationalism” during the 1912 campaign, but the ever-pragmatic Wilson ended up implementing most of the Bull Moosers' program once in office. It’s oft-forgotten, but FDR’s First New Deal infuriated many establishment Democrats like John Davis (1924 nominee), John Jakob Raskob (former DNC Chair), and Al Smith (1928 nominee). And as soon as the “Solid South” went from being benefit-receivers to benefit-payers in the progressive scheme, they started bolting (with the first revolt coming as early as 1937).
The principal reason for this opposition is that there has always been more than a whiff of anti-republicanism to the progressive agenda. Just consider the name "progressive," which implies a social, epistemological, or moral vanguard -- hardly the hallmark of true republicanism. And what one person views as “socially beneficial," another may rightfully call political patronage. For instance, the New Deal was full of payoffs – small and large – to Democratic constituencies. Scholarly study after study has shown how electoral calculations factored into the distribution of relief dollars during the New Deal, but perhaps the best (worst?) example is the original Social Security program. This program remains a huge point of pride for liberals, but when you look under the hood, you find some shockingly illiberal items. In particular, it was a huge bonanza for Southern plantation owners. They were cash-poor, so they remunerated their (largely black) tenants in non-cash services like old-age assistance. The planters did not want their sharecroppers to have an alternative source of income, so the Democratic Congress in 1935 amended the bill to exclude that class of workers. On a dollars and cents level, this was one of the largest political payoffs up to that point in the nation's history, far outstripping the so-called "spoils system" of the Jacksonian age. The Southern agricultural gentry similiarly won illiberal carve-outs on the AAA as well as the Fair Labor Standards Act.
There is a temptation to view the government as nothing more than the avatar of the public interest, but this is foolhardy. The reality is that just as market forces induce private behavior, political forces induce congressional and presidential behavior. And so, factions with a tight connection to elected officials are going to receive a better deal when the government swoops in to reform private behavior. And the larger the scope of government, the larger the potential payoffs. This is why Republicans who engage in this kind of patronage -- and there are far too many -- are behaving in an anti-conservative way. Unfortunately, the progressive tradition of ever-bigger government is like catnip for clientelism on a massive scale.
And so, the Democrats’ grand dreams of a “Fair Deal” always stink of unfairness to conservatives in the republican tradition. The examples are so numerous and stretch so far back into history, I could literally write a book about the subject. And Barack Obama, the president who promised to bring change to Washington, has been a very diligent patron to his party's extensive list of clients. On item after item, the topline claim to benefit the national interest is regularly belied by the particularism of the fine print. Klein mentions three items in particular in his column – the auto bailout, the financial reform bill, and the health care bill – that were all justified on purely nationalistic grounds, but peel off the top layer and the stench of clientelism will overwhelm you. To this list I would add the stimulus bill, the jobs bill that Obama proposed in the fall, and the cap-and-trade bill. Liberals look upon them all as fulfilling a great national purpose, but republicans (small "r") see massive payoffs to core Democratic groups.
If you want to understand the seething anger on the conservative side of the aisle, this is what you need to appreciate: It’s not just that Obama is a big government guy in the progressive tradition, which conservatives have opposed for more than a century. It’s also that he’s a client guy, meaning that his idea of big government inevitably has special payoffs hidden in it somewhere. And more than even this, he's a boundless client guy in what should be an age of restraint. Payoffs to party clients are one thing when the economy is growing at a four percent rate per year; that is a situation where the times are so prosperous that government patrons are really just drawing upon the national surplus to satisfy their partisans. But when the economy is growing at less than two percent per year, barely enough to keep up with population growth, paying off party clients is actually like robbing from Peter to pay Paul. And while Obama and congressional Democrats have put off that bill -- in the form of our trillion-plus deficit -- conservatives are not fools. They know they'll be asked to pay up sooner or later, and with a stagnant economy that means less money in their pockets, in part because the president wants to hold together his voting coalition.
That's what's so bad about Obama.