“History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot."
Barring the last-minute surfacing of photos showing a shared cigar with Rev. Jeremiah Wright lit by a burning U.S. flag at his campaign headquarters, Senator Barack Obama will be the likely victor on November 4. After a seemingly endless 620 plus days since his announcement on the steps of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, the Obama presidential campaign will end in triumph and close out the modern conservative era in American politics.
Obama presents himself as the representative of JFK-style generational change and, more meaningfully, a transformational and post-partisan figure, one that conservatives should trust to accommodate their concerns, not marginalize them. Unfortunately, the true antecedent of an Obama Presidency is not JFK but FDR. Just as in 1932, the Democratic Party will win the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives and moreover, be fully committed to the most liberal agenda in a generation, one inspired by the FDR’s New Deal rather than Clintonian “third way” progressivism.
The most fundamental similarity to FDR lies in Obama’s proposed economic program, which is essentially redistributionist. Under the New Deal, FDR utilized the tax system to extract a greater proportion of the upper economic stratum’s wealth for the benefit of the middle and lower economic strata. Similarly, Obama has proposed allowing the Bush Administration tax reductions to lapse as scheduled, which would return the top marginal tax rate to 39.6%. The higher tax rate would be coupled with refundable tax credits for lower income earners. Obama describes the proposal as a middle-class tax cut, but numerous observers and institutions have already demonstrated how the cumulative effect is redistributive.
Obama inadvertently confirmed this in his now famous encounter with “Joe the Plumber,” asserting, “…I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.”1 Most recently in the headlines are his now famous comments from a 2001 radio interview, where he lamented the failure of the Warren Court to undertake the redistribution of wealth. Less noticed, but equally revealing was his comment during the third and last presidential debate. When Sen. McCain argued against making anyone pay higher taxes, Sen. Obama casually responded, “Well, I don't mind paying a little more.”2 For all his rhetoric of change, Obama promises to recycle New Deal redistribution.
Nor is this stance limited to Obama. Congressional Democrats are already ahead of him on this score. As noted previously, since returning to power, liberal Democrats have displayed a noxiously cavalier attitude toward a citizen’s income; having devised a “patriots premium” to pay for veterans’ benefits, one congressman remarked, “someone who earns $2 million a year would pay $5,000. ... They're not going to miss it."
Furthermore, this planned increase in taxation is not to achieve deficit reduction as under President Bill Clinton, but bigger government. When pressed during the debates to identify which priorities would be postponed amidst worsening economic conditions, Obama demurred and only promised a litany of new expensive governmental initiatives, ranging from health care to energy to education.
To complete the resurrection of New Deal liberalism, Obama is promising greater regulation and intrusion into the workings of American capital markets in the wake of the current credit contraction. Depicting the current catastrophe on Wall Street as the consequence of laissez faire capitalism, Obama is promising comprehensive new regulations of financial markets.
Sadly, the ostensibly conservative Bush Administration has actually made these liberal objectives all the more possible. By obtaining for the Treasury Department discretionary authority over $700 billion and taking action to nationalize banks and individual mortgages – just before the administration’s departure – a President Obama will inherit a potent set of tools to subvert the market to its will. Already, insurers, automakers and American subsidiaries of foreign banks are bidding for a rescue – “The bailout is now the hottest lobbying game in town.” Even worse, Democrats have not even waited for the election results to come in; House Finance Committee Chair Barney Frank has preemptively warned the hedge fund industry to not block efforts to limit foreclosures.
Given the readiness he and his party have exhibited in concealing their role in preventing greater oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the only reasonable expectation from increased regulations is the flow corruption from Wall Street to K Street.
Ultimately, the political consequences will be immense. FDR’s New Deal never resuscitated the American economy and neither will Obama’s economic program. But Obama’s plans will ensure the establishment of a vast new voting majority committed to preserving and expanding government largesse, just like FDR’s New Deal coalition. Michael Medved somberly forecasted some of the devastating consequences – an opportunity to name new Supreme Court Justices and (“most fatally”) loose immigration policies. While Medved professes the survival of the conservative movement depends on electing John McCain, relying on this contrarian maverick is a dicey proposition.
A Leaderless Remnant in the Wilderness
The moment John McCain concedes, the Republican Party and the conservative movement will become leaderless. The conservative movement will again become the Remnant. The dwindling ranks of American conservatives will have to coalesce around the stalwarts and irreconcilables who have resisted the temptations of power.3
In the Senate, James DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma have waging lonely quixotic fights on conservatives’ behalf; while providing them with allies will be a laborious and unrewarding task, their determination should not be abandoned.
In the House, some of the 130 plus conservatives who voted against the bailout should re-consider their futures and return home and undertake bids for the governorships in their states. Standouts such as Reps. Paul Ryan (WI), Jeff Flake (AZ), and Eric Cantor (VA) should make a bid to replenish the depleted conservative ranks in the governors’ mansions around the country, obtain executive experience, and experiment with reforms. Future reforms will be formulated in the nation’s fifty “laboratories of democracy;” with rising stars such as Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Alaska’s Sarah Palin already showing the way, the basis for the next conservative alternative will too. Future innovations devised at the state level can include rationalizing the tax code, reducing government, emergency management, and reforming entitlements.
