Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Governing Like Bush?


Michael Gerson's the latest to pen an "OMG! He's Just Like Bush!" column about Barack Obama - the type of column that suggests that his only sources of information about Obama are party memos and McCain's campaign ads.
Conservatives have generally feared that Obama is a closet radical. He has uniformly voted with liberal interests and done nothing to justify a reputation for centrism.

Until now.
Because there is no evidence that Obama is a cautious politician with a history of working from consensus and not making waves. Oh, wait. I guess there is plenty of evidence if you base your analysis of Obama's record on, you know, his record. I believe Larison overstates his case in respect to the implications of this:
Most people in the broad “middle” seem to be relieved by Obama’s moves in the last few weeks, so I have to conclude that they don’t have much of a problem with conventional Washington thinking, either. The majority is not just getting the government they deserve, but apparently it is also the government they want. When it fails them, as it is going to do, I don’t want to hear them complaining about the problems of the status quo.
Our system is constructed to impede radical change. If you want disappointment, elect your ideological hero in the form of a Dennis Kucinich or a Ron Paul, and see how his agenda for reform never even gets out of the starting blocks. But that aside, it's always been readily apparent that Obama's far from being the socialist revolutionary the McCain campaign, and portions of the right-wing punditocracy, attempted to argue. But back to Gerson:
Obama's appointments reveal not just moderation but maturity - magnanimity to past opponents, a concern for continuity in a time of war and economic crisis, a self-confidence that allows him to fill gaps in his own experience with outsize personalities, and a serious commitment to incarnate his rhetoric of unity.
Again, which part of this wasn't apparent from Obama's record?
Obama is benefiting from being the only player on the stage - all his pretensions of moderation could be quickly undermined by a liberal Congress, unhinged by its expanded majority. And Obama's social liberalism could still turn Washington into a culture-war battlefield.
I suspect that Gerson means this as a caution, or as a distinction from G.W. - But if you look at the history of G.W.'s administration, perhaps instead he's warning us that Obama's first term could look like G.W.'s administration, during his first eight months and starting again with his reelection, where his popularity plummeted and he ran both his administration and (with their active complicity) his party into the ground.
Though Obama's campaign savaged the administration as incompetent and radical, Obama's personnel decisions have effectively ratified Bush's defense and economic approaches during the past few years. At the Pentagon, Obama rehired the architects of President Bush's current military strategy - Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno. At the Treasury Department, Obama has hired one of the main architects of Bush's current economic approach.

This continuity does not make Obama an ideological traitor. It indicates that Bush has been pursuing centrist, bipartisan policies - without getting much bipartisan support.
Good grief, does Gerson pay attention to anything? When Obama launched his campaign, we were told of the superiority of Bush's war policy, and that Obama's call for ending the war and fixing a date for withdrawal of the troops was defeatism that would reward terrorists. Around that same time, Bush brought in Gates to replace the disastrous leadership of Donald Rumsfeld and within months "every single one of the top commanders running the war ha[d] been replaced." Bush has since negotiated a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. That is, in the face of significant public opposition to his war and his policies, Bush shifted his position from his prior (failed) partisan policies to something to what he would formerly have described as letting the terrorists win.

Gates was appointed by the Senate in a 95-2 vote. When Bush started moving from partisanship toward the positions shared by the majority of Congress and the majority of the American people, he got plenty of support. It isn't Obama who has shifted on these issues - it's Bush.

In terms of treasury, Gerson is apparently talking about Timothy Geithner. There's good reason to believe that Geithner has worked with Henry Paulson to fashion the response to the present crisis in the financial industry, but... you know, funny thing, you would expect the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to be involved in this sort of crisis. Although I am not at all impressed with Paulson's inconsistent approach to this crisis, or his tendency to indiscriminately and unconditionally throw money at banks while refusing to hold bank executives responsible for their incompetence, he's clearly been given a lot of discretion to respond to this crisis. To some degree you have to credit Bush with giving him that discretion, but Bush's desperation is hardly reflective of centrist policy. In normal times, the political center would be horrified by what Paulson has been doing - actually, it's hard to imagine any segment of the political spectrum that wouldn't be horrified. So again, this is a horrible example of Bush's supposed centrism.
Particularly on the economy, Bush has never been a libertarian; he has always matched a commitment to free markets with a willingness to intervene when markets stumble.
I'm not sure what Bush has been "on the economy", other than a failure by the measure of the political left, political right, job market, stock market, housing market.... But I'll grant, he's no libertarian.
Third, Obama is finding the limits of leading a "movement" that never had much ideological content.
This notion of a "movement" seems to emerge from two separate phenomena - the fact that some individuals and loose-knit groups projected their own political goals onto Obama (as, frankly, happens with pretty much any new, charismatic political leader who builds a coalition sufficient to win a national election), and the caricature advanced by people like Gerson. But you know, there's one person whom I've not once heard speak of Obama as a leader of a cohesive "movement" - Barack Obama. And there's a guy who has been willing to disappoint large groups of his supporters on issues such as Iraq policy and FISA, even before he was elected. (Can Gerson guess his name?) But then, Gerson was apparently taken surprise that Obama reappointed Gates, despite, you know, Obama promising to reach across the aisle when composing his cabinet.

Reappointing Gates is also politically savvy, as it makes it harder for Republicans to blame Obama if the Iraq phase-down goes poorly. But whatever Obama's motivations, take a step back and think about what it means for Gates to be accepting this reappointment. He had the alternative of cashing in, big time with a book deal, private sector jobs... think Cheney at Halliburton. It's a testament to his character that he's continuing in the job, and a testament to Obama that he's again willing to disappoint supporters who wanted a clean break from past war policy in order to retain somebody who may in fact be the best available choice for the job. So with regard to Gates, although my reasoning is different, I'll accede to Gerson's conclusion - That's centrism we can believe in.

As for Gerson's having his hopes raised by Obama's "disappointing the ideologues", he may be onto something. After all, had Bush been more willing to stand up to factions exemplified by PNAC, the Club for Growth, the domestic energy industry, etc., his administration might not have been such a miserable failure.

1 comment:

  1. ". . . had Bush been more willing to stand up to factions exemplified by PNAC, the Club for Growth, the domestic energy industry, etc., his administration might not have been such a miserable failure . . . "

    Let's not forget about AIPAC while we are at it . . . there is a suspicious degree of overlap between it and PNAC . . .

    CWD

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