Commentary Magazine


The Left’s Self-Conception and Self-Delusion

In my most recent New York Times column, I argued that the Democratic Party has moved to the left compared to where it was during the Clinton presidency. Further, I argued, “in the last two decades the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right. On most major issues the Republican Party hasn’t moved very much from where it was during the Gingrich era in the mid-1990s.” And to demonstrate just how far the Democratic Party has moved to the left, I compared Barack Obama with Bill Clinton.

This sent many people on the left into a tizzy. One of them is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine. Mr. Chait offered up a lengthy criticism of my column, and since he’s a pretty good representative of the modern liberal mind, I thought it might be worth taking a close look at his arguments. Just for the fun of it.

1. According to Chait:

Wehner likewise ignores the studies made by political scientists to answer this question quantitatively. The most commonly used measures, DW-NOMINATE scores, show the precise opposite of what Wehner claims. Republicans have moved extremely far right, and Democrats slightly to the left, and the latter shift is a function of the extermination of its conservative white southern wing. Of course, quantitative measures can be flawed. But Wehner does not explain his disagreements with the quantitative measures, or mention their existence.

My column was focused on the Democratic Party’s shift on issues between the Obama and Clinton presidencies, but since Mr. Chait asked, I’m happy to deal with the matter he raised.

L.J. Zigerell of Illinois State University, in an article that deals with DW-NOMINATE scores, points out that this pattern of “asymmetric polarization” that supposedly proves that Republicans have moved more to the right than Democrats have moved left, is not present in other estimates of ideology. He cites data from Adam Bonica‘s CFscores that “indicates that since 1980 congressional Democrats have moved left slightly more than congressional Republicans have moved right.” He also refers to estimates developed by Michael Bailey that not only don’t show that Republicans have polarized more than Democrats; it shows the opposite. So the assertion of a Republican-caused polarization is not quite as simple and self-evident as Chait and others on the left suggest. As Zigerell puts it, different analyses show different patterns, “complicating recent accounts and inviting reflection about how polarization is defined and measured.”

So how, then, should we think about it and measure it? My column suggested looking at where today’s Democrats are on some key policy issues—and especially some of those that defined Bill Clinton’s “new Democratic” approach.

2. Chait concedes (if only in a parenthetical aside) my point that President Obama has moved to the left of Bill Clinton on some key cultural issues, immigration, and criminal justice. That is hardly a minor concession. But he goes on to write that my claims that Obama is more liberal than Clinton on religious liberties, abortion rights, and drug legalization “lack substantiation.” Fortunately I have more space in a blog post than in a column, so let me provide the substantiation for Chait thirsts for:

  • Earlier this year the Obama White House charged that Indiana’s religious freedom law “legitimize[s] discrimination.” This despite the fact that President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 — legislation championed by Democrats like Chuck Schumer (then in the House) — and there is “nothing significant” that differentiates the federal law from the Indiana law.
  • Bill Clinton was certainly liberal on abortion, but Obama – who as a state legislator opposed a bill protecting infants who survive abortions — has been even more extreme. On abortion, no less of a source than Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of American, has declared, “President Obama has done more than any president in history for women’s health and rights.”
  • On drug legalization, President Obama said in a recent interview, “We may be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side. At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana.” In an interview with The New Yorker, the president said of the two states experimenting with legalized marijuana, Colorado and Washington, “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.” And the Obama Justice Department has hardly taken a strong stance against legalization. President Clinton, in contrast, stated in his 1996 State of the Union address, “Tonight I am nominating General Barry McCaffrey as America’s new drug czar… Tonight I ask that he lead our Nation’s battle against drugs at home and abroad. To succeed, he needs a force far larger than he has ever commanded before. He needs all of us. Every one of us has a role to play on this team.” In the 1992 campaign, during a presidential debate, Clinton declared, “I am adamantly opposed to legalizing drugs.”

