Friday, February 27, 2009

Barack, Not Burke

American Tory Andrew Sullivan, who helped fuel the Obama phenomenon with a seminal 2007 article in the "Atlantic," now concedes, on release of the new federal budget, that those who said the President was a social democrat, not a moderate, were right:
He won the stimulus debate long before the Republicans realized it (they were busy doing tap-dances of victory on talk radio, while he was building a new coalition without them). And now, after presenting such a centrist, bi-partisan, moderate and personally trustworthy front, he gets to unveil a radical long-term agenda that really will soak the very rich and invest in the poor. Given the crisis, he has seized this moment for more radicalism than might have seemed possible only a couple of months ago.
As for whether these are the right policies -- whether the American people, no matter how economically anxious they are right now, really want the federal government to equalize wealth in addition to opportunity -- well, Sullivan's just not sure:
The risk is, at least, a transparent risk. If none of this works, he will have taken a massive gamble and failed. The country will be bankrupt and he will have one term. His gamble with the economy may come to seem like Bush's gamble in Iraq. But if any of it works, if the economy recovers, and if the GOP continues to be utterly deaf and blind to the new landscape we live in, then we're talking less Reagan than FDR in long-term impact.

It's going to be a riveting first year, isn't it?
Yes, certainly, if you're in it for the sheer theater, which many in Sullivan's business are, especially the so-called old media, which often seem to want to turn politics and policy into sports. I hadn't thought it of Sullivan until now. As much as he admires Edmund Burke and Ronald Reagan, how can he be so blase? If I may state the bleeding obvious, people's lives, careers, businesses, and fortunes are at stake, not to mention the mighty engine of wealth on which so much of the world still stakes its hopes and dreams. As most conservatives know, or at least believe, a national government can grow and consume to a point where initiative and enterprise begin to die as systems fundamentally though not exclusively based on risk and reward are replaced by ones based on safety and equality.

Perhaps Sullivan is one of those who believe that the pendulum always swings between progressivism and conservatism. You can't get back to one without a corrective rooted in the other. The difficulty is that the point over which the pendulum swings seems only to move leftward. Under Reagan, for instance, the rich may have gotten richer, but the government didn't get smaller. As anyone who's worked with big government will tell you, its denizens have infinite means at their disposal of protecting their interests. Big government doesn't shrink. Ever.

As one who argued that Obama would move to the center, I find his profoundly ideological budget, which seems to seek to exploit class anger for the sake of arrogating more power to the federal government, to be deeply disappointing. Knowing (or reading) Sullivan, he may think that the GOP will now have to grow up and talk about its own mature vision (if it has one) of the state vs. individual freedom. Let's hope so.

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