Clinton vs. Obama

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Three sources I check on a near-daily basis --RealClear Politics , The Drudge Report, and Fresh Bilge -- all point me to a William McGurn editorial in the Wall Street Journal about what Barack Obama ought to do to "save" his presidency.

Let's set aside for the moment the whole question of whether it might be a little premature to gloat over the failure of Obama's push for physician slavery. The article draws some interesting parallels with how Bill Clinton responded to the resounding defeat of his attempt to impose government control over your health (and with it, the Democrats) during his first term. It is these parallels and how conservatives might react to them that I want to consider.

McGurn writes from a pragmatist's (read: unprincipled) perspective and the assumption that political office is an end in itself. This causes him to misjudge the Obama situation in several ways. The root of his difficulty lies in the fact that this speculation about how Obama might "save" his Presidency ignores the fact that, as Clinton might have put it, "That depends on what the meaning of the word, 'save' is." I think that McGurn (and Clinton) have a vastly different idea from Obama of what "saving" his Presidency would entail.

McGurn sees the presumed defeat of central planning in medicine as an opportunity for Obama to become free of the farthest left reaches of his party because its agenda is unpopular. He cites another political writer on this score.

In his book The Pact, historian Steven M. Gillon puts it this way: "Ironically, Gingrich's revolution may have saved the Clinton presidency by freeing him from the control of his party's more liberal base in Congress, giving him the opportunity to return to the moderate message that helped him win election in the first place. [minor edits]
Alan Sullivan of Fresh Bilge gives what I think is at the same time a perceptive and tin-eared response: "[T]here's no way stiff Obama will suddenly morph into flexible Bill Clinton..." The good and the bad of this observation both come from the same notion, which McGurn shares, that holding the presidency is somehow worth it to Obama in and of itself. But yes, Obama could well turn out to be inflexible. Why?

Notice that I said "holding the presidency," rather than "holding power." That's an important distinction, and which side of this distinction Obama lands on will determine how he might react to a major setback. Bill Clinton learned from his defeat that he did not have the power -- perhaps a better term would be "political capital" -- necessary to enact his entire agenda. But for Bill Clinton, holding office made him feel like a big shot. In this way, I think that Obama is fundamentally different: It's all about imposing his vision on America. Bill Clinton was all about the office and Barack Obama is all about power. This means -- contrary to the blindness of pragmatism -- using power for a specific goal.

I doubt that just hanging on will do anything for Barack Obama.

Clinton could have reacted to his discovery in a variety of ways: (1) He could have evaded the lesson and kept working full bore, but fruitlessly, for the same agenda; (2) He could work to get parts of his agenda enacted with what power he had; or (3) He could pretend to favor a different agenda and bask in popularity for helping to enact it. Clinton mainly chose the third of these, as McGurn indicates:
Though he continues to deny GOP contributions to his success, after his 1994 health-care defeat, Mr. Clinton did what all smart pols do: He appropriated the most appealing parts of his opponents' agenda.

The result was a new Bill Clinton, embracing everything from deregulation and welfare reform to the Defense of Marriage Act. In his 1996 State of the Union, he even struck a Reaganite chord by announcing that "the era of Big Government is over." From this newly held center, Mr. Clinton advanced his presidency and pushed, both successfully and unfairly, to demonize Mr. Gingrich. Mostly he got away with it.
One might be tempted to scoff about Obama taking this option, given how far to the left he seems to be. In fact, one might also say, "What agenda is there for him to appropriate, this time?" The rotten parts. The ones that, perhaps, already exist in his agenda, but are on the backburner for now.

Most of the better parts of the Republican agenda have withered away, but I think that this Clinton-like turn is a more dangerous possibility than Sullivan apparently does. Recall whom Obama chose to deliver his inaugural invocation, and with whom he sojourns, so to speak. If Obama chose such a path, we might get our first taste of a religious left presidency. (Obama might also try this if he is sufficiently pragmatic.) And if he does, watch for some evangelicals to help him throw capitalism under the bus.

But what if Obama is more principled than Bill Clinton or less religious than he appears? He and the Democrats could well decide to enact physician slavery on moral grounds and take the electoral losses. (The word "repeal" wasn't in the Republican lexicon even in 1994...)
On Friday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said his boss was 'quite comfortable' with the idea that sticking to his agenda may well mean 'he only lives in this house' for one term.
We could get both option (1) and option (3). This could give us the worst of both worlds if the Democrats actually took over the medical sector.

We have to hope Obama is too secular to want to enact a religious agenda, and willing to take what he can get from a less friendly Congress, or that he continues going full bore, but sees little success in enacting his agenda.

In the sense of his Presidency offering anything of immediate political good to America, the Obama Presidency is beyond saving. I doubt we'll get a Clinton II, but not just on grounds that Obama is probably too inflexible to "pull a Clinton." Because the Republicans have learned nothing from their loss of power, they are ill-equipped to make Obama be a decent -- or at least harmless -- President. (That said, pro-capitalists will profit from not having to rebut the silly idea that the President is "pro-capitalist." This is an enormous long-range good that many conservatives fail to appreciate for a variety of reasons.)

And if you don't believe me, just look at what a couple of Republicans -- including the last presidential nominee -- recently said (via HBL) about health insurance "reform:"
Though one of the Senate's most liberal members, Kennedy -- and his ability to work out bipartisan deals -- was on the minds of a couple of key Republican senators in the health care debate Sunday. "No person in that institution is indispensable, but Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I've ever known in the Senate, because he had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, speaking on ABC's "This Week." "So it's huge that he's absent, not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think that health care reform might be in a very different place today."

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch echoed the sentiment on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Well, Sen. Kennedy would, first thing he would have done, would have been call me and say, 'Let's work this out.' And we would have worked it out so that the best of both worlds would work." [bold in original]
With Republicans like this, who needs Democrats?

I don't think Barack Obama could turn out to be another Bill Clinton even if he secretly wanted to.

-- CAV


madmax said...

"Bill Clinton was all about the office and Barack Obama is all about power. This means -- contrary to the blindness of pragmatism -- using power for a specific goal."

This is an excellent identification. It helped me to understand that Clinton was more of a social metaphysician than Obama. While Obama is a second-hander too, as all collectivists must be, he is motivated far more by his egalitarian ideology than Clinton was. This makes him far more dangerous while also making him far better for the purposes of spreading Rand's ideas. The only danger is that Obama may be able to do more damage and much more quickly than can be repaired.

Gus Van Horn said...


Also, I appreciate your enlarging upon that point.