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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Arrogance” and Ideology

One of the most consistently advanced arguments in the conservative effort to oppose the Obama administration’s policy agenda is that it is exhibiting “arrogance” or “hubris,” and is also making a mockery of all of the president’s previous rhetoric about reaching across the partisan aisle and respecting other points of view. Almost invariably, the stimulus legislation, and the administration’s health care and climate change proposals, are cited as exhibits A, B and C. There’s a classic version of this argument being offered in the current issue of National Review by Ramesh Ponnuru, one of the smartest and least hackish of contemporary conservative political writers. And the same argument has been offered by self-styled “centrists” like David Brooks, and even to some extent by those “centrist” Democrats who want to take legislative vehicles for majority rule like budget reconciliation procedures off the table.
This whole approach, of course, is intimately connected with the conservative claim that Obama is, as they of course warned during the presidential campaign, a “radical” who is turning a 7 percentage point popular vote magin on November 4 into an illegitimate mandate for all sorts of crazy socialist intentions that he craftily hid from public view on the campaign trail.
At the risk of redundancy (not that this seems to be a concern of Obama critics), it’s helpful once again to examine this argument and expose its very shaky underpinnings.
Of course Obama didn’t outline the stimulus legislation in detail on the campaign trail, because the financial and economic meltdown largely occurred at the very tail end of the contest, and worsened significantly later on.
The size and structure of the stimulus legislation reflected decades of progressive, “centrist,” and even some conservative opinion on what government should do in the case of a collapse in demand and credit. And in the intra-progressive debate about exactly what Obama should propose, he hardly sided with “radicals,” or even old-fashioned liberals, who typically feared the stimulus package was too small to work and too open to “centrist” or conservative influence.
On health care reform and climate change, Obama is proposing relatively modest versions of what Democrats have largely agreed on in these areas for quite some time, and of what he specifically and consistently pledged to do throughout his presidential campaign. He has also specifically and consistently argued that dealing with these two topics would be expensive in the short run but extraordinarily cost-effective in the long run–an approach that also happens to nicely coincide with a fiscal strategy of short-term stimulus and long-term fiscal sanity.
As for “bipartisanship,” Obama has specifically and consistently offered Republicans a seat at the table if they were willing to agree with him on major policy goals and key principles–the “what” rather than the “how.” Since most Republicans have loudly and fundamentally disagreed with his major policy goals and key principles in terms of the stimulus package (they either want to do nothing or rely strictly on tax cuts), health care reform (they continue to pursue such truly radical ideas as forcing all Americans into individually purchased health insurance or paying for health care with cash via tax-preferred savings), and climate change (they either deny the problem, want to use all carrots and no sticks to bribe companies into alternative energy usages, or simply say the problem’s too expensive to address), Obama’s moved on without them.
A lot of the conservatives (though not Brooks or Ponnuru) who are attacking Obama for abandoning bipartisanship violently deplore the very idea themselves, so it’s not an objection to be taken very seriously in any event.
The one area where Obama critics have some sort of case for pig-in-a-poke charges is on the subject of financial industry “bailout” or “repair” or “damage mitigation” policies (there’s no real term for this policy area that’s not loaded, unfortunately). Whatever else they represented, the last two national elections that produced Democratic control of Congress and the White House weren’t referenda on what to do if a housing market collapse produced a financial system collapse that produced a credit collapse and then a consumer demand collapse. To the extent that the last few weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign revolved around this scenario, there certainly wasn’t any clear-cut D versus R split of opinion on what to do immediately, and Obama had zero input into the Bush administration’s structuring of the first big round of bailouts. If anyone in politics “flip-flopped,” it was the large segment of the GOP, including its presidential candidate, who conspicuously backed the Bush bail-out but now talks as if anything vaguely similar as pursued by Obama is insane.
An even more mendacious aspect of the criticism of Obama’s financial industry policies from the Right is the ventilating about “corporate welfare.” If Obama abandoned the current approach in favor of a temporary government takeover of imploded financial institutions–the most visible option other than doing nothing–they’d be the first to scream that he had succumbed to Red Russian Socialism.
The main point is that Obama’s done pretty much what he promised to do, and has departed from his campaign pledges mainly in areas outside the orbit of campaign discussion, and mainly in the direction of accomodation of “centrist” views. It’s entirely legitimate for conservatives or anyone else to argue that his policies are wrong or won’t work, but the idea that ideological rigidity or “arrogance” characterizes his young presidency is tiresomely threadbare. And by and large, the notion that fidelity to ideology represents “hubris” sounds more than a bit strange from conservatives who are competing with each other to see who can most loudly denounce George W. Bush and latter-day GOP “reformers” for failing to hew to the True Faith.

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