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Some Call it "Arrogance"

Froma Harrop is (revealingly) unimpressed with Peggy Noonan's latest insight (explained here in her WSJ column from over the weekend).  In that column, Noonan notes the stunning (and ironically similar) flaw of both President Obama and President George W. Bush:  their dangerous lack of regard for public opinion.  Of course, Noonan is not the first to note that--in what some call "arrogance"--Obama and Bush may be but two sides of the same tarnished coin.  But Noonan--always a thoughtful observer of the ways (or lack of ways) any particular President has of shaping public opinion--gives us one better by offering a serious reflection on why a thing sometimes labeled "self-confidence" or "courage" can swiftly degenerate into "arrogance" in a republic like ours:

I am wondering if the Obama administration thinks it vaguely dishonorable to be popular. If you mention to Obama staffers that they really have to be concerned about the polls, they look at you with a certain . . . not disdain but patience, as if you don't understand the purpose of politics. That purpose, they believe, is to move the governed toward greater justice. Just so, but in democracy you do this by garnering and galvanizing public support. But they think it's weaselly to be well thought of.

Froma Harrop's criticism of Noonan's piece centers on her selective and limited reading of this quote.  Harrop is correct to notice, but wrong to object, that Noonan (and many other conservatives) now critical of Barack Obama's disregard for the polls were, at one time, equally critical of Bill Clinton for his transparently poll-driven operation and full of echoes about Reagan's greatness precisely because his opinions were not poll-driven.  In that spirit and because of the Reagan example, many Reagan conservatives were also loath to condemn Bush 43 for his oft remarked-upon willingness to advance unpopular positions.  They preferred to advance a view of Bush--whether born out of firm conviction or labored for out of the suggestive power of hope--as American cowboy saddled with foresight. 

I am disappointed in Harrop for this simple-minded "gotcha" critique.  Noonan, like all thoughtful conservatives, does not disagree with the suggestion that a statesman's purpose is to "move the governed toward greater justice" (though, clearly, she and Harrop--to say nothing of Barack Obama--may differ greatly in their understanding of what greater justice is).  Noonan here is making an argument about political prudence and, moreover, an argument about the nature of justice in American politics.

Early on in his career, Abraham Lincoln called public opinion, "the great moving principle of free government." Many years later, in his first debate with Douglas, Lincoln said, "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed."  So Lincoln understood that this "great moving principle" must be regarded--and heeded--even if it was not always deserving of unalloyed respect.  The role of a statesman, therefore, is always to move public opinion in the direction of a closer relationship with truth and justice.  Lincoln, having more respect for the people he might so "move" preferred to describe this as persuading them to "rise to the level of equality"--that is, to make themselves equal in merit to the precious rights their birth as human beings demanded all just governments (and all just men) to regard.  Lincoln, being a just man, regarded those rights and respected the people he sought to govern by making the best case possible for the policies he wanted to carry out.  But he did not imagine that he could do it without them.

His views did not always make Lincoln a popular man--at least they did not make him popular in all quarters.   In many ways and among many people he was (and is) a most unpopular man.  Bush's defenders were not wrong, therefore, in saying that unpopularity by itself, is not the best gauge of goodness or righteousness, even in a democratic republic.  By the same token one can say that popularity, by itself, is an insufficient guide to goodness and righteousness.  Assuming a fundamental and elementary goodness on the part of the American people, there must be something fundamentally wrong with the statesmanship of a president who--over the long course of public debate--cannot secure to himself a majority if his proposed course is just.  And it is also fair to suggest, in the final analysis, that there may have been something wrong with his course . . .

President Obama and his defenders, though eager to denounce the arrogance of the Bush administration, seem to be doing this while preparing to jump off the plank of their own party's eye.   It is as though the elections of 2006 and 2008 never happened . . . they came to victory entirely by their own merits and by their own sheer "wonderfulness," I suppose.  They appear to have done what all sensible political men ought never to do; that is, they believe their own good press.

It remains to be seen what Republicans in 2010 will do with this opportunity once it can no longer be denied that it is being handed to them.  If they act as statesmen and use this chance to refine and enlarge the public views by making powerful arguments on behalf of Republican ideas and, in so doing, demonstrate a respect for the native good sense and intelligence of the voters, it is hard to seem them failing.  But Noonan's closing in which she examines the situation on the ground does not cheer me.  Waiting for the Democrats to destroy themselves is a crass strategy and, what's worse, it is lazy . . . perhaps, even, indicative of a lack of ideas.  There is a stirring of public sentiment happening right now in the so-called "tea party" movement that is happening in spite of Republican efforts.  It ought to be happening because of them and, moreover, it should not take a wizened old tea-leaf reader like Peggy Noonan to tell them that it will be better for the country if that tea were filtered. 

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