When Voting Is Not Enough

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Despite diligent efforts to distinguish himself from his Democratic predecessor, President Barack Obama has notched his first parallel with ex-President Bill Clinton. On February 6th, a Fox News headline read “Obama's Tardiness Sets Him Apart From Bush.” While the story contrasted Obama with the Bush Administration unwritten policy of strict punctuality, the seventh paragraph denotes how “Obama Time” harkens back to the famously undisciplined Clinton White House. President Obama has not demonstrated the other personality defects of which tardiness was only one of many possessed by Clinton. However, Obama does share another connection with the former president – one that, while more subtle, speaks volumes about how liberals differ from conservatives in their expectations of an American citizen.


After Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election, some commentators offered the following observation to underscore the shortcomings of both men – Bush lost the election because he had campaigned as he governed and Clinton foundered in his first few years because he governed like he campaigned.

That President Clinton slavishly followed public opinion polls is not an original criticism. Nor is the notion that President Clinton institutionalized the “permanent campaign” a unique insight.

In an early foreshadowing of the current preoccupation with narrative and “branding,” Clinton refused to believe his policies had spurred the voter backlash at the polls in 1994 and concluded the fault lied with insufficient communication. Clinton famously took to the airwaves to refurbish his image in 1995 – a year before the election campaign.

Moreover, in each succeeding crisis, the administration resurrected the legendary “war room” operation and attacked their opponents with the gusto of an election campaign. Clinton’s decision to fight on during the Lewinsky scandal was predicated on one of campaign advisor Dick Morris’s polls. In time, media took part in the process, announcing the results of favorability-unfavorability polls for independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

The result was governance in the form of permanent campaign.

George W. Bush’s Administration provided a mild interregnum but only because Republicans lived up to their reputation as the more officious party. Bush 43 eschewed poll-testing positions and the restoration of Republican control in Congress in 2002 minimized the recourse to campaign-style initiatives.

Of course, as Jay Cost has noted, the demands of modern presidential campaigns led John Kerry and Barack Obama to launch their campaigns very early, whereupon, “47% of the Bush presidency … a Democratic nominee (or soon to be Democratic nominee) campaigning against him.” Combine this political reality with the hysterical accusations leveled by the Left, the Bush White House was kept in a political crouch almost as much as it was parrying on the policy front.

Under Obama, American politics has entered a new phase.

During the campaign, Obama leveraged the power of the Internet to achieve unprecedented levels of fundraising as well as voter participation in a manner that will be studied and adapted for a generation. Howard Dean may have been the trailblazer, but Obama harnessed this opportunity and succeeded beyond expectations.

Now, Obama has now elevated this network-based campaign structure into a tool for governance.

As a successor organization to the campaign, the Obama White House has established “Organizing For America” to convert the 13 million campaign email list into a platform for mobilizing support on behalf of his initiatives. Organizing For America is attached to the Democratic National Committee and its first major foray back into the political arena has been organizing “house meetings” to organize support for the stimulus plan. At the same time, Obama also held campaign-style rallies in Indiana and Florida while the Senate deliberated the bill.

Some observers have simply characterized the handover to the DNC as just another stage in the evolution of the permanent campaign. While reasonable, the conclusion obscures a key difference dividing conservatism and liberalism over the relationship between the government and the governed.

American conservatism respects the realm of individual liberty and aims to rein in government so as to minimize the imposition of arbitrary government power on the domain of the citizen. American conservatism recognizes the greater liberty granted to the citizen, the greater the opportunity for the citizen to achieve his or her ambitions.

Correspondingly, the elected government serves on the behalf, and more pointedly, at the leisure of citizen. Elected officials are the agents of the citizen and are delegated the enumerated powers in the Constitution. The citizen delegates these powers so his or her energy can be devoted to his or her aspirations and more productive pursuits. Conservatives recognize citizens have families and livelihoods that merit priority; the advantage of republican government is the opportunity to periodically revisit the mandate granted to elected officials. If an elected official veers from the mandate earned in the election, the citizen can exercise to vote otherwise when the official bids for another term.

Ultimately, a citizen’s premiere civic duty is casting a ballot.

In stark contrast, American liberalism is now alleging that voting is not enough.

While the November election emphatically communicated the American public’s desire for change, liberals are not content. From their perspective, voting is just the beginning.

Voting is not an exercise in civic duty, but a demonstration of civic virtue. In the words of President Obama on Election Night, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

Conservatives have never doubted that America is a place where all things are possible, but liberals are poised to recast the nature of citizenship for their own enduring political advantage.

In accordance with Obama’s pledge to fashion a new politics, citizens who voted for him are now being enlisted as participants in the governing process. As such, Obama’s Organizing For America is not merely the next stage in the evolution of the permanent campaign, but is, in effect, “permanent mobilization” as an auxiliary to the Democratic-controlled branches of government.

The result will be governance in the mode of permanent mobilization.

Under the guise of permanent mobilization, liberals are recasting the vote for Obama as only the first commitment undertaken in a continuum of participation where the active and continued espousal of messianic liberalism is an affirmation of virtuous citizenship. In an auspicious updating of Calvinist predestination, American citizens now demonstrate their status as the "elect" by supporting the president's agenda and mobilizing on behalf of its implementation.

(Hyperbole? Recall FDR’s political justification for relying on payroll taxes to fund Social Security despite the likelihood of continuing high unemployment – “"With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program…” Fast forward seventy-three years and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joseph Biden is sincerely asserting it would be "patriotic" for people to pay more taxes. Liberals have never been concerned with the impact on the economy or the harm to individual liberty; the consequences are second to the objective of perpetuating their hold on power and permanently expanding governmental reach.)

This development presents a major challenge for American conservatives.

Beyond the practical challenge of catching up to the Democratic Party, permanent mobilization will undermine a key conservative critique of modern liberalism, specifically the deleterious dependence an expansive government engenders in the governed.

The great triumph of contemporary American conservatism has been the defense of individual liberty against the encroachment of an ever-growing government. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan powerfully voiced this sentiment in his first inaugural, declaring “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

President Obama's rhetorical retort is now well-known -- "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works..." Under permanent mobilization, citizens will no longer just grant a mandate to elected officials, but have to partake in the process themselves to ensure the mandate is implemented.

Instead of asking why the constitutionally sanctioned 563 members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches cannot satisfactorily govern a country with the assistance of millions of bureaucrats and billions of taxpayer dollars, citizens will be encouraged to perceive their participation as integral to the execution of the mandate they voted President Obama, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to enact.

The $789 billion economic stimulus bill is more than the administration’s recovery plan for the economy. Obama supporters convened approximately 3,300 house meetings to “go to bat for this plan and make sure and stress how urgent it is that we pass it,” because “President Obama knows that the solutions to the challenges aren't all in DC.”

The act represents modern liberalism’s renewed drive to embed government in the fabric of everyday life.

While media coverage reports participation has declined from the massive levels witnessed during the campaign, interest will surely rise again once the process is repeated again and again.

If citizens are empowered as partners in securing the passage of spending for a plethora of partisan causes, unnecessary initiatives, and the federal government itself, then $789 billion is merely the administration’s opening bid for the loyalty of millions of citizens who once found virtue in preserving their independence and autonomy from the disarray that is modern governance.

At least they did until their president seduced them into believing a government ready to spend $3.5 trillion next year (and post a corresponding deficit of approximately $1.2 trillion) could not do its job without a bigger commitment (and sacrifice) than just their vote of support. Because, of course,

"what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

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