Michael Brendan Dougherty recently checked in on the Obamacons and found them a little chastened, but still adamant about the degeneration of the GOP and salvaging the term "conservative" from religious fanatics, supply-side fantasists and foreign policy utopians. The eyes roll, I know, when I cling to the word "conservative" like others cling to their, er, Second Amendment rights. But I'd be dissembling if I did not argue that on a whole array of issues, Obama is simply and unequivocally the more conservative candidate. One commenter on the piece put it pretty simply:
What do you call:
1. Nationalism, without the interventionist foreign policy.
2. Taxation equal to public spending, rather than just cutting taxes without making the hard choices to spend less.
3. Slow and careful to adopt change, but realizing that change is necessary sometimes.
I view conservatism as the practical engagement with policy and political institutions to adapt modestly and incrementally to social and economic change with the goal of maintaining the coherence and stability of a polity and a culture. It is a philosophy of moderation and balance, constantly alert to the manifold ways in which societies can, over time, lose their equilibrium. It is defined, along Burke's foundational lines, as an opposition to ideological and theological politics in every form. And so it is a perfectly admirable conservative idea to respond to capitalism's modern mercilessness by trying to support, encourage and help the traditional family structure and traditional religious practice. The point is a pragmatic response to contingent events that threaten social coherence. But it is equally conservative to note that a group in society – openly gay people – have emerged as a force and are best integrated within an existing institution – civil marriage – than by continued ostracism or new institutions like "civil unions" that have not stood the test of time.
On that pragmatic, non-ideological definition of conservatism, on a wide array of issues, Obama wins hands down. Let me enumerate the ways.
First the obvious contingent problems. The economy has been shell-shocked by the aftermath of a giant debt bubble and reckless financial gambling, all occurring a couple of decades after a bipartisan decision to take off the protections imposed on Wall Street in 1933. America is simultaneously experiencing a dramatic and widening economic inequality and declining social mobility. Its private healthcare system is by far the least efficient in the world, adding a massive burden to businesses and government with spiraling costs. We are clearly facing a climate crisis in which the very goods of industrialization are undermining the earth's own equilibrium. At the same time, the economic elites, empowered by radical new moves by the Supreme Court, appear to have rigged the Congressional game through an insanely complex tax code, which both cripples the free market and keeps us insolvent. Above all, the debt is a huge threat to future prosperity, just as premature austerity is a huge threat to the recovery. All of these are combining not just to lower American growth and vitality but also to threaten the very legitimacy of the system which, to increasing numbers of middle class Americans, looks like a game stacked against them.
On almost every front, on almost every issue, in this crisis, Obama is more conservative than Romney. Like Romney, he seeks a long-term debt solution. But unlike Romney, he seeks to do so using all traditional means available without drastically altering the American system. He'll cut spending and raise taxes, while Romney will only do the former, even as tax revenues are at 60 year lows. Obama will first attempt to bend the curve on healthcare costs before turning Medicare into a premium support system. Romney would reverse those priorities and end Medicare as it has been known for decades. The first is a more conservative option, the latter – doubling down on what has gone wrong these past thirty years and gutting one of the most popular entitlements around – is far more radical.
On the financial sector, Obama has sought a modest re-regulation after the chaos of 2008. Romney seeks to do nothing to prevent the next financial panic, and wants to roll back what few rules have been re-imposed. On access to health insurance, Romney wants to return to the free-rider model of the past couple of decades, in which soaring costs are linked with the worst general outcomes in health and wellness in the West. Obama attempted a reform that sought – as Romney did in Massachusetts – to keep the system primarily private, while offering government subsidies to help the working poor stay healthy and stop their ultimate healthcare costs from soaring beyond their (and our collective) reach. Romney simply wants to abolish that and has no plan at all to deal with the millions of uninsured, and their role in raising healthcare costs.
On the climate, Obama has steered some stimulus money to non-carbon energy, while presiding over a revolution in American self-sufficiency via fracking. Romney would simply double-down on carbon energy alone. On the critical issue of economic inequality, Romney wants to accelerate the pace at which the one percent is leaving the rest of America behind, by lowering their tax rates still further. Obama would have us return … to the Clinton era, accepting the post-Reagan settlement but adjusting it so we don't go broke. On every issue, Obama is effectively an old-style moderate Republican. And Romney is playing the part of a revolutionary Randian.
On foreign policy, as Jon Rauch notes in a must-read, Obama is even more obviously conservative than Romney. His lesson from the Iraq war was extreme caution in military intervention in the Middle East. Romney's lesson is that we should launch another religiously polarizing war on Iran to little long-term effect but insuring a permanent war, with incalculable economic consequences. Obama sought to rebalance the US on the global stage by defusing the Bush-Cheney polarization, while still waging a lethal war on al Qaeda. In four years, we have seen the decimation of al Qaeda in Af-Pak, the killing of Osama bin Laden, withdrawal from Iraq and a timeline for leaving Afghanistan. Romney would reverse this with a new polarization against the emerging Arab democracies – because their inevitable Islamist phase worries the Israelis. Romney would also ramp up Pentagon spending at a moment of deep debt and few serious global rivals, and bless increased settlement on the West Bank, isolating the US still further.
On social issues, Obama favors moderate federalism on questions such as marriage equality and medical marijuana (with an exception for the DEA in California, where, it could be argued, the state system has gotten out of control). Romney favors a radical attempt to impose one marriage policy on every state through a constitutional amendment and stark opposition to medical marijuana everywhere. Obama has made outreach to Hispanics real and supports a balanced McCain-style reform to integrate illegal aliens into the legal system, while toughening the border still further. Romney wants 12 million to "self-deport." Obama has sought to integrate the growing numbers of gay couples into their own families and society. Romney seeks to keep this emergent community marginalized outside mainstream institutions.
On issue after issue, Burke would be with Obama and against Rommey's theo-political radicalism. The idea that Obama has somehow let down those conservatives who supported him over the McCain-Palin ticket therefore seems absurd to me. Obama has done all he said he intended to do, and almost all of it is a pragmatic response to America's emergent and growing problems. On almost every question – a stimulus one-third tax cuts, a healthcare reform based on the Heritage Foundation model, cap-and-trade for carbon, and solid support for Israel while trying to nudge it away from self-destruction – Obama is in a right-of-center consensus as of a decade ago. It is his opponent who has twisted himself into a screaming radical dedicated to changing America much more profoundly – largely because Fox Nation is experiencing a cultural panic. As for temperament, the GOP is too consumed with cultural hatred to acknowledge the grace and calm of a man forced to grapple with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression with no help whatsoever from his opponents, a black man who has buried identity politics and remains a family man Republicans would fawn over if he were one of them.
Alas, the GOP is stuck in the 1984 of its own fetid imagination, incapable of acknowledging the real failures of the last Republican administration or the new, actual, vital questions we have to answer in this millennium: How do we make our healthcare system much more efficient? How do we best mitigate climate change? How do we tackle the problem of economic hyper-inequality? How do we advance US interests in a time of upheaval and revolution in the Arab world? How do we make government solvent?
The reason Romney's campaign is vague on so many of these questions is that it has little to offer on these practical issues but ideological stridency. It is brain-dead. And zombie-conservatism is not conservatism. It is the violent twitching of a political corpse. This election is a chance to bury that corpse and start over. We should be grateful a de facto moderate Republican is president while conservatism has a chance to regroup.