While such a course would weaken already emasculated conservative minorities in Congress, liberal Democrats are very unlikely to bid for (and should not receive any) conservative support in any of their initiatives.
The also-rans in 2008 GOP primary derby are mere pretenders and those with high expectations for Alaska Governor Sarah Palin are justified, just not yet. While her selection was as bold a stroke as one could have imagined from McCain, Palin was born to be a leader, not a transitional figure or a sacrificial lamb. Should she run in 2012, she tempts the fate of Alf Landon in 1936, the estimable Republican who lost one of the most lopsided landslides in American history and took with him conservatism for a generation.
Submit to Eight Years of Obama?
Concede the 2012 presidential election even before the 2008 one has already been decided? In short, yes.
In 1936, FDR declared unabashedly the election would be about him and nothing else; in 2012, the same dynamic would apply. In the space of four years, Obama upended the coronation of his party’s heavily favored frontrunner and then out-competed a Republican maverick with his own compelling personal story and a record of attracting Democrats and independents. With a victory next week, the young African-American will have accomplished the near impossible, becoming a real-time historic figure of immense proportions. The genuflection on the part of the mainstream media (“writers of history’s first draft”) is a testament to this likelihood.
Assuming the presidency, Obama would become the center of the American political universe. In combination with the campaign innovations he introduced this year, hefty congressional majorities, a fawning media, and the manner in which his plans will cement a new majority, he would be an almost unbeatable incumbent, regardless of his performance.
The same argument was presented in 2002 and 2004 by Bush partisans regarding the possibility of finally realizing a permanent GOP majority. Left unspoken is the manner in which conservatives were already holding their nose in voting for Big-Government Bush only because re-electing Commander-in-Chief Bush took precedence. However, after the incompetence displayed in Iraq and the immigration reform fiasco in 2006, continued support was a bridge too far for conservatives. The narrow Bush majority was no longer sustainable and the venerable Reagan coalition finally collapsed.
Couldn’t the same dynamic occur over the next four years?
Possibly, but not likely. Obama commands a united party dedicated to a liberal agenda and will probably attain an electoral and popular vote majority. As Medved pointed out, his agenda will go a long way toward cementing this majority. Moreover, however narrow Obama’s majority is, it is highly unlikely that it will be as slender or as controversial as Bush’s 2000 victory. An Obama win would coincide with expanded congressional majorities, unlike Bush who lost ground in both houses and needed Vice-President Cheney to cast tie-breaking votes.
Couldn’t Obama overreach, just as Clinton did?
Again, possibly, but even if he did, conservatives are not positioned to capitalize. The current caucus will be vigilant, but their numbers are poised to decline and there is no Newt Gingrich to marshal them into a cohesive force as he labored mightily to do between 1988 and 1994. Furthermore, rhetoric aside, the most liberal member of the Senate is unlikely to compromise as did President Clinton.
Focus on 2016, But Not 2012? Yes, unless…
One potential opening for conservatives could came in foreign affairs, and not necessarily if a disaster occurs.
The most fundamental contrast to FDR lies in Obama’s internationalism, which is essentially protectionist and accommodationist. When FDR took office, he reversed Republican isolationist policies, especially the ruinous protectionist walls erected by the Hawley-Smoot tariff. Moreover, when fascist dictatorships began their rise, FDR readily recognized the existential threat they posed to world peace and democracy.
Obama is prepared to retreat from the consensus on free trade, opposing the latest treaty with Colombia and pledging to renegotiate NAFTA. Even more unsettling, Obama is ready to meet with American adversaries, such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, without preconditions. Put bluntly, Obama’s internationalism entails sitting down with a Holocaust-denier while refusing to liberalize trade with a staunch American ally besieged by narco-terrorists.
More importantly, Obama’s worldview partly diverges from the pro-globalization perspective of the party’s centrist wing, which until only recently dominated the party.
Obama may be poised for victory next week, but he limped across the Democratic Party finish line, barely defeating Sen. Hillary Clinton earlier this summer. Should Obama conduct foreign policy on anti-globalization terms, he may alienate key centrist and conservative constituencies within the Democratic Party.
During the conservative movement’s ascendancy in the Seventies, the Carter Administration’s foreign policy agenda had moved considerably from its liberal anti-communist roots – it failed to rein in the worst impulses of the antiwar left or adjust its appeasement of Soviet Communism in the late 1970s. When the Carter Presidency foundered abroad, the small but significant neoconservative faction simply left the party for the GOP, taking their intellectual firepower with them. Only when the economy continued to deteriorate did large numbers of otherwise sympathetic voters begin to shift as well.4
American conservatives can be confident the Obama economic program will result in disaster, but free trade and pro-globalization Democratic elites will not defect unless conservatives have devised a foreign policy agenda more comprehensive than interventionist democracy promotion.
