Obama and the Right

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Andrew argues that the dismissive reactions to Obama's speech from the right are "palpably fueled by fear and racism." That's unfair and unfounded: As I suggested yesterday in detailing my own qualms about the speech, they're palpably fueled by the fact that Obama is a liberal. The conservative idea of a candidate who's "transformational" on race is someone who sounds like Bill Cosby and works with Ward Connerly, and that just isn't what Obama's doing; hence the Right's disappointment, which in many cases is curdling into dismissiveness and outright dislike. Instead, Obama's trying to be a transformational figure on the following two counts: First, as John McWhorter suggests in his response to the speech, he's trying to free African-American politics from the vise grip of grievance and resentment, breaking away not only from the Sharptons and Jacksons but from the NAACP line of Julian Bond and Kweise Mfume as well, and bringing black Americans out of racialism and radicalism and into the liberal mainstream; at the same time, he's trying to bring the country, which has heretofore tilted right, into the center-left mainstream as well. (The latter achievement, obviously, depends on the former, which is why the Wright affair is potentially so damaging: It calls into question his promise as a new kind of a black politician, without which his hope to be a new kind of American politician more or less collapses.)

It's been noted before before, but to understand the Right's mounting disappointment with his candidacy it's worth pointing out again that in his attempt to bring new voters into the Democratic tent, Obama's rightward outreach is primarily stylistic rather than substantive. He's making a bet that the country is already moving left, and that by taking an unusually respectful (by liberal standards) approach to the ideas and grievances that pushed an earlier generation to the right he can win many of them, and their children, back to the liberalism that once dominated American politics. As everyone from Rod Dreher to Mickey Kaus to Steve Sailer have noted, his practical concessions to present-day conservatism are vanishingly small. But he isn't trying to win over the gang at the Corner, or movement conservatives more generally; he's trying to win over those voters (and writers) who sometimes think that conservatives make a lot of sense, but whose ideological commitments are ultimately malleable. So of course if you're an ideological conservative you don't like what you hear from him; he's talking to everybody else, but not to you.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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