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Mr. Thoughtful And The Right

Ramesh’s post on Doug Kmiec reminded me that I wanted to post something on Bruce Bartlett’s piece for the New Republic on “Obamacons.” I like Bruce (who’s contributed to NRO for years). But I found his piece wildly underwhelming. Andrew Sullivan supports Obama! Well, he also supported John Kerry. No evidence there. Douglas Kmiec supports Obama. Okay, but his reasons to date make almost no sense. Next up, he writes:

The largest group of Obamacons hail from the libertarian wing of the movement. And it’s not just Andrew Sullivan. Milton and Rose Friedman’s son, David, is signed up with the cause on the grounds that he sees Obama as the better vessel for his father’s cause. Friedman is convinced of Obama’s sympathy for school vouchers–a tendency that the Democratic primaries temporarily suppressed. Scott Flanders, the CEO of Freedom Communications–the company that owns The Orange County Register–told a company meeting that he believes Obama will accomplish the paramount libertarian goals of withdrawing from Iraq and scaling back the Patriot Act.

I do think it’s interesting that libertarians are never counted as part of the conservative movement save when they prove their independence from the conservative movement. David Friedman may be a brilliant guy, but Bartlett surely knows that touting an anarcho-capitalist (among other things) as proof of conservative defection to Obama isn’t really a boffo argument.

Maybe Russell Kirk’s grand-nephew is supporting Obama too?

The bit about Flanders’ support of Obama (at least that’s the implication of what Bartlett writes) actually describes about 90% of this supposed phenomena. Some conservatives don’t like the war and don’t like Bush. They’re voting against the Republicans as a result. The best that one can say of the argument peddled by Kmiec, Bartlett and Cass Sunstein that Obama is a different-kind-of-Democrat with significantly conservative ideas and instincts is that it is so far not proven.

Indeed, if you read Sunstein’s piece you’re left with simultaneous assertions — from a very, very, liberal friend and advisor to Obama — that Obama’s both very liberal and very open-minded. I don’t think there’s any inherent contradiction there (though I’m sure some readers will insist otherwise), but I keep hearing from liberals and a few Republicans that Obama’s open-mindedness is proof that he’s not a conventional liberal (this seems to be the vast bulk of Kmiec’s argument as well). That may be true, if what you mean by that is that conventional liberals aren’t open-minded. But if you mean that because Obama is open-minded he’s any less liberal, I’m afraid that’s a tougher argument.

Sunstein’s opening vignette is about how Obama relied on a very liberal professor to get the conservative case for Bush policies:

Not so long ago, the phone rang in my office. It was Barack Obama. For more than a decade, Obama was my colleague at the University of Chicago Law School.

He is also a friend. But since his election to the Senate, he does not exactly call every day. On this occasion, he had an important topic to discuss: the controversy over President George W. Bush’s warrantless surveillance of international telephone calls between Americans and suspected terrorists. I had written a short essay suggesting that the surveillance might be lawful. Before taking a public position, Obama wanted to talk the problem through. In the space of about 20 minutes, he and I investigated the legal details. He asked me to explore all sorts of issues: the President’s power as commander-in-chief, the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force and more.

Obama wanted to consider the best possible defense of what Bush had done. To every argument I made, he listened carefully and offered a specific counter-argument. After the issue had been exhausted, Obama said that he thought the program was illegal, but now had a better understanding of both sides. He thanked me for my time.

This was a pretty amazing conversation, not only because of Obama’s mastery of the legal details, but also because many prominent Democratic leaders had already blasted the Bush initiative as blatantly illegal. He did not want to take a public position until he had listened to, and explored, what might be said on the other side. This is the Barack Obama I have known for nearly 15 years–a careful and even-handed analyst of law and policy, unusually attentive to multiple points of view….

Huzzah for such openmindedness! He listens carefully to what another liberal says conservatives say about an issue (covering all of the legal angles in a mere 20 minutes!) and then comes around to the same position as conventional liberals.

Again, he may be open to listening to others, but that is different from saying he finds anything but liberal arguments persuasive. There’s nothing wrong with liberals being persuaded by liberal arguments, just as there’s nothing wrong with conservatives being persuaded by conservative ones. But I fail to see why we should confuse charming conversational skills with conservatism.

Update: From a reader:


The idea that Obama is open-minded is more of the Rorschach-test phenomena

(that what is “seen” is unique to each viewer). There appears to be some

personal testimony to the open-mindedness, but no evidence. In fact, the

evidence is just the opposite, at least in the eyes of the National

Journal’s recent evaluation of Obama as the most left-wing (liberal) member

of the Senate. By this measure, everyone else is dogmatic and doctrinaire,

while Obama is our savior. This seems to be a constant theme among Obama



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