The Magazine

Liberalism, Manic & Depressive

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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In the first presidential debate of 2012, we saw, up close and personal, what Harvey Mansfield called in last week’s issue the ennui of Barack Obama. Obama’s ennui is related to his dislike for the real challenges of governing. More fundamentally, his ennui reflects his declinism. What’s exciting about governing for the next four years if it’s just going to involve managing austerity at home and decline abroad? It’s a depressing prospect.

Biden and Obama

Obama is depressed because today’s liberalism is depressing. Obama is world-weary because modern liberalism is world-weary. Hope and change was just campaign talk. The real existing liberal president lives in an atmosphere of reduced hope and hostility to needed change.  As Mansfield puts it, “Obama’s air of ennui in the debate arises not just from his personal character of cool but more from his thoughts about the future. He sees America in decline. He does not say it, but he sees it, and it determines his politics as well as his demeanor.”

In the vice presidential debate Thursday, we saw, up close and personal (too up close and personal), what we might charitably call the excitability of Joe Biden. If Obama is cool, Biden is hyper-caffeinated. But Obama’s ennui and Biden’s excitability are flip sides of the same liberal coin.

What gets Biden excited aren’t any particular plans for the future. Biden spent almost no time in his debate explaining how things would get better in a second term of an Obama-Biden administration. Democratic spinners tried to explain Biden’s maniacal smiles and smirks as evidence he’s a happy warrior. But the spirit of Biden is altogether different from the truly happy warrior of the -liberalism of another era, Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey bubbled over with enthusiasm for the future. Biden was agitated rather than enthusiastic, and his energy was entirely channeled into demagoguing a Romney-Ryan future. Nor was there any Bobby Kennedy in Biden. Kennedy used to claim, “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’ ” Joe Biden didn’t do a lot of dreaming Thursday night. He spent most of the debate arguing excitably against change at home and explaining exasperatedly why we can’t accomplish anything abroad.

The dreams of liberalism’s fathers don’t move today’s liberals. Whether in manic or depressed mode, they know liberalism’s been mugged by reality—though they dare not acknowledge it. Has Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech been overtaken, to say the least, by facts on the ground in 2012 in Benghazi? Don’t acknowledge the facts. Does all the talk about a green energy future seem empty and ridiculous? Keep talking the talk—while also taking credit for increases in oil and gas production you did nothing to make possible and that you, deep down, find distasteful. Is there a need for real tax reform? Ignore it, and just let the Bush tax cuts expire. Do decades-old programs like Social Security and Medicare need to be changed? Just attack the reforms Romney and Ryan have proposed. Roe v. Wade? Sacred scripture.

To watch Obama and Biden on stage is to watch a liberalism that has lost its nerve, a liberalism that is the enervated and excitable residue of an earlier, energetic doctrine. Mansfield saw it coming over three decades ago: “From having been the aggressive doctrine of vigorous, spirited men, liberalism has become hardly more than a trembling in the presence of illiberalism. .  .  . Who today is called a liberal for strength and confidence in defense of liberty?”

But a decadent liberalism can do real and lasting damage. The United States can survive—the United States has survived—four years of weakness and drift. Four more years would be another matter. Obamacare institutionalized, defeat in Afghanistan, the Middle East in chaos, a Supreme Court unmoored from the Constitution—these would be the wages of four more years of Obama and Biden. The historic task of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan is to bring home to Americans just how much damage could be done by another four years of a decadent liberalism—and to make the case for a conservatism neither enervated by an acceptance of decline nor made excitable by a fear of change, a conservatism that shows strength and confidence in defense of liberty.

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