I find myself in agreement with David Brooks' column this morning on how - unwittingly - the Obama administration was forced into the kind of big government action required to cope with several huge crises, after years of negligence and drift. I can see how easy it was for the FNC-RNC to wheel out their exhausted tropes of anti-government rhetoric and for Paul Krugman, say, to wheel out his own pro-government radicalism. None of these elements were cheerful about a "Goodbye To All That" presidency, and they've done their best to extinguish it. I happen to think that Krugman has much more of a case right now, because the circumstances almost require the drastic measures he favors. But, yes, the comfort zone of all these advocates is well within the abstract and kabuki world of "freedom or tyranny", more government or less. And that has affected the perception of the new administration among independents especially.
But they're all wrong. This administration's actions are defensible for the large part from the perspective of the actual circumstances we face: a collapse of the extreme free market capitalism of the last twenty years and the implosion of a neo-imperial post-Cold War foreign policy in the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Mesopotamia. To recognize this, and to defend it from ideological attacks, is, in my view, the real conservative position today.
What should matter to conservatives is the empirical data, the specific circumstances, and the least worst practical way of grappling with social and economic and political problems. That's why I see the work of, say, Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Jim Manzi, Conor Friedersdorf, Fareed Zakaria, Bruce Bartlett, Jon Rauch, and on a good day, Ramesh Ponnuru (among others) as admirable and well within the contours of conservative discourse - and why I find Andy McCarthy, Powerline, Instapundit, Glenn Beck, Stephen Moore, Bill Kristol, Karl Rove, Sean Hannity and all the toujours l'audace reality-free fanatics to be the antithesis of conservatism as I have long understood it. (The deeper argument here is in The Conservative Soul.)
But I disagree with David's world-weary resignation over this, and his reluctance to support the Obama administration as it represents the pragmatic center in this day and age. The truth is: Obama has not caved to the left's understanding of the role of government. In reality, the healthcare reform was a moderate enterprise, made radical in the public consciousness by a cynical bid to propagandize the whole debate by the FNC-RNC axis. Same with the handling of the banks, the financial regulation bill, the stimulus, and the recalibration of US foreign policy after the failed belligerence of the Bush-Cheney years. If David doubts the moderation of Obama, he might ask his colleague, Paul Krugman, or read more Glenn Greenwald.
Even yesterday, Obama did not batter Wall Street. He asked them to "join" him in rescuing capitalism from itself and restoring the confidence of ordinary folks with retirement accounts in Wall Street. His September 2009 speech to Congress on healthcare reform was just as balanced and sane and moving. I feel absolutely no remorse - and considerable pride - in supporting him as a pragmatic end to the red/blue, pro-government/anti-government debate that has dominated for so long to so little practical effect.
It seems to me that if, as David notes, it is history that has allowed the perception of Obama's "big liberalism" to take hold, then it is the duty of moderate conservatives to resist this narrative, not cave into it. And that means the uncomfortable task for real conservatives of stoutly defending this president as the best option we now have. The epistemic closure on the right is how other conservatives still manage to blind themselves to the pragmatic virtues of this president's remarkable 15 month record at home and abroad. Our job is to insist that the debate continue and that criticism of Obama be based on empirical reality, not ideological fantasy. If we do, we have a president open-minded enough to listen. But if we give up, the old divides win.
So buck up, David. And get back to defending Obama when it is appropriate (which, so far, has almost always been the case). You'll lose friends; enrage colleagues; alienate long-time allies. And in the end, you'll enjoy it.
This is a great time for conservative thought - because it can be clearly disengaged from conservative power and the conservative movement. No fucking surrender.
(Photo: Sual Loeb/Getty.)