Published February 15, 2011
Obama’s clever budget proposal has won him the advantage in the coming political showdown. Democratic grousing over limited cuts to discretionary spending will be used to paint the president as a fiscally responsible moderate. The Republican plan will be demonized as a heartless assault on the poor and elderly. Obama will do everything short of sending out an engraved invitation to provoke a GOP-led government shutdown. Whether or not the confrontation goes nuclear, Obama will enjoy the sort of upper hand Clinton had over Gingrich fifteen years ago.
Granted, the coming entitlement meltdown is a far greater threat than anything America faced in 1995. And despite Gingrich’s 1994 victory, there was nothing comparable to the Tea Party in those days. Even so, as the battle is shaping up, Obama is slated to win. The country as a whole fails to grasp the magnitude of the coming fiscal crisis. Advantage, Obama. What to do?
The answer, I think, is to tell a (true) story about Obama’s long-term aims and intentions. If the word socialism makes you uncomfortable, try “unaffordable Euro-style welfare state.” Obama is not Bill Clinton, and highlighting that fact is the best way to prevent Obama from assuming the mantle of triangulation. Obama wants to win a shut-down battle, but without “ending welfare as we know it.” In fact, Obama has already gone a far piece down the road of resuscitating and expanding the pre-Clinton welfare state. His budget largely preserves (“freezes”) that achievement. Without filling in the ideological commitments and long-term plans Obama so prudently declines to avow, the GOP will lose this battle.
Tea Party moxie and the shellacking notwithstanding, the GOP establishment remains reluctant to highlight Obama’s radicalism. I understand the reasons for this, and they are by no means trivial. While Obama’s policies are opposed by many, he remains personally popular. It seems disrespectful to attribute an ideology to the president that he himself won’t own up to. Words like “radical,” much less “socialist,” sound impolite. Yet, without defining the president in a way that happens to be not only politically advantageous, but true, I doubt Obama can be stopped. Telling the truth about this president is how we shellacked him to begin with.
Silly theories like birtherism and the notion that Obama is a committed Muslim have been amplified by a mainstream media eager to discredit legitimate assessments of the president’s transformative ambitions. Nonsensical arguments offered up by the left in the aftermath of Tucson have been used to shut down perfectly fair criticisms of the president.
Obama gains immensely by fudging or simply keeping silent about his ideological commitments and long-term plans. (The imaginary ten-year out projections in the current budget, of course, are a cover for next year’s expansion of government and do not represent the president’s actual long-term plans.) Obama’s every tactical feint to the center frightens a left which will not desert him, but whose criticism makes him seem moderate. Meanwhile, conservatives look disrespectful for filling in the blanks. Even so, that is the way to win. The real disrespect, of course, is Obama’s failure to own up to his own ideology. Yet Republicans have retreated of late from attempts to (accurately) define the president. That is a recipe for failure.
It will not do to chastise Obama’s budget proposal as a simple “refusal to lead,” a “punt,” or a “cynical political maneuver.” Obama isn’t failing to lead. He is very cleverly leading us toward an irreversible expansion of the welfare state. If Obama is reelected and in control when the entitlement crisis finally does hit, he will manage the country toward Euro-style taxes and Euro-style socialism. After all, in the midst of its current fiscal crisis, Obama is pushing Europe to expand spending, not contract it.
I like this post by Lexington Green (h/t Glenn Reynolds), although his vision of permanent Republican meltdown is overdrawn. Lexington rightly rejects the “failure to lead” framing, highlighting Obama’s strategic moves and long-term intentions instead. The notion that Obama plans to use Republican proposals for cuts to kick off a movement of “angry and mobilized” beneficiaries is exactly right. Obama’s 2010 attacks on the Chamber of Commerce and his infamous “punish your enemies” exhortation were efforts to do the same thing. I lay out the rationale behind this intentionally polarizing strategy in the final chapter of Radical-in-Chief. It’s a program deeply rooted in Obama’s past. And in the absence of an honest avowal of his plans and motives in the present, only the past reveals the truth about this president’s vision of the future.
Perhaps I’m wrong and “the president’s abdication of leadership” sound bite will be enough to defeat “the GOP’s heartless cuts.” Even so, as an alternative, I suggest: “Obama’s radical plans are leading us off a cliff.”
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.