Archive for January 23rd, 2012
What the Left Gets Right By THOMAS B. EDSALL
Today’s column is a counterpart to last week’s, in which some thoughtful liberals responded to the question, “What does the right get right?”
This time around, I asked a number of conservative analysts, writers and think-tank scholars the corresponding question, “What does the left get right?”
The praise voiced by liberals in the previous column for some key attributes of conservatism was surprisingly full-throated. The conservatives I spoke to over the past few days, on the other hand, carefully limited the scope of their tributes, even as they acknowledged the virtue of certain liberal values.
A few conservative concessions to liberalism’s strengths were made without qualification; others were begrudging. Nonetheless, in the conservative assessment, common themes emerge:
Liberals recognize the real problems facing the poor, the hardships resulting from economic globalization and the socially destructive force of increasing inequality.
Liberals do not dismiss or treat as ideologically motivated scientific findings, especially the sharpening scientific consensus that human beings contribute significantly to climate change.
Liberals stand with those most in need, and believe in the inclusion of such previously marginalized groups as blacks, Hispanics, women and gays.
As I sifted through the responses, it became clear that a widely shared view among contemporary conservatives is that liberals are all heart and no head, that their policies are misguided — thrown off track by an excessively emotional compassion that fails to recognize the likelihood of unintended consequences.
Conservatives, in this view, should take charge of policy making, leaving the left to contribute from the periphery by advocating for the needs of the poor and marginalized.
Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives under George W. Bush, is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In reply to a query from The Times, he wrote:
I’m a conservative because I believe conservatism is a right and wise political philosophy, one that does the most to encourage human flourishing, while liberalism — at least modern-day, reactionary liberalism — is a wrong and unwise political philosophy that can impede human flourishing.
That said, what I do credit liberalism (and some liberals) for are certain sentiments and impulses that are admirable and important. They include solidarity with the poor; a clear-eyed view of the effects that globalization and modernization can have on some workers; a willingness to view economic matters through a moral prism; and a belief in the common good rather than merely the individual good.
While the actual policy proposals of the left “are in almost every instance misguided,” Wehner declared, “I do think that liberals are able to force certain issues into the national debate and, as a result, conservatives are forced to grapple with issues they might otherwise ignore.”
Wehner does not give his side a free pass, especially on the issue of science and global warming:
I credit liberals with drawing attention to anthropogenic [human-caused] global warming (AGW). In arguing that Earth’s temperature is warming, and human behavior has contributed to that warming, liberals are firmly on the side of science. Those on the right who insist that AGW is a ‘hoax’ are, I think, wrong, in a way that is harmful to conservatism.
Gerard Alexander, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia, similarly cited the role of liberals in identifying “problems that genuinely need to be addressed.”
Liberals suffer, Alexander argued, from:
an exaggerated sense of what is fixable. But without their prompting, conservatives might have been content to do very little or nothing about a series of shortcomings and failings that are amenable to at least being ameliorated, if not fixed. Prominent examples include segregation, some aspects of poverty and inequality and a number of environmental problems.
Andrew Ferguson, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, was more effusive in his praise. “American liberals are alert to important matters that American conservatives commonly shortchange,” Ferguson wrote. “Liberals agree with Samuel Johnson that a decent provision for the poor is the true test of a civilization.”
Ferguson did not stop there:
Liberals are sensitive to the unsettling potential of income disparities. They are attentive to the overreaching of the federal government through its national security apparatus. They are less likely to pretend that scientific questions – is the planet getting warmer, for example, and if so, why? – are really ideological questions. They understand that the legacies of two centuries of slavery and another of Jim Crow are still active and still debilitating. And they are more realistic about the limits of American military power than many conservatives.
Unlike many of his colleagues on the right, Ferguson did not append repeated qualifications to his comments except to note that “whether liberals respond wisely to the issues that they are alert to is another question which, in our spirit of transideological friendship, I won’t address.”
