Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The way to reconcile the similarities and the differences between Bush and Obama is to see both as guardians of the New Deal tradition

When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, it seemed like the beginning of a new era 
writes Tim Stanley in a piece called Romney offers a real alternative to Obama, Bush and the whole New Deal sexy state circus.
The election of the first black president was historic in itself, but equally important was the discrediting and near annihilation of George W Bush’s Republican Party.

Remember Katrina? Remember Abu Ghraib? Remember Sarah Palin? We were told that these were the products of a bankrupt conservative philosophy that had morally and economically bankrupted America. It was time for a new age of ambitious liberalism.

The New Era narrative was a fraud. When Bush left office, unemployment was 7.8 per cent; today it is 7.9 per cent. Debt is up, food stamps are up, income is stagnant. Bush bailed out Wall Street and so did Obama – even Obama’s much vaunted “rescue” of the auto industry was actually kick started by Bush. If Bush suffocated civil liberties with the Patriot Act, Obama blew them to Kingdom Come with that awful kill list.

In many ways, the policies and performances of Obama and Bush are rather similar. There are some differences. First, Obama accelerated big government trends that he inherited from W – debt as a percentage of GDP is way, way up. Second, Obama was Bush’s cultural opposite. Compare the 2012 GOP and Democrat conventions. While the Republicans only talked unemployment, the Democrats had a 1960s level of obsession with sexual freedom – “Make Love, Not Jobs!” In the party’s platform, the language on abortion was changed from “safe, legal and rare” to just “safe and legal.” The distinction is significant: in the 21st century Democratic Party’s opinion, there is nothing inherently wrong or even troubling about abortion. This is Obama’s true gift to the liberal tradition: moral certainly on issues of grave moral complexity.

The way to reconcile the similarities and the differences between Bush and Obama is to see both as guardians of the New Deal tradition – with varying degress of enthusiasm and very different personalities. America still lives with mythic, traumatic and nostalgic memories of the 1930s, when Franklin D Roosevelt saved capitalism from the Great Depression. The old order had seen the presidency as a moral rather than legislative force, but from the 1930s onwards the federal government became a necessary – even benign – part of economy and society. There have been conservative rebellions (Reagan’s election in 1980) but never a true counter-revolution. If Bush was Roosevelt Lite, Obama was Roosevelt Max Strength. His 2008 electoral coalition was pure New Deal: the marginalised, the organised and the educated coming together to outnumber the reactionary and the red of neck. In office, Obama did what Democrats had often promised to do but never succeeded. Real healthcare reform, millions added to the welfare rolls and finally – finally! – someone prepared to take on the Catholic Church. Eleanor Roosevelt would be proud.

The problem was that the moment when the hardcore Roosevelt fans finally got the keys to the candy store was the exact moment when it had run out of candy. The money was gone and the economy exhausted. The New Deal order didn’t cause the recession, but it did limit America’s ability to recover from it. The creation of a warfare/welfare state consensus under both Republicans and Democrats lumbered the federal government with crippling levels of debt. Using the tax code to buy off segments of the population shrivelled income, while liberalism’s language of class war made it hard to build a consensus for reform. Talk of too many food stamps was racist. A conversation about the link between poverty and family structure was, obviously, sexist. Romney was accused of elitism for challenging a tax structure that cleaves America in two.

In 2012, Obama is the candidate of the warfare/welfare establishment that has dominated American politics for eighty years. Today, the real revolutionaries are the Tea Party, who have hijacked the Republican Party and turned it into an imperfect (and often reluctant) vehicle for a return to the fundamentals of Americanism: small, constitutional, limited government. To do this, they had to reject the politics of both Obama and Bush – and Mitt has slowly caught up. There was a significant moment in the second debate when a citizen asked Romney how he would distinguish himself from George W Bush. Romney said, “President Bush and I are different people, and these are different times.” He cited differences over aid to small business, balancing the budget, energy policy and relations with China. Remarkably, Obama then jumped in to defend Bush. “George Bush didn't propose turning Medicare into a voucher," the Prez said. "George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform … George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood.”

No he didn’t – and that underscores the fact that Romney offers an alternative not only to Obama but also to Bush. He offers an alternative to whole New Deal, big spending, debt hiking, contraception distributing, sexy state circus. And he’s only so radically different because the Tea Party made him that way. Romney went into the primaries branded a moderate and came out branded a conservative. He's a better, more important candidate for it.

The Romney/Ryan ticket seems to have grasped that America simply cannot continue the way it is going. In a globalised world, smaller government is more competitive and more competitive is more beautiful. It is also more concomitant with the American historical tradition. When a US president compels citizens to buy a consumer product – and gets away with it thanks to the Supreme Court – you know that something is amiss in the land of the free.

If Obama loses on Tuesday, then we’ll have to reassess what his four years meant. They were not a change in the direction that America was heading in, but rather a dramatic acceleration of the trends that came before. If Obama wins, then the race to the bottom continues. If he loses, then it’s possible that the New Deal relay is finally at an end. Romney/Ryan is a genuine alternative to everything that has come before.

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