March 1, 2009
On C-SPAN today, Roger Simon (of politico.com) called attention to a passage from the February 2007 speech in which Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy. Obama explained that he was entering the race "Not just to hold an office, but to transform a nation." * [Italics added.] Two years later, we are learning that those were not just poetic, inspirational words, but an earnest declaration of his actual intentions. Based on his proposed FY 2010 budget and the policy priorities he has laid out, it is clear that Obama seeks to:
It is truly a breathtaking, audacious agenda for change. Yet beyond the question of whether or not these changes are good or necessary is the question of Is this what the American voters wanted? First, let's look at historical precedent. In November 1994, the Republican Party won a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time since the mid-1950s. Under the leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the "Republican Revolution" set out to reform public policy according to the principles of prudence and free markets. Even President Clinton was obliged to acknowledge that "the era of Big Government is over." But did the American people really give a mandate for such sweeping change? A number of public opinion polls back then suggested a negative answer to that question. Many Americans were just fed up with Clinton's initial fecklessness and angry at the prospect of nationalized health care, and few bothered to read Gingrich's "Contract With America." Being largely sympathetic to those conservative reforms, I would have said, "Too bad, they voted for it." Now the proverbial shoe is on the other foot.
President Obama has the will, the power, the means, and the opportunity (once in a lifetime!) to effectuate a radical transformation of American society. He clearly believes he has a mandate, and he seems better prepared to spend his "political capital" than his predecessor was after his reelection in 2004. If Obama is successful, this country may be unrecognizable a decade from now to those of us living today. Indeed, conservatism as a philosophy of governance may become as quaint and irrelevant as Marxism was in the United States for most of the 20th Century. That is not to say that the Conservative Movement -- the political force, as distinguished from the intellectual tradition -- will wither away, however. Indeed, the Right will probably gain in numerical strength as more and more Americans wake up to what the President's idea of "transform" entails. But once we have passed a certain threshold and the younger generation has been convinced that Big Government is the answer, there won't be much that opponents can do to stop the juggernaut of statism.
To prevent that from happening, the Republican Party needs to put on its collective "thinking cap" right away, ditch the simplistic slogans and cliches, compromise on the relatively harmless aspects of the Obama agenda (to show that they are not just "the party of NOPE"), and formulate a clear, sophisticated long-term policy alternative, i.e, one that goes beyond tax cuts.
* SOURCE: Obama for America, Change We Can Believe In (2008), p. 201
Here's some historical irony: President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the epitome of rock-solid, common-sense moderate conservatism, chose as the title of his autobiography of his years in the White House, Mandate for Change.