Charles Krauthammer has a typically insightful column today on “the ever-malleable Mr. Obama.” The earth’s landscape is now littered with former Obama commitments, and his embrace of the conservative court’s views on the child rape and second amendment cases this week is head-snapping. Obama sounds like the president of the Federalist Society.
Barack Obama may be the best political embodiment of Woody Allen’s character Leonard Zelig we have seen. The complete ease with which Obama shifts positions, with only the slightest bit of media scrutiny, is quite amazing. And the original conceit of the Obama campaign, which is that he is above the “old politics,” won’t play the “Washington game” and is a one-man antidote to cynicism, should now evoke a belly laugh.
There is, though, a larger lesson to draw from what is unfolding. Obama, in order to win the presidency, is fleeing liberalism as fast as his feet will carry him. McCain, on the other hand, proudly presents himself as a “Ronald Reagan conservative.” That is the best testimony there is to the fact that America remains a center-right, and certainly not a liberal, nation. It is also an important reminder that the Republican Party and the conservative movement are separate, with the former in considerably worse shape than the latter.
The ways in which America is more and less conservative than it once was in an interesting matter to explore. But it’s safe to say, I think, that if the presidential race is framed as Barack Obama, Democrat v. John McCain, Republican, Obama will win. If on the other hand the race is framed as Barack Obama, liberal v. John McCain, conservative, McCain will win.
That is worth bearing in mind as one commentator after another speaks out about the supposed crisis afflicting conservatism. I don’t dispute that conservatism is in a time of some transition, which makes perfect sense. The problems we face today are in some respects different than they were a quarter-century ago– and even different than they were a decade ago (when welfare and crime were much more of a concern to voters). We sometimes forget that one of Ronald Reagan’s great gifts was the capacity to apply conservative principles to the challenges of his time, including “stagflation” and Soviet communism (for example, replacing détente with the theory of rollback). Prior to Reagan, in fact, supply-side economics wasn’t a serious economic theory, let alone a practical policy. Health care costs and jihadism were not issues – and forced busing and apartheid in South Africa were.
Times obviously change and conservatism, in the best Burkean tradition, adjusts to changing circumstances. But the core philosophy of American conservatism remains, unlike American liberalism, appealing. Just look at Barack Obama this week if you doubt it.