I got to watch some of Obama's town hall thing today (you could probably find it on YouTube or something) and it reminded me why he is such a canny opponent. Watching and listening to him is a strange and frustrating experience. I get frustrated by his persistent intellectual dishonesty, but can't help but be impressed at his skill.
Obama was utterly deceptive about how the introduction of private accounts into Social Security would work. He seemed to indicate that private accounts would involve older workers shifting all the money that would otherwise have gone to their Social Security benefits to the market. He had some vague easy answers ("tweaks") about how Social Security could be saved and threw in a reference to a commission to give himself some third party validation.
He was even better...er worse on Medicare. He repeated the amazing stupendous lie about how Obamacare extended the life of Medicare when Obamacare actually took hundreds of billions of dollars out of Medicare to pay for a new entitlement. He was smart to use expert third party validation (from the Medicare actuaries who are required to credit the cuts as extending the life of Medicare because of arcane budget rules) so as to show how post partisan and nonideological he is. If you didn't know about the CBO's commentary on this practice (and most people don't), Obama sounded like the most reasonable guy in the world and not a refugee from Enron's accounting department.
It doesn't really work to describe what Obama does. You have to see and hear it. There is something about his calmness, verbal fluidity, seeming empiricism, and easy confidence that adds up to what people think of as "moderate" in the flattering sense of the word. He can talk for four minutes and it would take ten to explain what was wrong with what that nice smart man was saying. It allows him to seem much less partisan and ideological than he really is. It didn't matter so much today. It is August and the economy is lousy. The marginal voter isn't caring what he is saying or how he is saying it. But we saw a preview of some of the most important domestic policy arguments that will dominate the next several years. So the challenge is to explain both what was wrong with what Obama was saying and why your preferred policies will work better. You have ten minutes and the message has to be pitched to the median American. And you are following Obama.
He should not be underestimated.
might be the founding of National Affairs, and Reihan Salam's The Agenda blog (there is some overlap between those who write for the two platforms.) They don't get much mass media attention (even from the more popular venues of the right-leaning media), but the conservative domestic policy ideas that will get picked up by the sharpest conservative candidates in the years to come are being hashed out in those places.
Also, National Review On Dead Tree has been smoking in its willingness to publish dissenting or reformist articles in a way that doesn't needlessly antagonize established conservative media figures or politicians. There is still the problem of popularizing policy prescriptions, but we can begin to see the outlines of a set of rightish policies appropriate for the moment and that is a huge improvement over two years ago. Now if only someone could get National Affairs subscriptions for the Arizona Republican senatorial candidates.
Literature, Poetry, and Books
And things just keep getting worse for the blogger who called Obama's pro-mosque speech on Friday "one of the finest moments" of his presidency. (Well, it was one of the shortest, says James Taranto.) Now Harry Reid has also discovered the distinction between the right to build Cordoba House two blocks north of Ground Zero and the wisdom of doing so - and says "the mosque should be built some place else." Sargent's nuanced assessment is that Reid's decision is "weak and indefensible," it "leaves the President hanging after he took a big risk to do the right thing," and it "just makes the Dems look weak, unorganized, cowardly, and unwilling to take a stand for principles they plainly believe in." Apart from that, Sargent thinks it was a pretty deft move.
Literature, Poetry, and Books
Megan McArdle argues that Obama won't see a Reaganesque turnaround in the economy or his political fortunes. That is probably true but that doesn't mean Republicans have a clear path to winning in 2012. 2012 won't be some Democratic version of 1984. The economy almost certainly won't be growing as fast as it was in 193-1984. Obama hasn't shown Reagan's ability to lop off large chunks of voters from the other party's coalition. Obama's strengths were his ability to win large margins (and get large turnouts) among voters from Democratic-leaning groups and make gains among upper income and higher educated whites who were not reliable voters for either coalition. That is a good place to start from, but not the stuff of 49 state sweeps.
2012 also won't be 1996. This recession was worse that the early 90s recession and the unemployment rate won't be in the 5s when Obama is running for reelection. Obama also won't go as far to the center as Clinton. I don't know what the current equivalent of Welfare Reform would be, but I don't see Obama signing a major piece of rightish policy change.
The problem is that Obama doesn't have to win a reelection landslide in order shift the country to the left in an enduring way. Obama's administration is in a consolidationist phase. He has already passed a law that puts the country on the glide path to government-run medicine. Obamacare will raise premiums while making middle-class Americans more dependent on government subsidies, guaranteed issue and community rating just to make health care coverage affordable. The likely result of the problems Obamacare creates is a more government-run system that transitions to government price controls and the replacement of the health insurers with a single-payer system. He only has to hang on and let the dynamics play out. If even one of the five non-liberal (or rather nonconsistently liberal) Supreme Court Justices retire we can expect a transformational liberal majority on the Supreme Court.
If the labor market of 2012 is the same one we have now, Obama's skills won't matter and the Republicans would have a tough time losing the election. But there is another potential scenario where Obama's chances are uncertain, but much better. Imagine the economy is growing slowly. The unemployment rate is in the 7s but falling very, very slowly. Obama and his media allies have been assailing the congressional Republicans as Medicare and Social Security cutters - shades of 1995. It doesn't help that this is a plausible interpretation of the Ryan Roadmap. Even if congressional Republicans don't sign up for the Roadmap, it is hard to see how a Republican majority in the House can seriously cut into the deficit without cutting entitlements or defense or raising taxes. It is probably possible but who trusts John Boehner to either come up with the right plan or find an effective way to defend it? The ensuing arguments could do the GOP enormous damage. Obama will be able to plausibly argue that his spending program averted a depression and put the country back on the road to recovery. It doesn't have to be true. It only has top seem true to some wavering voters. As Peter Lawler says, when the answer isn't obvious, spin matters alot. No amount of spin ("recovery summer") is going to help when the unemployment rate is 9.5%. A slightly better labor market puts the economic discussion back in the spin zone and I'm not ready to bet against Obama in a spin contest. This isn't even getting into Obama's demonstrated skill at crafting an enormously well funded GOTV and media operation in a year when the turnout model will be more favorable to Democrats.
None of this means that Republicans are doomed under this scenario. They would need a good candidate, a good media message and a good GOTV operation. Basically the opposite of the McCain campaign. They will also need some answers on economic growth and getting the deficit under control that offer tangible benefits to the middle and aspiring working-classes without terrifying them (as most talk of entitlement cuts and market-oriented health care reform have a tendency to do.) This will be incredibly complicated (as Paul Ryan will be the first to tell you), and the stakes are huge. If Obama wins reelection and retains enough Democrats in congress to uphold his vetoes, Obama will be on the way to being a far more significant (from the liberal perspective) President than Clinton, even if he wins reelection by a much smaller margin.
Update: a commentator points us to an article in Tablet on the history of Medieval Cordoba. Apparently the myth of Medieval Muslim Spain being a haven of toleration is an invention of 19th Century Germans. Why am I not surprised.
Ross Douthat points out that religion needs the aid of reason--America, with its insistence on natural rights and a civil religion based on it, is the case in point. Conservatives should adopt this argument and not sound like low-grade liberals in pleading for "compassion" for the survivors and victims of 9/11. They don't need compassion; they demand justice, and justice as the rule of law in turn requires the rule of reason. Douthat:
The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul [my note: see Republican platform of 1856], eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism's illiberal tendencies [my note: contrast Washington's letters to Catholics with those to the Jews] inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.
Douthat also reminds us that the proposed Islamic Center's imam does not inspire confidence in his amenability to reason. The problem of reason or natural law and Islam is elaborated on by Robert Reilly, whose work is essential on this issue.