While the world continues to become more integrated, nation-states still retain their primacy in the international system. Nonetheless, international affairs no longer pivots on just ideology and military capabilities and the overall environment is influenced by the manner in which each nation exercises its sovereignty in response to the challenge from globalizing forces.
During the unipolar moment, the United States had tremendous freedom of action, but rarely considered how its sovereign actions impacted overall international stability. Accordingly, when America intervened on humanitarian grounds (Kosovo) or undertook regime change (Iraq), many countries drew varying conclusions about the future of American-dominated globalization.
While maintaining a vigorous offense in the global war on terrorism, conservatives should be open to the following considerations going forward.
Some observers are concluding a new ideological conflict is brewing, one between democratic capitalism and authoritarian mercantilism. However, the authoritarian state bloc is not monolithic. Having observed Russia emulated American unilateralism in resolving its disputes with another sovereign state (Georgia) was deeply unsettling to China. China has its own share of Kosovos within its borders and Iraqs and Georgias on its borders and does not need the principle of intervention legitimized.
By signaling an intent to curtail un-sanctioned unilateral intervention abroad, the US can shape an understanding with the PRC based on the firm commitment to respect a state’s sovereignty. Proceeding accordingly can result in cooperative efforts to constrain Russian irredentist impulses, which are far more threatening. Moreover, the US will regain credibility with other rising states, such as Brazil and India (especially), which may have sympathized with American objectives in Iraq, but could not countenance the manner in which America pursued them.
This course of action would spur opposition on the part of American conservatives opposed to accommodating the PRC dictatorship. Unfortunately, near-term conservative foreign policy approaches may have to de-emphasize democracy promotion in favor of advancing global capitalism. Democracy promotion need not be abandoned completely, but future foreign policy must be more balanced and align with what is feasible in the current international environment.
Burgeoning global capitalism does not guarantee international stability via interdependence nor will it bring about liberalization in major states like the PRC. Nonetheless, connectivity via economic integration will facilitate greater American influence and penetration in many small and medium states – more effectively than outright military-effected regime change.
In this regard, re-establishing relations with Iran should be considered, preferably after the 2010 Iranian presidential elections. (Current President Ahmadinejad may lose to former President Khatami.) The “Nixon goes to China” metaphor is not really applicable, so how about a “pickpocket embrace”? Dealing with America’s bitterest enemy at this juncture in the global war on terrorism may be abhorrent, but how else will the nation obtain a closer look? In a tight embrace, America will obtain more opportunities to probe for vulnerabilities and intelligence gathering.
Foreign policy rarely provides the advantage in an election. In 1976, voters ousted the sitting president for a former peanut farmer. In 1980, voters threw out the peanut farmer out for the former actor. In 1992, a small state governor defeated the victorious Gulf War commander-in-chief. In 2000, the incumbent vice-president lost to a governor who didn’t know the names of some foreign leaders. However, each challenger offered principled differences on world matters that complemented corresponding proposals to address dissatisfaction with coinciding economic anxieties. Moreover, each challenger attracted sufficient attention from those discontented with the incumbent’s perspective, providing another venue to gain traction with disaffected Democrats and undecided voters.
Conceded – An Admittedly Bleak Future
In 1938, the Democratic Party was thrashed in the mid-term elections. FDR’s New Deal had failed to resuscitate the economy and his Supreme Court packing scheme was transparently undemocratic. FDR was able to persevere in 1940 because the demand spurred by the start of the war in Europe obscured the failings of his economic program. Nevertheless, the Republican Party was unprepared anyway, having no alternative agenda and no national leader. The party was reduced to “me-tooism” and stampeded to nominate a former Democrat. Democratic liberalism prevailed for another 12 years in the White House, fifty out of the next fifty-four years in the House.
It would be another fifteen years before William F. Buckley stood athwart history yelling “Stop!” It would be another twenty-four years before Sen. Barry Goldwater inaugurated the modern Republican conservative alliance.
The conservatives’ future as the remnant will indeed be bleak.
1 Sen. Barack’s full comment was: “…If you've got a plumbing business, you're gonna be better off if you've got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you. And right now, everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody. And I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.” (Full transcript of exchange)
2 President Clinton conveyed the same sentiment in a speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, assailing the Bush tax cuts by joking that he felt bad because he had finally made it into a tax bracket where he was rich enough to benefit. The Wall Street Journal offered a pithy solution – give it back – noting the IRS isn’t the type of organization known for rejecting donations. Alternatively, the Clintons could calculate their tax liability at both rates and send the difference to charity. Either way, “it would be a lot fairer than raising taxes on millions of other hard-working Americans so that rich and famous liberals don't feel guilty.”
4 The evolution of the conservative movement is far more complex of which the neoconservative shift is but one piece. A good introduction to this story is Why Americans Hate Politics by E.J. Dionne.