Is Obama a Conservative?

October 31, 2009

Is Obama a Conservative?

Sunday, October 3118, 2009

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, October 31, 2009 after watching selections from “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” “The Charlie Rose Show,” “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”

Salit: We watched a Charlie Rose interview with Sam Tanenhaus, who has written a new book titled “The Death of Conservatism,” in which he examines the history of intellectual thought in the conservative movement, and the history of conservatism in the Republican Party. First, he argues that the essence of conservatism as an intellectual trend goes back to Edmund Burke and the concept of “conserve and correct.” You conserve the existing order and you look to correct its flaws and continue to find ways to progress. In the dialogue with Charlie Rose, Tanenhaus observed that one could say that conservatism lives on today in Barack Obama, that Obama is, in many respects, a traditional conservative, a “conserve and correct” conservative, someone looking to revitalize the institutions of the society while “tamping down” the imperial presidency. Now, leaving aside for a moment what Tanenhaus describes as the contradictions in the Democratic Party or within liberalism that Obama has to deal with, let me start by asking for your thoughts about Tanenhaus’s description of Obama as a conservative in this intellectual and political tradition.

Newman: Well, it suffers from all of the defects of “labelization.”

Salit: No doubt.

Newman: But that said, I see what he’s talking about. I think it’s an intelligent observation. Although, even on his own terms, there’s something of a contradiction. He identifies Franklin D. Roosevelt as the most imperial of presidents and as the most revolutionary. Arguably, Obama is simply following him.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, if what you’re preserving is a revolutionary transformation of the government, what does that make you? A conservative or a revolutionary? It’s hard to say. But, insofar as Tanenhaus is saying that Obama’s temperament is more conservative – although radical – than it is revolutionary, I agree with him.

Salit: Interesting.

Newman: Roughly speaking, Obama believes that the system – as modified by the course of history and by the likes of various people including Roosevelt – can reconstruct itself in ways which lead to substantial changes. In that sense, he’s a conservative. Or that’s his conservative dimension.

Salit: Tanenhaus suggested that Eisenhower and Clinton are the two great modern conservative presidents of the 20th Century. Like Tanenhaus’ interpretation of Obama, they only built off of what came before. They didn’t come into office and attempt a kind of massive restructuring of government, of the social contract or anything of that kind. And consequently that qualifies them as conservatives.

Newman: I see what he’s getting at. And it’s kind of interesting to me that the two people he considers conservatives were, in one case, the leader of the largest army in the history of the world, and in the other case, a draft dodger.

Salit: I never would have thought of that. That’s very interesting.

Newman: You could say it shows two faces of conservatism.

Salit: And they are?

Newman: The desire to effect an outcome through massive force. And the desire to avoid having to personally participate in the institutions that carry that out. Conservatives vehemently want things to be exactly as they have been. Except when how things have been is not consistent with whatever else they commit to, for example on the moral front. To me, that’s the contradiction of conservatism. If I were writing a book with the title “The Death of Conservatism,” it would be about how that contradiction ultimately produces conservatism’s demise. That’s the internal contradiction.

Salit: What you’re saying connects to my next question. Let’s go back to Obama and the idea that Obama is, in certain respects, a conservative. As president, he’s faced with an enormously complex financial collapse that began before he took office.

Newman: There’s no such thing as a simple financial collapse.

Salit: Fair enough. But, one of the debates that’s going on now is over what kind of restructuring the country needs to undergo, including whether the social contract needs to be rewritten to protect the American economy and the American people in the face of what just happened. There are different voices in this, obviously, and some are arguing We have to keep things as much the same as we possibly can relative to financial regulation, but we just have to make sure that the excesses don’t happen or that we have better triggers to respond to warning signs and give the government authority to intervene more quickly than we have before. And other people, some regulators, some representatives of the labor movement, some chaos theorists, are, in effect saying, This is a moment to rewrite the social contract, there’s an opportunity here. How does that debate connect to Obama’s conserve and correct posture vs. the opportunity to do something more radical?

Newman: Well, pardon me for putting it this way, but it’s all relative, isn’t it? One person’s excess is another person’s rational reform. And that’s the mix that we have in the country today. Do you view the fulfillment of the Rooseveltian agenda that never got completed as a kind of conservatism? Or do you call that the completion of a radical agenda? Now, Obama might say the issue is how he wants to complete it. What makes him a conservative, Tanenhaus might say, is that Obama is trying to complete it within the confines of traditional institutions. But those traditional institutions have themselves gone through a huge number of radical transformations. So, it’s hard to know what the ontology of the entity is that you’re talking about.

Salit: Because the history of those institutions includes radical transformations of themselves?

Newman: Look, most conservatives, at least the ones you hear about, don’t want to bring back slavery.

Salit: Correct.

Newman: That was a very radical victory, to eliminate slavery under Lincoln and, of course, through the Civil War.

Salit: Yes. That radical restructuring is now a part of America.

Newman: So, the question is, when do you stop the clock, so to speak?

Salit: On what you’re trying to conserve and correct?

Newman: Exactly. So, it’s a very complex and perhaps, in some ways, irresolvable argument.

Salit: We watched a Hardball segment where Chris Matthews talked to Howard Fineman and Harold Ford about what’s going on with Obama and the liberal left. Is Obama losing support within his own base? This is all relative to the 2010 elections. But the problem is it’s a “broad brush” conversation about a phenomenon that really hasn’t engaged yet.