Perhaps in part because of his background in Britain, Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University and author of “The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History,” has a view of the virtues of liberalism that many others on the American right do not share. He stressed three areas where he joins liberals in parting company with the right:
First, they are justified in favoring a national health care system. Just as we regard it as reasonable in a wealthy society to offer everyone twelve years of education at government expense, in the belief that the society as a whole will benefit, so we should take steps to make sure everyone is reasonably healthy.
Second, liberals are right to favor gun control — in my view the more the better…. Conservatives ought to feel a sense of outrage that citizens can so easily kill one another.
Third, liberals understand that industrial societies are vulnerable to the business cycle and that, sometimes, large numbers of people become unemployed through no fault of their own. Although the operation of the free market will probably eventually create new employment opportunities, government alone has the resources to care for their welfare in the meantime. I think it’s a thoroughly conservative principle to believe that industrial societies should develop comprehensive welfare states.
One of the virtues of liberals, in the view of Craig Shirley, author of “Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America,” is that they correctly assess the failure of the Republican Party to live up to conservative principles.
“Liberals are right in thinking that the current G.O.P. is for all intents and purposes controlled by marauding consultants whose only interest is power and the access and money that comes with that power,” Shirley wrote. “What liberals get right is much of the intellectualism inside the G.O.P has been drained out over the past ten years.”
Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, and William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, voiced affection for the liberalism of the past, but had little positive to say about contemporary liberalism.
“We can all agree it’s good to be on the side of those who need encouragement, yes? And I have very warm memories of thinking of the Democratic Party as representing that encouragement when I was a kid, and at its best the party still reflects some of that glow,” Noonan said.
Furthermore, she argued, “Liberals have been more welcoming – ‘Come in, join our club, join our movement.’ Conservatives have by nature and tradition been less summoning, less welcoming, as if they don’t know politics is a game of addition.” In the end, Noonan said, “Sympathy and warmth are two things liberalism got right in the 20th century. May they get them right in the 21st.”
Kristol believes that it is up to conservatives to carry forward the liberal banner:
Liberals used to get a lot more right than they do today, in my humble opinion. But today’s liberals can still be helpful in reminding conservatives that not everything that flies under the flag of capitalism should be praised or even defended, that Big Business can do as much damage as Big Labor and Big Finance almost as much as Big Government, and that American politics has to capture the spirit of Tom Paine as well as that of Edmund Burke. Above all, liberals can remind conservatives of the past achievements of liberalism — which it’s today up to conservatives, primarily, to defend.
Thinking over this two-week experiment in “transideological friendship,” as Andrew Ferguson put it, it was impossible not to notice that conservatives were more strategic in their replies, conceding compassion to the left but not political legitimacy. Liberals, in contrast, were less calculating and perhaps more intellectually honest, ceding substantial ground to their adversaries.
In the current environment, strategic calculation is arguably more likely to pay off. Newt Gingrich’s success on Saturday in the South Carolina primary suggests that pulling hard to the right can be a winning strategy — at least temporarily.
In Congress, intransigent Republican opposition to compromise last year successfully forced substantial concessions from Democrats and the Obama administration, justifying Speaker John Boehner’s Aug. 1, 2011 boast at the conclusion of negotiations on the debt ceiling, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted. I’m pretty happy.”
Both political parties are confronting the economics of scarcity and the inevitable austerity measures to come. Cities and states struggle to meet mounting pension obligations. States with balanced budget requirements are being forced to choose between non-trivial benefit cuts or tax hikes reaching beyond the wealthy into the middle class. The federal debt is on track to hit 109 percent of Gross Domestic Product by 2025 and 190 percent of G.D.P. by 2035, breaking historical records. These are not problems that will be resolved by tinkering around the edges of fiscal policy.
The new rules of policy-making will force either constituencies on the left or constituencies on the right to absorb major losses. Under these circumstances, the disposition of conservatives to see choices in zero-sum terms may prove the more clear-eyed approach.