3. As for Chait’s assertion that I was wrong to claim the Obama administration loosened welfare work requirements: In fact, the administration proposed to allow waivers of the work requirement (in Section 407 of the Social Security Act). Allowing waivers of work requirements is, I think it’s fair to say, a way of loosening work requirements. (“Waivers granted after the date of enactment may not override provisions of the TANF law that concern mandatory work requirements,”according to a summary of the law published by the House Committee on Ways and Means.)

I understand those in the administration said they wanted to revitalize work requirements by allowing states more flexibility to use more educational and training programs; that they wanted to change the definition of work activities in a way that improves things. But there is a serious case to be made that the administration’s intent was different than its claim. The welfare expert Robert Rector has written, “HHS’s illegal waiver edict repeatedly asserts that the administration seeks to exempt states from the law’s ‘work-participation requirements’ and to replace those requirements with new standards devised by HHS without any congressional input.” The fact that the administration acted in a unilateral fashion to waive work participation rules, in a way that was directly contrary to the legislation, was also a problem. And it certainly doesn’t help Chait’s case that Barack Obama opposed Bill Clinton’s welfare plan at the time and said he would have voted against it. The idea that a liberal who opposed work requirements when welfare reform was being debated and criticized work requirements after they became law would loosen work requirements when he’s president is hardly far-fetched.

4. One of the ploys Chait uses is to imply I said things I never claimed. For example, I never said that Bill Clinton didn’t take steps to address climate change. What I said is that Obama’s approach has been more aggressively liberal. And it has been. Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald argues that Mr. Obama “has probably done more than anyone in the history of the planet to reduce carbon emissions.” President Obama has been praised by some of the most prominent climate scientists. He declared in his State of the Union address earlier this year that “No challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” And President Obama even mentioned the threat of climate change in his second inaugural address. This had never been done before. Climate change, then, is a priority for Obama, particularly in his second term, in a way it never was for Clinton. Indeed, it was none other than Jonathan Chait who last year wrote, “When President Obama leaves office three years from now, the major policy story of his second term — barring some kind of unforeseen invasion — is likely to be climate change.” No such claim could be made about President Clinton.

5. According to Chait

Obama, claims Wehner, “has focused far more attention on income inequality than did Mr. Clinton, who stressed opportunity and mobility.” Actually, both Clinton and Obama stressed inequality and mobility alike. President Clinton endlessly promised to make the rich “pay their fair share,” while Obama has stressed opportunity and mobility.

Here we go again. I never said Clinton didn’t address income inequality or that Obama never mentioned opportunity. But Obama has focused on income inequality in a way Clinton never did.

Two examples. In a much-discussed speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011, Obama argued that income inequality “distorts our democracy.” He spoke about our “gaping inequality” and said that “breathtaking greed” had contributed to America’s economic troubles and that this was a “make-or-break moment for the middle class.”

Extending the theme in 2013, Obama said income inequality “challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.” The liberal Washington Post writer Greg Sargent called it “one of the most important speeches of the Obama presidency… It will likely serve as another touchstone in an evolving argument among Democrats over the need for the party to embody a truly progressive economic agenda, one that will likely continue resonating through at least 2016 and beyond.” Tim Smeeding, an expert on inequality at the University of Wisconsin, put it this way: “This is a major speech on a topic that American presidents normally stay away from. The fact that a sitting president faced with a crowded agenda had the courage to discuss this overarching problem is historic.” [emphasis added].

6. My assertion that Mr. Clinton ended one entitlement program while Mr. Obama is responsible for creating the largest new entitlement (the Affordable Care Act) since the Great Society is true. As is my claim that Mr. Obama is the first president to essentially nationalize health care and that he proposed raising the capital-gains tax rate while Mr. Clinton lowered it. Chait writes that Clinton tried and failed to do the former and agreed to do the latter, but reluctantly. To which I would say: In judging a president’s legacy, results actually matter — and in judging a party’s ideology the views and votes of its Members in Congress matter, too. And note well: Bill Clinton was willing to embrace conservative policies as part of a compromise. That is something Mr. Obama has been unwilling to do, for the reasons my column make clear: He is far more of an ideologue.

