Progressive Chameleons

by Jim Geraghty
The difficulty of beating an opponent who doesn’t believe in much of anything.

The Obama era is a particularly frustrating period for the Right, as each passing year reveals the extraordinary difficulty of beating a foe who holds few if any inviolable positions or beliefs.

At a recent conference on tax and regulatory policy sponsored by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, Phil Kerpen, president of the free-market organization American Commitment, noted that Democratic lawmakers are quietly cheering the Environmental Protection Agency’s sweeping regulation of carbon emissions and other new rules that effectively ban the construction of new coal plants. Those lawmakers know that these EPA rules would be political suicide to pass as legislation, so the Left has the agency implement them as regulation, and do it only in the president’s second term.

Thus the party that spent the Bush years screaming about the “Imperial Presidency” overwhelmingly decides that the legislative branch is an unnecessary obstacle to setting its preferred environmental policy. We’ve reached the point where vehemently anti-Bush Democrats in Congress now write up executive orders for President Obama to implement unilaterally.

The legislative branch matters, until it doesn’t. The filibuster matters, until it doesn’t. Yesterday’s positions get dropped if they interfere with today’s needs. The Right is dealing with extremely adaptive foes who, for the most part, have no hesitation about lying to get what they want.

In the Obama-era Left, a promise repeatedly emphasized with passion and vehemence can and will be suddenly dismissed with a shrug. The highest-profile example of this is “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” Even today, long after the promise has been declared the “Lie of the Year,” the White House website has a page labeled “Reality Check” that proclaims the accuracy of the pledge: “Linda Douglass of the White House Office of Health Reform debunks the myth that reform will force you out of your current insurance plan or force you to change doctors. To the contrary, reform will expand your choices, not eliminate them.”

But even before Obamacare was committed to paper, the individual mandate that is now Obama’s signature domestic achievement represented a useful wedge issue in 2008’s Democratic primaries — from the position of opposition. He ran attack ads against Hillary Clinton: “What’s she not telling you about her health care plan? It forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can’t afford it, and you pay a penalty if you don’t.” Yesterday’s intolerable outrage becomes today’s sensible policy.

Positions change 180 degrees within the blink of an eye. You may recall, during the Obamacare debate, the administration and congressional Democrats insisting, on a stack of Bibles, that the penalty for not having insurance wasn’t a tax. Then, the moment they had to defend it in court, they insisted it was a tax — just part of Congress’s ordinary, constitutionally sound tax-law-writing authority.

When Democratic members of Congress were recently reminded of their promise that the “Affordable Care Act” would “save $2,500 per family,” they responded with awkward silence and then laughter.

Why, it’s almost as if they don’t really believe anything they say.

Proposals, ideas, actions — they’re rarely inherently good or bad to progressives; they’re good or bad depending upon what is needed at any particular moment.

President Obama “entered office promising to limit the practice” of naming campaign donors to plum ambassadorial posts “and instead appoint more Foreign Service professionals to ambassadorial positions.” In fact, he has embraced the practice to the extent that now more than half our ambassadors are political appointees instead of career Foreign Service.

A ban on meeting with lobbyists in the White House is circumvented by meeting with them at a coffee shop across the street. A loud and oft-repeated pledge to not hire lobbyists in policymaking positions is undermined by more than 100 waivers.

Mitt Romney’s wealth is ipso facto evidence of his bad character, greed, and disconnect from ordinary Americans; Terry McAuliffe’s isn’t. Wall Street’s wealth is bad, George Soros’s isn’t.

They don’t really believe anything they say.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama declared, “driving up our national debt from $5 trillion to $9 trillion is irresponsible. It’s unpatriotic.” Of course, the national debt has increased $6.8 trillion in the five years since President Obama took office.

An $800 billion stimulus can be sold to the public as chock-full of “shovel-ready jobs”; later the president can admit, “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”

If you have a particularly good memory, you may recall 2008 campaign-trail promises from Barack Obama to end the income tax for seniors making $50,000 or less, double federal funding for cancer research, double funding for the Peace Corps, and double funding for afterschool programs. None of those promises has been kept.

They don’t really believe anything they say.

Perhaps the most whiplash-inducing policy changes have come in the realms of national security and foreign policy, where a president carried to office by the passions of an allegedly anti-war movement has proven that it was, at its heart, always an anti-Bush and anti-Republican movement.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton loudly and publicly oppose a troop surge in Iraq, then later privately admit that their positions didn’t reflect their actual views, but were meant to win support among Iowa primary voters. Then critics of the surge in Iraq proposed and implemented their own short-lived surge of additional troops in Afghanistan.

Obama argued that America had to get out of Iraq in order to fight the good war in Afghanistan — and then, once in office, made it increasingly clear he didn’t really want to fight that good war in Afghanistan.

Casualties in Afghanistan went way up, but loud anti-war protests were never heard after Obama took office.

The vast majority of Democrats are perfectly okay with a president having a “kill list” as long as that president is their guy. The presence of a presidential “kill list” is not considered in any way to be contradictory with receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee remains completely oblivious to the existence of the kill list, despite front-page New York Times stories on it. The people around Obama only started thinking about any limits or operating rules on the use of drones when they realized there was a chance Mitt Romney could become president.

Closing Guantanamo Bay was a pressing national priority — until it wasn’t. The deadline for the president’s promise passes, and no one on the Left gets all that upset about it.

They don’t really believe anything they say.

The Left exploded with fury about the Bush administration’s Patriot Act but have had very hit-and-miss objections to the NSA programs. In 2006, when George W. Bush was president, just 37 percent of Democrats said NSA surveillance programs were acceptable, while 61 percent said they were not. By June 2013, 64 percent of Democrats approved, and 34 percent disapproved. (Republicans’ views shifted during that time period as well, but less dramatically, from 75 percent approval to about evenly split.)

Prominent members of the Left don’t care about their own carbon emissions while urging others to reduce theirs. They call for tax hikes on other people while failing to pay their own taxes.

The lesson of the Obama years is that most progressives — certainly large swaths of the lefty grassroots, and most of the well-connected elites — don’t really give a hoot about most of the things they scream about. What they want is to win, and almost all the policy details are negotiable. If winning requires Wendy Davis to pretend that she could support certain legal restrictions on abortion after 20 weeks, then she’ll do it. If winning requires Barack Obama to tell prominent evangelical Rick Warren that “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” then he’ll do it.

Those on the Left find the person they want to support, and fall in line behind that person. On the Right, many of us reverse the process: We pick our positions and then hunt for a figure who lines up with those positions as close to 100 percent as possible. This means that any policy disagreement can trigger a dissipation of enthusiasm or cries of “RINO!” High-flying stars can tumble quickly, as Senator Marco Rubio learned when he backed a comprehensive immigration deal.

The Right’s approach may be better, but it is also much, much more difficult.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.