After a first term that has been historically abysmal, President Obama stands a good chance of being reelected. How can that be?
Here is the blunt explanation: We have lost a third of the country and, as if that weren’t bad enough, Republicans act as if it were two-thirds.
The lost third cannot be recovered overnight. For now, it is gone. You cannot cede the campus and the culture to the progressive, post-American Left for two generations and expect a different outcome. So even if Obama is the second coming of Jimmy Carter — and he has actually been much more effective, and therefore much worse — it is unreasonable to expect a Reagan-style landslide, and would be even if we had Reagan. The people coming of age in our country today have been reared very differently from those who were just beginning to take the wheel in the early 1980s. They have marinated in an unapologetically progressive system that prizes group discipline and narrative over free will and critical thought.
The narratives are not always easy to follow. In the progressive weltanschauung, good and evil are relative. Good is whatever it is said to be in the moment; don’t ask anyone to explain why “choice” is a value when it involves killing the unborn, though it is seen as an obvious nuisance when it involves the right to choose the double cheeseburger over the salad. Evil is contextualized and root-caused into vaporous abstraction. We no longer know whether it’s wrong — only that, whoever may have done it, it’s our fault.
Yet, even with good and evil enveloped in fog, progressive narratives remain sharply Manichaean: You can always tell the heroes from the villains. Obama is a hero because he cares. Conservatives are villains because they don’t. And Republicans are villains because they are conservative.
None of these statements is true, of course. Obama cares about Obama, which is hardly heroic. Conservatives are repulsed by government intrusions into the private sphere because we believe private citizens are better than government’s social engineers at promoting prosperity for everyone. And today’s Republican party is not very conservative: At a time when the welfare state is — inevitably — collapsing of its own weight, Romney and Ryan run as its guardians. They’ve come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.
Still, the truth is increasingly irrelevant. Contemporary American politics is about emotion and perception. And this is a game Republicans will never win — and not, as they would have you believe, because the deck is stacked against them.
Certainly, the media, the academy, and most of our society’s major institutions are heavily influenced by progressives, if not outright controlled by them. It is therefore a given that elite opinion will portray Republicans as villains. Yet, that longstanding challenge for Republicans has never before been an insuperable one. In America, at least until now, the avant-garde has never been able to tame the public. It has always been possible to run against elite opinion and win — if you make a compelling counter-case.
Today’s Republicans do not. Indeed, they cannot, because they have accepted the progressive framework. Their argument is not that the welfare state, deficit spending, federalized education, sharia-democracy promotion, and the rest are bad policies. Their argument is not that Washington needs to be dramatically downsized. It is that progressive governance is fine but needs to be better executed.
Ain’t that something to rally around! The counter-case is supposed to demonstrate why the other guys are deeply wrong. You’re not going to get very far with “We’re not as bad as they say we are.”
It is hard to complain about Obama’s $5 trillion in new debt when you added $5 trillion just before he did. “Well, we took eight years and he took only four” is not exactly a response that stirs the soul — particularly when the country took two centuries to amass the first $5 trillion.
Then there’s Medicare, which the GOP has made a pivotal election issue. The problem with Medicare is not just that its current formula is unsustainable, or that Obama diverted a staggering amount of projected future spending on it into yet another bank-breaking entitlement. It is that the national government is innately incapable of running an entitlement program. Is the election about the side that grasps this versus the side for which enough is never enough? Surely you jest.
As constituted, our government offered two visions of “providing for the general welfare.” First is the Madisonian principle that Congress’s capacity to tax and spend is strictly limited to its enumerated powers — which do not include running social-welfare programs. The second is a Hamiltonian gloss, giving Congress additional latitude, provided that its schemes benefit all Americans equally — which would preclude welfare programs that take from A for the benefit of B.
Once you abandon these moorings, once you accept a wealth-redistribution system in which government becomes the arbiter of “social justice,” the ball game is over. If government is given license to even the scales between the have-nots and the haves, the political incentive to even them will be constant and overpowering: Enough will never be enough. If the rationale for giving government this power is that the asset in question is corporate property, not private, what is to be the limiting principle? Why health care but not housing or income? And when it comes to providing for the truly needy among 310 million people, central-government planners will simply never be as good at it as decent societies and their local governments. And so the allocation of burdens and benefits in federal entitlement programs is guaranteed to be warped, wasteful, and ultimately unsustainable.
Yet, no political party is making that case. Both candidates want you to know they are sentries of the safety net. And no major conservative journal or think tank, it seems, would have it any other way. Concededly, the GOP’s approach, “Let’s work within this implausible system and do the best we can to patch it up . . . someday,” is a more attractive position than Obama’s “Let’s break the bank now.” But inspiring? . . . Not exactly.
The third of the country we’ve lost may seem like a decided minority. Progressives do not need more than that, though, to run the show, not today. They proved that at their own convention this week, with the laughable platform-amendment episode.
The smarter Alinskyites among them realized that taking God and Jerusalem out of the platform was a blunder, so they ordered them put back in. Under the rules (ahem), that required a two-thirds’ vote of the delegates. When the vote was publicly taken, it became embarrassingly clear not only that there were not two-thirds in favor but that the “nays” may have had a majority. But the minority “ayes” are in power, and that’s all they needed. They peremptorily deemed themselves the victors. The amendments passed, and, after some brief groaning, the rest of the Left got with the program.
It was as rigged a vote as you’d find in any banana republic. But Democrats are unembarrassed — maybe even unembarrassable. It’s like the Obamacare debate in Congress: They’re not worried about what it looks like; they’re worried about winning.
Today’s Republicans are worried about what it looks like. Winning is secondary. What matters most is that they not appear too mean on a stage they’ve allowed their bare-knuckles opponents to set. Their consultants tell them: “It’s not what you stand for; it’s how you get to 50 percent plus one. So soften your edges, drop the philosophy crap, and if you need to show the media some backbone, find a conservative to bash.”
There is a big conservative base out there — bigger than the third of the country we’ve lost. But they’re left to scratch their heads and say, “I’m supporting this guy . . . why?” The response comes a little less quickly after each fit of pique: “Oh, right, because he’s not Obama.”
That’s a lot, but will it be enough?
Obama’s base, that lost third of the country, may not be as enthralled as they were in 2008. But they are committed, utterly convinced about who the villains are, and prepared to be as chameleon as it takes to reel in, from the culture they dominate, the additional 15 percent or so needed to push their guy across the finish line. That’s how what should be a landslide for his opponent becomes a squeaker.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. His latest book, Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, will be published by Encounter Books on September 18.