7. In response to my statement that Mr. Clinton cut spending and produced a surplus, while under Mr. Obama, spending and the deficit reached record levels, the best Chait can do is to say, “In fact, both Clinton and Obama had similar fiscal policies.”

Let’s stick with the point I originally made and that Chait would like to avoid. Spending under Obama and Clinton was dramatically different, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP. You can look for yourself by going to this OMB document (see in particular Tables 1.2 and 1.3) and the most recent Economic Report to the President (especially Tables B-19 and B-20) to see just how profligate the Obama years have been. But let me summarize: The Obama years have in fact set a high-water mark for the size and reach of the federal government, including a post-World War II record for federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product at 25.2 percent (for comparison, the post-war average has been 19.8 percent). The United States has amassed more than $7 trillion in debt since January 2009. Prior to Obama, no president had submitted a budget with a trillion-dollar deficit; he has submitted four of them. Even as the administration’s projections for the coming years promise smaller deficits, they also promise a larger and more expensive government than Americans have ever seen. Yes, President Obama faced a financial crisis when he took office — but he also used the financial crisis to advance his progressive agenda. That is what his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, meant when he said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” And if you want to see who cut spending more between Obama and Clinton, you might take a look at this. It isn’t a close call.

8. “It is true that Obama, unlike Clinton, has failed to yield a surplus,” Chait says. “Of course, Wehner used to point out that the Clinton surplus was the temporary product of a tech bubble.”

Here’s yet another claim that needs to be untangled. What I wrote was, “The chief reason the nation went from a surplus to a deficit … was that President Bush inherited an economy skidding toward recession (it officially began just a few months after he took office). The bubble burst — and with it, so did the projected surpluses.” Which is true. It’s also true that I have said on several occasions, including here, that “over the last 40 years and eight presidencies, only two presidents have kept spending below 20 percent of GDP in even a single year: George W. Bush did it in six of his eight fiscal years; Bill Clinton in four.” It’s not inconsistent to say that Bill Clinton kept spending low by historical standards and benefited from the tech bubble.

9. Chait makes this claim:

“In foreign policy [Wehner writes], Mr. Obama has shown himself to be far more critical of traditional allies and more supine toward our adversaries than Mr. Clinton was.” These are the exact same criticisms conservatives made of Clinton during the Clinton administration. The neoconservative Richard Perle in 1996 lambasted “the nearly chronic tendency of the Administration to abandon any policy that encounters even mild opposition, guarantees that adversaries are not deterred — nor are allies assured.”

This is a silly argument. Because Richard Perle was critical of Bill Clinton in 1996 doesn’t mean my claim (or anyone else’s) about Barack Obama in 2015 isn’t accurate. I believe it is, and I’ve made that case here and here. And regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Perle about Clinton, Obama’s policies have led to an unprecedented period of American retrenchment and retreat, at least since World War II.

10. According to Chait, “The centerpiece of the conservative claim that Obama criticizes his allies is Israel, and the actual basis for this is that Israel’s government has abandoned its support for a two-state solution…” The actual basis for this is that Barack Obama has shown a reflex against, and a hostile double standard toward, Israel. Some of us find that quite disturbing. (See here for more.) I’d also point out that tensions with our allies is hardly confined to Israel. They extend to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Turkey, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada and others.

11. Chait writes

Obama has enacted more dramatic policy changes than Clinton did, but this is not because he had dramatically different goals, but because he had dramatically more success in enacting them. (This, of course, is another reality Wehner has repeatedly denied.)

Actually, if you go to this article that Chait links to, you’ll see that my argument isn’t that President Obama wasn’t successfully in getting his policies implemented. In fact, I have argued the opposite, saying “For the first two years of his presidency, Obama had his way with the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, the GM-Chrysler bailouts, ‘cash for clunkers,’ financial regulations, release of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, credit-card price controls, the endless extension of jobless benefits, and more. As the Wall Street Journal put it, ‘Mr. Obama has been the least obstructed president since LBJ in 1965 or FDR in 1933.’”

