The Once and Future Liberal
Obama runs as the progressive that he is.
May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By TOD LINDBERG
Much of the loyal opposition’s response to President Obama’s new position in favor of gay marriage centered on the back-and-forth in which he has indulged over the years getting to it. He was for it; he was against it; now he’s for it again (not that he apparently proposes to do anything to advance the cause beyond his “historic” expression of personal support). In short, the “evolved” presidential view is of the genus “political cynicism”: On the eve of a major Hollywood fundraiser (and, hmm, a Washington Post exposé on Mitt Romney’s prep school bully-boy days), Obama chose to pander to a group that was feeling under-pandered-to.
One reason for this line of attack on Obama was surely a level of GOP discomfort with the issue. In politics, if you can tag somebody for hypocrisy or flip-flopping, you are relieved of the responsibility of taking a substantive stand. On this issue, it’s mainly only religious conservatives who are willing to give voice to the viewpoint underlying, for example, the North Carolina ballot proposition defining marriage as between a man and a woman, which was approved 61-39 the day before the president’s announcement. Others are wary, and increasingly so, of implying that gay or lesbian coupledom is deficient.
Nevertheless, the charge of opportunism misses the real political import of the gesture. So did the subsequent debate over the electoral implications: Would supporting gay marriage cost Obama more in the middle than he stood to gain from the enthusiasm of an important constituency? What about Catholic voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania?
The point is that in this case, Obama’s cynicism, opportunism, pandering, evolution, whatever, led him to advocate the position he really believes in. It’s a rarefied form of cynicism, perhaps not seen since Diogenes, that causes you to say exactly what you think.
The Obama camp had some back-filling to do, mainly to cope with Joe Biden’s having forced Obama’s hand when the vice president declared his support for gay marriage the previous Sunday. Obama himself claimed he had arrived at the decision to shift his position earlier and was only waiting for a suitable time to announce it.
Was that bit about getting the timing right more cynicism? Perhaps. But it tells us something else as well. Obama makes a distinction between a conviction he harbors and a position he takes. Apparently, such differences do not trouble him deeply—otherwise, he might have felt obliged to announce his change of mind on gay marriage immediately, if indeed he ever believed the position he once took that marriage must be between a man and a woman.
Nor, perhaps, should such discrepancies between convictions and positions be hugely troubling to someone who seeks his fortune in democratic politics. The capacity for a certain amount of disingenuousness would seem to be not so much an occupational hazard as an essential job qualification. Nevertheless, there are degrees of disingenuousness.
So maybe it’s time to consider the broader possibility Obama’s shift here raises, namely, that he has decided to run his 2012 campaign in much closer alignment to his genuine convictions.
Exhibit A is gay marriage. But it’s hardly the only indication. After having punted on the issue a couple of times in his first term by agreeing to extensions of the Bush tax cuts, Obama seems more adamant these days on the point that the rich must pay more, and the reason seems to be not so much because government needs the money, but because it’s only fair they do. The president took the trouble to warn the Supreme Court not to overturn his health care law, which he said (inaccurately) would be without pre-cedent. The insistence on inclusion of contraceptives and abortifacients in health care plans offered by institutions with religious objections to them went a long way to make a point about universality. You can’t get rid of fossil fuels in a day, but you can stop the Keystone XL pipeline. The deep cuts in the military budget Obama has called for seem like a reprise of the old-school liberal preference for butter over guns. His campaign slogan is, quite simply, “Forward.”
In short, there is a distinct possibility that Obama has decided to go for broke: He will no longer seek to appeal to voters by masking his convictions behind positions carefully tailored to enhance his electability. He will be in 2012 the candidate his liberal supporters always understood him to be by conviction. Rather than the figure he cut in 2008—a candidate almost above partisan politics—the 2012 Obama will do the right thing by his own inner light and by that of his core party constituencies. He will represent, à la Howard Dean in 2004, “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” only he will make that appeal not just to Democratic primary voters but in the general election. There will be no post-primary pivot to the center. Obama will run as the progressive he is. He will be, unapologetically, the most liberal Democratic presidential candidate since George McGovern.
Why? This is certainly not the path Bill Clinton pursued to reelection in 1996. Clinton was a “New Democrat” in 1992, not so much beyond partisanship, in the style of Obama 2008, but broadly pitching to the middle. After a leftward lurch in office and an election that wiped out his party’s congressional majorities in 1994, he was a New Democrat again in 1996. He signed legislation liberals in his party hated, ending the welfare entitlement. He cut taxes and balanced the budget. He presented himself as the voice of sweet reason between conservative revolutionaries and the tax-and-spend old guard of his own party.
Obama likewise lurched leftward in the early going and likewise suffered a majority-killing midterm congressional election. But after a couple of pivots to the center late in 2010 and in 2011, notably the extension of the Bush tax cuts and agreement to spending cuts as part of the debt ceiling increase, he set the tone for his reelection bid late last year by turning his back on any serious attempt to reach a long-term budget agreement containing entitlement reform. He has made no attempt to rekindle the post-partisan spirit of the 2008 campaign.
Clinton had a good economy going for him in 1996. Obama does not. Growth is slow; jobs are not coming back; Europe is teetering on the edge of a crisis that could trigger another global recession. And nobody outside his own party seems to be giving him the credit he thinks he deserves for averting economic disaster. In addition to systematically disappointing crossover Republicans, he has lost independents and moderates in large numbers, thanks to the lousy economy and the unpopularity of his signature health care reform. So maybe he has little choice but to build his reelection bid from the base out: Make sure the key Democratic constituencies are happy and motivated, then get independents back by painting the GOP nominee as a right-wing extremist.
And yet it’s hardly clear that the Obama 2012 strategy has been driven by a sense of necessity. On the contrary, it seems plausible that his administration and his campaign expected growth to be increasing more rapidly by now, with better job numbers. Remember Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl commercial, ostensibly on behalf of Chrysler, that “It’s halftime in America”? It was not by accident but in accordance with misplaced expectations that the Obama team was testing the theme “America is back”—before abandoning it on the grounds that, well, America isn’t back. The intended backdrop for this progressive Obama candidacy was the arrival of better times.
Moreover, throughout the Republican primary season, Democrats were pretty thoroughly convinced that Obama’s reelection was in the bag. They saw Romney as unpopular and highly vulnerable, both in terms of background and because of his need to pander to conservatives to get the nomination. It has now begun to dawn on them that they have a bigger problem on their hands than they thought. Romney just spent nine months fending off successive challenges from the right. Only a partisan Democrat could conclude that the impression people took away from that was that Romney must be a conservative extremist himself.
No, the most plausible explanation for the progressive Obama of 2012 is that the man and his campaign concluded that he can cast himself that way and win reelection doing so. There is no need for a centrist turn. And it would be a disservice to the progressive ideals of the Democratic party, as well as a disappointment to liberals, to run a campaign that sought by clever positioning to mask its core convictions in an unnecessary effort to broaden Obama’s appeal.
As for the man himself, he does not lack self-esteem. Now he seems to have found the courage of his convictions. If he wins, he will become the apotheosis of Democratic aspiration, a progressive Democrat running successfully for president as a progressive. If he loses, he can console himself in the conviction that his boldness stands alone among the wreck.
Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.