Paul Mirengoff, one of the troika who writes for the outstanding blog Powerline, posted a piece taking issue, in a respectful way, with what I wrote here.
According to Paul, my claim that Barack Obama’s tack to the center is probably a wise move and, as such, underscores that “America remains a center-right, basically conservative leaning nation” is not quite right. In addition, my statement that “the fact that Obama understands this and is doing everything he can do inoculate himself against the charge of liberalism ought to be welcomed news to conservatives” is “too sanguine.” Paul points out that Obama isn’t even tacking significantly away from the left on most key domestic issues, e.g., health care, energy policy, and taxes. “Overall,” Paul writes, “Obama’s moves show only that America remains a centrist nation.”
I’m not sure Paul and I differ on all that much. But whether we do or not, I’ll take this as an opportunity to elaborate my views. My point, as I stated in my original post, is that conservatism, despite the challenges it faces today, is still the most appealing and popular political philosophy in America. Moreover, liberalism remains a lethal charge in a presidential campaign (if the charge sticks). It tells us something important that Obama will fight hard against the claim that he is a liberal, arguing that such labels are part of the “old politics” that he has magically transcended. McCain, on the other hand, is happy to be labeled a conservative.
There are certainly exceptions but, for the most part, both candidates are moving in a more conservative direction (which is not to say that Obama is running as a conservative). Even on taxes, Obama has indicated that he is not committed to raising it beyond 28 percent, and he’ll probably settle for something closer to 20 percent — not ideal by any means, but lower than it was during the Clinton presidency pre-1997. Obama is also much more likely to highlight his plan to taxes for middle class Americans than he is to argue that taxes will go up under an Obama administration. Nor is Obama portraying himself as an advocate for a HillaryCare-like government takeover of our health care system. And his recent statements on religion and the public square, abortion, terrorist surveillance, guns, trade, the military, patriotism, meeting with Ahmadinejad, and much else is an indication, I think, that even someone with Obama’s left-leaning tendencies understands that he must, at least during a presidential campaign, distance himself from contemporary liberalism.
I have written before that the ways in which America has become more and less conservative over the years is a fascinating and complicated discussion. We are, for example, probably more conservative on issues like crime and welfare than we were. No national politician is running on repealing welfare reform or retreating on anti-crime initiatives. In the 1990s it was widely believed that the gun debate would favor liberals; in this decade, Democrats have run from their opposition to guns as fast as their feet will carry them.
The military is far more respected than it once was, and Senator Obama is hardly advocating slashing its budget (which liberals did routinely in the 1970s and 1980s). No one is insisting that the top tax rate return to 70 percent, which is where it was when Ronald Reagan took office. On immigration, there is now widespread consensus on the need to secure our Southern border. As for energy policy: with gas costing more than $4 a gallon, drilling seems to be making a comeback. There is certainly more openness toward nuclear power than there once was. According to Justice Scalia, originalism is more popular in law schools these days than it was 20 years ago. We’ve made progress on insisting on high standards and accountability in education, to say nothing of the rise of charter schools. On abortion, the debate has moved in a somewhat more conservative direction, I think, thanks in part to sonograms and the debate about partial birth abortion. The view that divorce is a liberating and largely harmless act, including for children of divorced parents, is now widely viewed as the nonsense it always was. The belief that drug use is cool and liberating seems antiquated as well. And very few national figures are publicly in favor of quotas and racial set-asides.
This is not to say that America is a deeply ideological country — it isn’t and it never has been — or that conservatism is everywhere and in every way dominant. It clearly is not — and in some areas, including same-sex marriage and the environment — the tide has been moving against conservatism. Those who believed that eliminating the Department of Education and shutting down the federal government would be popular were wrong. And while attitudes may have shifted for the better on issues like divorce, there is hardly a national movement to repeal no-fault divorce laws. State-wide school choice initiatives have failed everywhere they have been tried.
But on balance, I think, it’s fair to say that conservatism has been on the ascendancy during the last 25 years and that we remain, in the main, a center-right nation. Might Barack Obama change all that if he is elected president? Perhaps. And might, with some luck, Obama be viewed as a successful president, as Paul suggests? It’s possible. But I think the odds are even better that if Obama governs as an orthodox liberal — which is certainly a distinct possibility, given his own record and the likely composition of the Senate and House in 2009 — there will be a fairly strong counter-reaction against him and his agenda. Something like that happened in 1994, just two years after Clinton and Gore swept into office and Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, and it might happen again.
I hope, however, it’s a proposition we don’t test.