Commentary Magazine


When Conventional Liberalism Fails, What Next?

In the newest Beltway parlor game — “How could Obama have messed up this badly?” — Michael Gerson offers an interesting answer: “The administration’s main problem is this: It has not contributed a single innovative, bipartisan idea on a major issue during its first year in office. Instead, it relied on its congressional majority to impose a tired leftism.” As for the president, Gerson adopts the existential analysis: “Either he is a pragmatist who always seems to choose conventional liberalism or a liberal impersonating a pragmatist. It matters little. Obama has polarized the electorate in unprecedented ways.”

It’s remarkable we don’t have a better answer given the length of the 2008 campaign and the 24/7 coverage. Yet, in all the cooing and leg-tingling, the media’s infatuation with Obama left little time to consider the substance (or lack thereof) in his soaring oratory. And virtually no time was spent considering how it came to be that a man so celebrated for his intellect had left such a light footprint in his brief career. Why were there no major legislative initiatives or interesting deviations from liberal orthodoxy? Well, certainly the perpetual fixation with running for higher office didn’t leave much time for accomplishing anything. But perhaps he had little interest in real policy debates and even less in the nitty-gritty of putting together actual legislation.

Less rigorous in his thinking than Ronald Reagan (who, contrary to the dunce image cultivated by liberals, for decades wrote, thought hard about, and spoke on the issues of the day) and less intellectually creative than Bill Clinton (who’d been forced as governor to navigate in a conservative state), Obama got to the presidency not through the appeal of his ideas but by the idea of Him. To be blunt, maybe the reason why the administration ”has not contributed a single innovative, bipartisan idea on a major issue” is that Obama doesn’t have any and isn’t interested in any.

It’s hard to know where Obama will turn now. Some “inauthentic populism”? Some small-beans measures that really do very little to address the very big economic problems we have? Gerson optimistically hopes for some Reaganism — a pro-growth, pro-jobs approach to jump-start hiring in the battered private sector. Then there’s a full-blown reform agenda offered by Rep. Paul Ryan. Well, one can dream, but it’s hard to conceive of Obama adopting an ideologically eclectic policy agenda or abandoning his fondness for big government.

In short, Obama’s never been anything but a conventional ultra-liberal. In all the hoopla of the campaign and the pretty packaging, that was neatly disguised. Now that his ideology has proved unworkable, it’s hard to say which way he’ll turn. We might get a hint tonight. Or then again, we might just get another dose of defiant liberalism (with some rhetorical window dressing). It’s what he knows best.