A leading conservative intellectual thoughtfully critiques Obama, but he's drowned out by the talker's egregious, laughable straw men.
In the widely discussed clip above, President Obama makes the case for raising tax rates a few percentage points on Americans making more than $250,000 per year by arguing that successful people in this country didn't get there on their own. They benefited from the provision of public goods, though some of them deny it. "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," he said. "There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business--you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
What fascinates me are two reactions to the speech, both from conservatives. Juxtaposing them sheds some light on today's conservative movement and the unacknowledged fissures within it. The thoughtful critique comes from Yuval Levin, whose arguments are always worth taking seriously. He quotes the president a bit more broadly, including his line that " You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart."
But that's a straw man, Levin argues:
The first thing to say about the president's argument is that most of it is true, and is very, very obvious. No one would disagree with the specific things he says, except perhaps the vague and strange "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." Who? But the president clearly thinks that some people do disagree with his more general point that everyone depends on society. It's very evident from this passage and from a great deal of what he has to say about his opponents that Obama thinks he is running against a band of nihilistic Ayn Rand objectivists who champion complete and utter radical individualism.
There is some truth to this characterization. Vanishingly few wealth Republicans object to the roads, bridges, firefighting services, or other popular public goods that Obama specifically mentions in his speech, nor do they deny the general proposition that everyone depends on society. And Paul Ryan's budget does indeed dedicate lots of money to the provision of public goods. "The president implies that his opponents don't think government has any purpose at all, or that laws are necessary for free markets, and don't recognize the fruits of any common efforts in American history," Levin concludes. "That's just ridiculous." The remainder of his post posits that the argument we ought to be having is about what distinguishes public and private goods.
Rush Limbaugh had a rather different reaction to President Obama's speech. The talk radio host did not conclude that "the first thing to say about the president's argument is that most of it is true, and is very, very obvious." He told his listeners that Obama's words were evidence of something else:
I'll tell you what. I think it can now be said, without equivocation -- without equivocation -- that this man hates this country. He is trying -- Barack Obama is trying -- to dismantle, brick by brick, the American dream.
There's no other way to put this. There's no other way to explain this.
He was indoctrinated as a child. His father was a communist. His mother was a leftist. He was sent to prep and Ivy League schools where his contempt for the country was reinforced. He moved to Chicago. It was the home of the radical-left movement. He hooks up to Ayers and Dohrn and Rashid Khalidi. He learns the ruthlessness of Cook County politics. This is what we have as a president: a radical ideologue, a ruthless politician who despises the country and the way it was founded and the way in which it became great. He hates it.
This is a handy illustration of movement conservatism's problem. Its leading intellectuals frequently say, in effect, that their political opponents are taking on unsophisticated straw man arguments, the sort of thing that vanishingly few people on the right actually believe. They're right that President Obama rarely takes on the strongest conservative arguments against his policies.
But the straw man critique is undermined by the fact that guys like Levin write for a niche audience of wonks, while Limbaugh, America's most popular conservative pundit, regularly advances arguments that would be egregious, laughable straw men if guys like him didn't actually make them. Publications like National Review nevertheless treat Limbaugh as an ally who is praised in the magazine's pages far more often than he is criticized. It is untenable to maintain that relationship and to complain when Obama attributes Limbaugh-style idiocy to conservatives. The right would do well to "throw him under the bus" like Rev. Wright and Sister Souljah.That's what political movements do to liabilities, and what intellectual movements do to anti-intellectuals.