Opinion

The Conciliatory Radical

In the heady first days after a thumping political victory, the new leader’s triumphant followers murmur to one another of their admiration for their man.

“You know, the president is right.”

“I’d go further—he’s completely right!’

“You’re both wrong. He’s absolutely right!”

Ah, the romantic phase of political engagement! It was like that for Republicans in the Reagan days. Now it seems the same for Democrats like Shrum, who wrote: “I’m convinced Obama’s right to pursue the politics of change in his own remarkable fashion.”

And yet, as lavish as this Obamaphilia is, it is not yet the highest level of political infatuation. There are still higher degrees.

The second-highest degree comes when the president betrays his followers’ expectations—and they still forgive him. That happened, for example, in 1982, when Republicans swallowed their unhappiness with Ronald Reagan’s decision to sign a big mid-term tax increase.

The ultimate infatuation is achieved when the president’s most ardent followers positively urge him to betray them for his own good. We saw that in 1995 and 1996, when Democrats chuckled over the cunning triangulation with which Bill Clinton distanced himself from his party base to seize the political center from congressional Republicans.

Shrum not only notes but exemplifies the early indications of a similarly adulatory devotion to Obama. For example, Shrum salutes Obama for including in his economic program tax cuts that Shrum mildly describes as inefficient—though once upon a time he would have surely condemned them in more peppery language. That’s an impressive display of followership!

Yet there are also plentiful indications that Obama will not onerously test the Deadhead-like loyalty of his followers. His inaugural address made clear that Democrats have little reason to doubt the new president’s commitment to left-wing orthodoxies. Rhetorically, the speech fell flat, almost all listeners (save the very most love-struck) agreed. Ideologically, however, Obama’s address sent a clear message that the age of big government, re-regulation, multiculturalism, and process-oriented diplomacy has come roaring back.

Over the past 16 years, the United States has been led by two presidents who were strongly partisan but only weakly ideological. Clinton’s economics and Bush’s immigration policies were more congenial to their party opposites than to their supporters. Ditto Clinton on trade and Bush on Medicare, Clinton on financial regulation and Bush on boosting federal agricultural subsidies.

There is another way of doing politics, however. As Ronald Reagan showed, a president can hold fast to a strong ideological line while still practicing a more congenial style. Clinton and Bush were combative centrists who operated largely between the political forty yard lines. Reagan, by contrast, was a conciliatory radical who always followed the old Roman maxim: “Suaviter in modo, foriter in re.” Gently in the manner, strongly in the substance.

Obama shows every sign of following that example. Don’t mistake it for a search for common ground. It’s just a more polite way of demanding the whole damn field.

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