Newman: Very hard discussion to have. After all, when you say is he losing his strength within his own base, you have to quickly add, it seems to me, his is a base that formed itself ten seconds ago.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, what is that supposed to mean? If you accept the notion, as I do, that the country is in a very fluid period relative to base development, it’s not so clear what that kind of statement could mean. There are new bases coming into existence almost every week. And Obama’s brilliance and his extraordinary accomplishment was to take all of those emergent elements and create a new base large enough to beat a very traditional opponent. This, of course, was mainly in the primary, because I think it was a foregone conclusion that whoever won the Democratic Primary was going to be elected president. George Bush was so unpopular that even Michael Dukakis could have gotten elected president. Obama figured out a way to label Hillary Clinton correctly, as traditional and conservative.

Salit: As behind the times, really.

Newman: And he put this new coalition together. And swept into office with it. But what does it mean to hold on to that base? I don’t know. I don’t know that he ever consolidated that base. It might have fragmented as soon as people came out of the voting booth.

Salit: Maybe to put Matthews’ question in a slightly different way – this is what I thought he was trying to get at – is Obama’s base going to support him on the basis of a vision which is going to take a longer time to play out and be materialized or are we essentially looking at a situation where the base, however amorphous it might be, is going to say, Well, what are you doing for me now? That’s what Harold Ford was saying. Ford said, ‘Look, there’s all these issues that are out there. Guantánamo. Afghanistan. But, here’s the real issue. It’s about jobs, and it’s about healthcare. But it’s mainly about jobs.’

Newman: Well, let’s be even more precise here. That kind of analytic chopping that you’re doing, correctly, requires that we chop even further. It’s a huge mistake to think that the major issue that the American people are struggling with is jobs.

Salit: Because?

Newman: Because what individual Americans are struggling with is their job. I don’t know that “the issue of jobs” is a broad generalized issue for the American people. I don’t think that’s the case. If Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, was slightly more honest or intelligent, he’d have to say the failing status of the trade union movement is that it became preoccupied with jobs for the people who were in their unions. To the exclusion of everyone else. Now, a shift in that might be the lasting change that comes out of all this.

Salit: Trumka was featured on the Lehrer NewsHour and he says there’s an opportunity here, maybe to go in the direction that you’re saying. Basically, the interviewer says to him, ‘Look at the labor movement. When you first came up in the labor movement, you were a mineworker. Forty percent of the workforce was unionized. When you became an official in the union it was 26% and today, it’s 18%. And, so where is the labor movement?’

Newman: Well, the message of those statistics, and the actual history if you look at it more carefully than just statistically, is that the union movement in America has failed. And it’s failed for this very reason. It never was able to construct a social policy around key issues, including most of all, jobs, as it affects all the people of America. It addressed it in an exceedingly parochial way, as my job, my union’s job, my, my, my, my, my, my. That’s what it became concerned with. That’s not where the union movement started out. It started out being much more socialistic in character. But it corroded over decades and these statistics reflect that.

Salit: So, is there an opportunity for the growth of a new labor movement?

Newman: Could be. I don’t know. This is an opportunistic moment and the trade union movement has as good credentials on opportunism as any institution in this country.

Salit: Back to Tanenhaus. He points to a historical problem of traditional conservatism, as it plays out in the Republican Party, namely that much of its philosophy is elitist. He talked about Bill Buckley for example, and how the trend in American conservatism, and American Republicanism, is elitist. And so a challenge that those conservative thinkers have had, is to find a populist voice to make that connection, to take that elitist philosophy and translate it into a philosophy that appeals to the masses. And in this discussion they talked, of course, about Joe McCarthy and about how much the conservative elites valued McCarthy because of his ability to do that. Tanenhaus quotes Buckley as ultimately saying ‘I wish Joe McCarthy had never lived.’ But I guess he didn’t get to that position for awhile. And, says Tanenhaus, that’s who Sarah Palin is today. She’s the populist figure who takes elitist ideas, elitist Republican conservative ideas and transforms them into a form that is appealing to the masses.

Newman: That sounds accurate. My way of putting that would be to say that conservatism in its traditional form, going back to Burke, and thereafter, has been not only elitist, but also highly intelligent. And so they’ve been compelled to turn to some of the most stupid spokespersons to make their case.

Salit: Like McCarthy.

Newman: Yes, McCarthy was more than sufficiently stupid to accomplish that. And so is Palin. But some people aren’t. Take John McCain, for example. McCain is an intelligent guy, so there are some things he just can’t get to come out of his mouth.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, what you need is someone who’s totally at home with stupidity, like a Rush Limbaugh.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But then, in some ways, that’s a problem also, because it gives away the elitism of intelligence to the liberals and that puts the conservatives in a bad position, too. So, it’s a longstanding problem with conservatives. You know, people want to wave the flag with Limbaugh and be stupid, but then at a certain point they want to reserve the right to say Oh, now that goes a little too far.

Salit: Right.

Newman: That gets you in big trouble. After all, you can make a case that the German people felt that about Hitler.

Salit: As in, we want a man who will take things to certain extremes.

Newman: Yes, coming out of the history of Versailles and being mistreated as a major power, Germany was looking for something to raise their spirits – a substitute for raising their standard of living – which they weren’t able to do for an extended period of time. And so this guy comes along and he’s doing just that and they sort of know that he’s very, very stupid, and when it came time for them to say, This is where we stop, it was too late. There was no stopping him. It’s a traditional human problem in terms of rule, in terms of who you’re going to be ruled by.

Salit: When you say it’s a traditional human problem…?

Newman: Well, if you will, it’s the dialectic between, do you want someone who’s moderately intelligent or do you want someone extremely popular? And they don’t always coincide. Longtime human problem, as far as I can see, in various cultures.

Salit: Well, Obama is that.

Newman: He’s that? What do you mean, that?

Salit: Popular and intelligent.

Newman: Well, he is for the moment. But going back to what we were discussing earlier, how many moments is that going to last?

Salit: I guess we’ll see, Fred. Thanks.