In Praise of the Rotation of Power
Sometimes the responsibility of actually governing forces a party to embrace the policies of its opponents.


Charles Krauthammer

As the Afghanistan War intensifies — Marja, soon Kandahar, and the steady arrival of 30,000 new American troops — it has come to be seen as Obama’s war.

Not so. It’s become America’s war. When the former opposition party – habitually antiwar for the last four decades — adopted, reaffirmed, and escalated a war begun by the habitually hawkish other party, partisanship fell away, and the war became nationalized.

And legitimized. Do you think if John McCain, let alone George W. Bush, were president, we would not see growing demonstrations protesting our continued presence in Iraq and the escalation of Afghanistan? That we wouldn’t see a serious push in Congress to cut off funds?

Why aren’t we seeing those things? Because Barack Obama is now commander-in-chief. The lack of opposition is not a matter of hypocrisy. It is a natural result of the rotation of power. When a party is in opposition, it opposes. That’s its job. But when it comes to power, it must govern. Easy rhetoric is over; the press of reality becomes irresistible. By necessity, it adopts some of the policies it had once denounced. And a new national consensus is born.

In this case, the antiwar party has followed the Bush endgame to a T in Iraq and has doubled down in Afghanistan. And there is no general restiveness (over this, at least).

The rotation of power is the finest political instrument ever invented for the consolidation of what were once radical and deeply divisive policies. The classic example is the New Deal. Republicans railed against it for 20 years. Then Dwight Eisenhower came to power and wisely left it intact, and no serious leader since has called for its repeal.

Similarly, Bill Clinton consolidated Reaganism, and Tony Blair consolidated Thatcherism. In both cases, center-left moderates brought their parties to accept the major premises of the highly successful conservative reforms that preceded them.

A similar consolidation has happened with many of the Bush anti-terror policies. In opposition, the Democrats decried warrantless wiretaps, rendition, and detention without trial. But now that they are charged with protecting us from the bad guys, they’ve come to view these as indispensable national-security measures.

Some other Bush policies have been challenged by the new administration, with its proposed civilian trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Miranda rights for the Christmas Day bomber, and its pledge to close Guantanamo as of two months ago. But even in these cases, the governing administration is bending to reality. If (or, in my view, when) Obama does send KSM back to a military tribunal, that institution will become fully legitimized, understood to be the result of practical, empirical considerations rather than of a mere George Bush whim.


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