As we look forward to the inauguration of the first democratic president of our young century, we are perhaps just as eager to evict the current office holder from “our house” as we are to install the new one.
Given George W. Bush’s disastrous record and poll numbers, we can expect the culmination of his service–if we can call it that–to be greeted with significantly subdued fanfare. But we nonetheless face a bit of a conundrum that may significantly affect political debates for at least a decade. Some will attribute the failure of our 43rd president to his culture of incompetence. Others will emphasize the failure of his conservatism to address both domestic and international challenges.
In point of fact, these options are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the Bush administration’s incompetence and ideological conservatism exacerbated the potential for each to damage our national interests. But rhetorically, they can be opposed. The more we stress incompetence, the wider the opening for an argument, already popular in right wing circles, that it was not Bush’s conservative ideas that doomed his presidency, but his ideological inconsistency and his incompetence that led us into this morass. They seek to save face by arguing that Bush’s personal failings thrust the Republican Party into the political wilderness. All we need, goes their argument, is a true conservative to lead the party back to power and rescue the country from its sorry state.
From this it may seem clear that the appropriate option is to downplay Bush’s incompetence and maintain focus on the failures of his ideology to attend to reality and address our problems. Count on policy oriented columnists such as Paul Krugman and the writers at The American Prospect, The New Republic, and The Nation to continue to hammer away at this point. Unfortunately, their readerships are generally comprised of a small and self-selecting, well educated choir. We may mine their analyses for our arguments, but don’t count on The American Prospect’s circulation to go through the roof.
The relative inaccessibility, or at least unpopularity, of policy oriented analysis points to a cultural context that will aid conservatives in masking the failure of their ideology. Character driven narratives have much stronger appeal. Biography and memoir dominate a significant percentage of non-fiction sales for a reason. A failure of competence appears a more novelistic tragedy than does an ideological failure. Furthermore, our own animus toward Bush and his personal flaws impedes isolating and highlighting the ideological basis for the disasters he wrought. The best way to draw attention to this would be if we could compellingly cast him as a good and competent man who simply and sadly committed to faulty ideas and policies. Good luck with that.
Two additional factors will appear as impediments to framing this narrative both accurately and effectively as a failure of conservatism itself. Oddly, the second of these may provide some assistance in dealing with this conundrum, but only in the long term and only potentially. The first is a historical precedent, at least a perceived one, whereby the party in power generally becomes detached from reality and more ideologically entrenched in order to preserve its hold on power. The longer a particular constituency holds primary responsibility for the state of affairs, the more problems can be laid at its feet. Admitting to particular failures, even if failures are inevitable, carries the risk of playing into its critics’ and opponents’ hands. Witness the primary rhetorical devices of the Reagan Revolution and the neo-conservative ascendancy. Reagan did not attack the New Deal or the Great Society for being ill-intentioned in conception. He merely highlighted their failures and attacked the bureaucrats who perpetuated these failures out of self-interest. In fact, Reagan did effectively what we need to do now. He focused on policy failures and discredited systems as opposed to personal weaknesses. And Irving Kristol, one of the fathers of neo-conservatism (a particularly apt characterization given the nepotism that seems rampant in a movement now led by a younger Kristol and a second generation Podhoretz) often summed up his definition of a neo-con as “a liberal who got mugged by reality.” Gingrich and his minions, Limbaugh and his listeners, have consistently claimed possession of “the facts.” Now the left has seized the designation “reality based.” This appears cyclical and there may well be something to it. It’s easier to adjust one’s position in the wilderness. It’s what we expect the opposition to do. Those in power risk credibility when they shift and innovate.
The second factor that stands in the way of focusing on policy and ideological failure, which may help out in the end, is Obama’s own pragmatism. We cannot expect him to play a central or explicit role in discrediting conservatism and holding its proponents accountable. This in fact is one of the things that drew many of us to support him in the first place. We perceived a commitment to progressive goals without being bound to liberal policy dogmas as their means. This gives him great maneuverability in pursuing a progressive vision. Back in January, Cass Sunstein published a piece in The New Republic where he described Obama as a Visionary Minimalist, one whose process is minimalist but whose aims are visionary: http://www.tnr.com/politics/st…
It was this and like evaluations that helped solidify my own preference. I would argue that the most substantial disagreement between serious Clinton supporters and serious Obama supporters can be located in the degree to which they credited this “new politics” as either sincere or plausible. It was, and in some cases still is, a disagreement I consider an honest one. The question before us now is whether Obama’s visionary minimalism will allow Obama to maintain his liberty from this or that means, to preserve a maneuverability with regard to policy and a freedom to revisit and adjust approaches that will not dilute his vision or impair his credibility. It’s a tough sell.
If Obama succeeds, we will be less vulnerable to an ideologically reinvigorated opposition that seems inevitable. In the mean time, I fear that our justified anger at Bush and disdain for his incompetence and his irresponsibility will serve that reinvigoration. We cannot count on a small group of smart analysts with limited circulation or the practical and rhetorical success we hope for from our incoming president to ensure future opportunities to create progress. If conservatism is the problem, as I think it is, we’ve got to find ways to keep it in focus.