The point I was making is that where Obama has most fallen short during his presidency is not in the implementation of his policies so much as in the results of his policies. Where Mr. Obama is most vulnerable is judging him by his own words and promises – on job creation, economic growth, reducing poverty and income inequality, transparency, depolarizing our politics, the Russian “reset”, peace in the Middle East, and on and on. Some years (like 2013) Obama has had more difficulty than other years (2009-2010). But overall Obama has enacted much of what he wanted. And America is paying quite a high price because of it.

The reaction on the left to my Times column revealed how deeply and emotionally invested many progressives are in a particular self-conception and self-delusion. They have constructed a world in which they see themselves as hyper-rational, moderate, reasonable, and empirical. When those assumptions are challenged, and when their own extremism is revealed, they more or less freak out. They have a much higher opinion of themselves than they should.

I should say, too, that it’s rather bizarre to hear people on the left insist that President Obama isn’t a good deal more liberal than Bill Clinton, who after all fashioned himself as a “New Democrat” and chaired headed the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC, remember, was an effort to move the Democratic Party – which had been beaten in five out of six presidential elections (1968-1988) – toward the center on certain key issues. One of Mr. Clinton’s goals, like that of “New Labour’s” Tony Blair, was the ideological renovation of his party. Now and again he showed a willingness to confront ideological excesses within his own coalition in ways that Mr. Obama would never dream of. Which makes sense, since Obama is much more a man of the left than Bill Clinton was.

On many of the issues the New Democrats emphasized, today’s Democratic Party has turned against their ideas and returned to roughly where it was in the 1970s. And there’s no sign things are about to turn around. The Washington Post, in a story about how Hillary Clinton is banking on the Obama coalition to win in 2016 and underscores Obama’s ideological effect on his party, said, “Hillary Rodham Clinton is running as the most liberal Democratic presidential front-runner in decades, with positions on issues … that would, in past elections, have put her at her party’s precarious left edge.” So even Hillary Clinton is running from Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. As I said,  in the last two decades the Democratic Party has moved substantially further to the left than the Republican Party has shifted to the right. For progressives, call this an Inconvenient Truth.

* * * *

Fifteen years ago Mickey Kaus, who used to work at The New Republic, wrote that the magazine had been lurching to the left. In citing examples, Kaus wrote this about one of its then-senior editors:

There was Jonathan Chait charging that “today’s GOP remains the most radical political party since World War II” (Barry Goldwater? George McGovern?) while simultaneously arguing that “where [George W.] Bush is given credit for his centrism, he is actually following his colleagues on the Hill.”

Referring to Chait’s colleagues and to Chait himself, Kaus wrote that the “strained, sloppy attacks” were “dispiriting.” As it was then, so it remains today.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

2 Responses to “The Left’s Self-Conception and Self-Delusion”

  1. ALLEN STEWART says:

    “The reaction on the left to my Times column revealed how deeply and emotionally invested many progressives are in a particular self-conception and self-delusion. They have constructed a world in which they see themselves as hyper-rational, moderate, reasonable, and empirical. When those assumptions are challenged, and when their own extremism is revealed, they more or less freak out. They have a much higher opinion of themselves than they should.”

    Best description of the mindset of the self-important, self-righteous Left I have read in a long time – and a stark warning of why these dangerous madmen (and women) must be kept as far away from the reins of American power as possible.

  2. FRED EHRMAN says:

    It was hardly necessary to so well document the fact of the radical move to the left of the Democratic Party, a fact that is so evident. But the party has been dragged there by its leader, Barack Obama. Until it chooses a Truman, Johnson and yes a Bill Clinton to be the party head, that directional movement will continue. Interestingly the challenging declared candidates for 2016,Sanders and O’Malley would accelerate the trend. The front runner Hillary Clinton has to date done nothing to indicate that she may moderate her current appeal to her base. That strategy may yet appear when she begins to attempt to appeal to the wide electorate next year, but her heart remains closer to the base than to her husband. Henry Jackson, where are you?

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.