© 2012, agentleman.
Showtime at the Apollo By MAUREEN DOWD
FOR eight seconds, we saw the president we had craved for three years: cool, joyous, funny, connected.
“I, I’m so in love with you,” Barack Obama crooned to a thrilled crowd at a fund-raiser at the Apollo in Harlem on Thursday night, doing a seductive imitation as Al Green himself looked on.
The song would make a good campaign anthem: “Let’s stay together, lovin’ you whether, whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.” Don’t break up, turn around and make up.
Times have been bad and sad, and The One did not turn out to be a messiah, just a mortal politician who ruefully jokes that his talent is hitting the “sweet spot” where he makes no one happy, neither allies nor opponents.
The man who became famous with a speech declaring that we were one America, not opposing teams of red and blue states, presides over an America more riven by blue and red than ever.
The man who came to Washington on a wave of euphoria has had a presidency with all the joy of a root canal, dragged down by W.’s recklessness and his own inability to read America’s panic and its thirst for a strong leader.
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria for this week’s Time cover story, the president is maddeningly naïve.
Asked about his cool, aloof style and his unproductive relationship with John Boehner, Obama replied: “You know, the truth is, actually, when it comes to Congress, the issue is not personal relationships. My suspicion is that this whole critique has to do with the fact that I don’t go to a lot of Washington parties. And as a consequence, the Washington press corps maybe just doesn’t feel like I’m in the mix enough with them, and they figure, well, if I’m not spending time with them, I must be cold and aloof. The fact is, I’ve got a 13-year-old and 10-year-old daughter.”
Reagan didn’t socialize with the press. He spent his evenings with Nancy, watching TV with dinner trays. But he knew that to transcend, you can’t condescend.
The portrait of the first couple in Jodi Kantor’s new book, “The Obamas,” bristles with aggrievement and the rational president’s disdain for the irrational nature of politics, the press and Republicans. Despite what his rivals say, the president and the first lady do believe in American exceptionalism — their own, and they feel overassaulted and underappreciated.
We disappointed them.
As Michelle said to Oprah in an interview she did with the president last May: “I always told the voters, the question isn’t whether Barack Obama is ready to be president. The question is whether we’re ready. And that continues to be the question we have to ask ourselves.”
They still believed, as their friend Valerie Jarrett once said, that Obama was “just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
As Kantor reports, when the president met with Democratic members of Congress who had lost their seats in the midterms because of an incoherent White House economic and jobs strategy, he did not seem to comprehend the anxiety that had spawned the Tea Party, or feel any regret. Jim Oberstar, who lost his long-held Minnesota perch, recalled Obama’s saying, “In the end, this is for the greater good of the country.”
Who knew, in the exuberance of 2008, that America was electing an introvert? And that one who touched so many felt above the touchy-feely-gritty parts of politics?
Asked last week by Piers Morgan how he got on with Obama, Jimmy Carter — one of two living Democratic ex-presidents — replied, “We don’t really have any relationship.” The Clintons have not been courted with dinners in the private residence either.
Kantor writes that the Obamas, feeling misunderstood, burrowed into “self-imposed exile” — a “bubble within the bubble” — with their small circle of Chicago friends, who reinforced the idea that “the American public just did not appreciate their exceptional leader.”
She reports that Marty Nesbitt indignantly told his fellow Obama pal Eric Whitaker that the president “could get 70 or 80 percent of the vote anywhere but the U.S.”
The Obamas, especially Michelle, have radiated the sense that Americans do not appreciate what they sacrifice by living in a gilded cage. They’ve forgotten Rule No. 1 of politics: No one sheds tears for anyone lucky enough to live at the White House. And after four or eight years of public service, you are assured membership in the 1 percent club.
