David’s reading of Obama’s political biography is characteristically thoughtful, but I’m going to disagree, respectfully.
In the taxonomy David offers, the modern Left is made up of “pure activists” and “moderates.” I think he’s leaving out a third category, especially important because it is the one into which Obama falls: Alinsky radicals. In Bill Ayers’s terrorist incarnation, he was, I guess, what David refers to as a “pure activist.” But Alinsky looked down on him and the other Weathermen, just as much as he looked down on progressive “moderates.” On goals, Alinsky and Ayers, were on the same page, but Alinsky dismissed him as a clown because Ayers’s methods were counterproductive.
In Alinsky’s view, the only radicalism that had a chance to succeed was the one that could bore inside bourgeois institutions, co-opt the language, and move the mainstream in the radical direction — but only as fast as political conditions would allow. Remaining radical but being coldly pragmatic kept the Alinskyite both effective and viable, allowing him to keep coming back for more. Ayers eventually learned this lesson — the lesson that you can do more for the cause by running the classroom than by blowing up the classroom or occupying the campus. As Ayers himself says, he’s just as radical today as he ever was — he is no moderate progressive. But now he’s actually accomplishing things, affecting thousands of minds. To borrow the words of Van Jones, another radical Leftist turned Alinskyite, he decided “to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends.”
Obama has never shifted. He’s always been the same guy. But he adjusts to the conditions of his environment. He’s not mainstream; he’s about moving the mainstream.
Obamacare is a textbook example. As David says, many pure radicals pooh-pooh this astonishing triumph (from the Left’s perspective) as a gutless half-measure — they want single-payer, and they want it yesterday. But that was not politically possible. What Obama got done, though, was a nearly 3000-page monstrosity that gives bureaucrats limitless authority to take over the healthcare sector in an amount of time that will be much shorter than most people appreciate, and that gradually strangles private insurance out of existence. Obama got his hand on the controls, exploited the tools that were available, took the measure of his feckless opposition, and went as far as it was practical to go while maintaining a fairly good chance at being reelected (which would mean appointing hundreds more likeminded bureaucrats and federal judges, who will apply and interpret Obamacare for years to come). It is a radical masterstroke, and even if it will take time to flower fully, no pure activist could have done it better.
David writes: “radical, ‘conviction’ politicians don’t decry Gitmo then keep it open, promise to end the wars then reinforce the troops, express outrage at Bush war tactics then maintain rendition and triple the number of drone strikes.” With due respect, that is way off the mark.
1 – Yes, Gitmo is still open, but only because it was politically impossible to close it and stay viable, not because Obama has somehow moderated. And as a practical matter, there are many fewer terrorists housed there than when he started, and there is certain to be a faster, more thorough house-cleaning (by repatriations and civilian trials) if he is reelected.
2 – Yes, Obama surged troops, but as few as he could get away with (many fewer than his commanders wanted), and only to grease the wheels to end the wars. He announced a drawdown simultaneously with the surge, has accelerated the pull-out, and — even though the wars are ending badly for our country — he is nevertheless ending them, just as he promised to do.
3 – Yes, Obama has been very tough on al-Qaeda overseas, but that has made it far easier for him to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood (both overseas and here at home). This makes perfect sense, actually: the Muslim Brotherhood is to al Qaeda as Alinsky was to the Weathermen — the bloodthirsty and ultimately ineffective Islamists are giving way to the sophisticated, competent, highly effective Islamists.
I was interviewed by a reporter earlier today about the Gitmo bar’s infiltration of the Obama Justice Department. The reporter made the same point David does: While most ordinary Americans may think it radical for a lawyer to volunteer his services to file offensive lawsuits on behalf of the enemy against the United States in wartime, this is not considered radical in the legal community — there, it is “mainstream.” Well, okay … but that the radicals think of themselves as mainstream does not make them mainstream — they are still radicals. And what’s the upshot of all of this? Lawyers who thought our enemies were worth volunteering to help are now the lawyers who make counterterrorism policy for the country — something so radical as to have been inconceivable just a short time ago, but something that is happening in the Obama administration. And by working it from the inside, these lawyers are incrementally but noticeably moving the mainstream in a radical direction. If the president is reelected, he and they will do much more. Like Obama, they haven’t moderated; they are changing the society’s perception of what “moderate” is — and not in a healthy direction.