Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Right's Busted Gamble

One of the sad ironies that I think may play out over the next several months is that the "Obama is a big government socialist" meme is going to come back and bite conservatives and libertarians (even those of us, like myself, who took issue with the meme). The fact is that Obama ran his general election campaign as a centrist, particularly with respect to government involvement in economic issues. Indeed, he even made the argument for a cut in net government spending, something that most congressional Democrats would likely take issue with. Moreover, too many tend to forget that this was how he ran in the Dem primaries as well, to a certain extent, with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards regularly attacking him from the left on economic issues (remember the controversy when he was forced to flip-flop on NAFTA?). Indeed, his relative centrism on economic policy was largely what led to my qualified endorsement of him during the primaries and to my briefly considering voting for him in the general election.

So Obama campaigned largely on a form of economic centrism that would have hardly represented a drastic change in government intervention in the economy, particularly once mitigated by the political realities of governing. This is something that conservatives and libertarians should have recognized, and ignored at their own peril. (The irony of doing so while so many supported a candidate that "suspended his campaign" to push for the bailout package that was classic socialism seems to have been lost on them).

They also should have recognized that the fundamentals of this election - a weakened economy, a deeply unpopular war, and an even more unpopular Republican President, left it virtually guaranteed that the Republicans would be unable to keep the Presidency even if they had a perfect candidate. They didn't. Instead, they decided to throw a political Hail Mary by painting Obama as a radical left extremist unparalleled in the annals of American history, even while Obama was campaigning as a pragmatic centrist on the vast majority of issues.* This Hail Mary never had any chance of changing the inevitable outcome of the election, which like all elections was always going to be a referendum on the current state of the country.

But by actively pushing the meme that "Obama is a radical, far left socialist," the McCain campaign (and more often its supporters) ensured that the election would be interpreted as a referendum on a clearly liberal worldview, particularly on economics....even though Obama was not running on that economic worldview. And that is now exactly how liberals and progressives of all stripes are interpreting the victory, as well they should - even though the victory is more easily explained as simply being a result of a slight change in the mood of the electorate due to the current state of economic affairs. Which means that Obama now has a mandate, if he so wishes, to put forth some fairly radical economic policies that will be completely unpalatable to believers in the power of the free market. In other words, by painting Obama the Centrist Candidate as a socialist demon, conservatives and some libertarians may have actually created Obama the Socialist Demon President.

The one hope I have - and it is a strong hope - is that the pragmatist and consensus-builder that Obama ran as will reflect Obama's style of government. In fact, I continue to expect that Obama - who is a more prudent and wise candidate than we've seen in some time - will govern much the way that Bill Clinton governed, except with less risk-taking in the early-going. But if he doesn't, conservatives and libertarians who pushed the "socialist" meme will have no one but themselves to blame.

Via memeorandum.

*I'm aware that progressive organizations have called his platform the most progressive presidential platform "in at least 15 years." Seeing as the Dem Presidential candidate just over 15 years ago was Bill Clinton, who is now univerally acknowledged as a true centrist, this supports rather than refutes the notion that Obama ran as something of a centrist.

UPDATE - Not really the same topic, but while we're here, please do go read Will Wilkinson on romanticism, Obama, and the Cult of the Presidency. (H/T: John)