The Obamas truly feel like victims. But Newt Gingrich, who campaigns by attacking the culture of victimization, plays one on stage. He soared at the Charleston CNN debate by brazenly proclaiming himself the victim of “the elite media protecting Barack Obama” (the same Obama who told Time he was victimized by the press). Newt’s gambit was a calculated way of deflecting attention from a charge by his second wife, Marianne, that the family values he preaches are hypocritical platitudes, given his cheating ways with two wives he divorced when they were ill.
Could 2012, remarkably, be a race between two powerful victims yearning to be lonely at the top?
© 2012, agentleman.
Dear Newt Gingrich:
Congratulations on your hard-fought come-from-behind victory in the South Carolina primary. Just a couple of weeks ago, you were left for dead and Mitt Romney was on the verge of wrapping up the GOP nomination for president. But with Rick Santorum now the declared winner in Iowa and your huge win in the Palmetto state, this race is now a veritable free for all.
As you enjoy your moment of triumph and thank all your supporters, I thought you might want to send a shout out to a special contributor, without whom your victory might not have occurred. That contributor is John King, the “moderator” of the debate that both sealed your win and might well have permanently derailed the candidacy of your chief rival, Mitt Romney.
Yes, John King of CNN – where journalism goes to die. His first question to you really set the tone, didn’t it? I mean, imagine your good fortune. King could’ve begun the debate by exploring your claim that you worked with President Clinton to balance the budget. “But Mr. Gingrich, wasn’t it true that the top marginal tax rate during the Clinton years was 39.6% and given that fact isn’t fair to assume that that might’ve had as much to do with balancing the budget as spending cuts?”
Yeah, that would’ve been a wonderful opening question wouldn’t it? You could’ve used your superior, cat-like debate reflexes and dazzled the audience in yet another of your superlative defenses of supply side economics, where two plus two always equals five. But, alas, you were denied the opportunity to display your profound wit and intelligence. That’s because Edward R. Murrow decided to open the evening with a question about your ex-wife’s interview on ABC in which she said you had wanted an open marriage.
Your response was sheer brilliance. You pounced on the moderator and, in the words of Bill Maher, “stole his milk money and locked him in his own locker.” This wasn’t the first time you went after the media – in fact it has become a familiar theme with your campaign – but this was special. This time the question was so lame and the moment so ripe, it’s a wonder you were able to compose yourself.
I can only imagine how delighted you must’ve been minutes later when the same “moderator” asked your primary rival whether he would release his tax returns and the reply was, “maybe.” How you didn’t burst out laughing when Thurston Howell III looked like a deer caught in a headlight was beyond me. Personally, I would’ve been rolling on the floor. But then I don’t have your discipline, your single-mindedness. You, sir, are a paragon of statesmanship.
And now it’s on to Florida, as this race has now turned into a marathon. Romney may have the cash to go long and deep, but that shouldn’t concern you that much. As long as Mittens refuses to release his tax returns and the media continues to fixate on non-essential questions about your perverse and hypocritical personal life while ignoring the fact that in your one and only leadership position you comported yourself with all the grace of a drunken sailor on liberty, you should do just fine.
The Tea Party adores you. And why shouldn’t they? You’re made for each other. You’re myopic, insular, rude, obnoxious, a compulsive liar, and your ego could fill the Grand Canyon. You weren’t kidding when you said you were the only Republican candidate who offered the voters a clear distinction with President Obama.
But really, getting back to John King. You really should send the guy a thank you; perhaps a dozen roses; something for the effort. How many political corpses get a chance to resurrect their campaigns in one night? I know, I know, you probably don’t want to give him all the credit. After all there were those negative ads that you swore you would never run, because, as you said on so many occasions, you wanted to run a positive campaign. Yes, I realize those ads were run by your Super Pac and by law you can’t control what they say – gosh, it’s just like you to be so humble and defer to others – but trust me, this one was on the house.
And, like a buy back at a local tavern, you don’t refuse. You just chug it down, burp and move on to the next round. You’re good at doing that, or so your ex-wife says.
Peter W. Fegan
© 2012, agentleman.