The sixth volume in this insightful presidential election year review series builds upon the strengths of 20 years of experience. Three distinguished scholars of American politics blend their virtues to produce a fitting civic education for republican citizens. Our confidence in their judgment is buoyed by the fact that they are all self-identified political conservatives who teach at eminent institutions (Ceaser at University of Virginia, Busch and Pitney at Claremont McKenna College). Their conservatism produces balance, not bias, in their recounting of the campaign and its lessons for self-government today. Senior author James Ceaser has written several illuminating studies of American political thought; among Andrew Busch’s books include one on the Constitution in campaigns and the first scholarly study of Ronald Reagan; and John Pitney, who frequently comments on politics, has produced notable books on Congress, political strategy, and parties. The book’s sources combine the best in political journalism with the most relevant political science scholarship—in other words, a citizen’s perspective but with statistical and empirical support and, above all, historical perspective.
Instructive wit relieves the pain of recalling the past campaign: On Obamacare at the Court, “If, as many surmised, Chief Justice John Roberts sought to take the Supreme Court out of the campaign, he did so by taking the Constitution out of it as well.” On Hurricane Sandy, “Mother Nature 2012, … like most unmarried women, favored the Democrats.” Following the election, “Some conservatives … declared a Michelle Obama moment in reverse: Barack’s reelection was the first time they had ever really been ashamed of their country.”
The book’s leading contribution is its portrayal of Barack Obama’s strengths as a campaigner and his significance as a president and leader of the progressive agenda. In brief, the 2008 and 2012 campaigns reflected two versions of Obama the campaigner, “Once the icon, Barack Obama is now the politician. For better or worse, the second term of his presidency will unfold in an era After Hope and Change.” Obama abandoned the Greek columns and revealed himself as a Chicago politician forcefully imposing what the authors, following Tocqueville, label the “soft totalitarianism” of bureaucracy.
Presciently, the book closes, in 2012 Obama “barely put down mutiny by the passengers through the political equivalent of keelhauling the leader of the mutineers…. [T]he history of presidential second terms is not reassuring. There is no guarantee that the sailing will get any smoother, or the passengers any happier.” Thus, the Ceaser team anticipates the scandals we are seeing in the second term, with the disaster of Obamacare looming ever larger in the background.
Obama as Campaigner
The authors advise that “after all the noise and diversions, campaigns often tend to make clear the fundamentals that prevail in the country.” In other words, the campaign itself is “most unlikely” to decide the outcome but it “remains an important object of study for what the candidates say and for how the victor frames the choice, which can influence the course of American politics.” While not denying possible turning points, especially the debates, the authors also contrast Romney and Obama campaign tactics, Anchorman Ron Burgundy versus The Social Network, TV ads versus a targeted electronic media and personal campaign.
Though vulnerable in 2012 in particular due to the sluggish economy, Obama did win reelection, as two-thirds of incumbent presidents do. The Obama campaign conducted the difficult maneuver of an orderly strategic retreat. Moreover, he won two clear popular vote majorities, something no Democrat (other than FDR) had done since Andrew Jackson. But Obama’s victory margin was considerably diminished, and his loss in House seats was exceeded only by Woodrow Wilson. Chance in the form of Hurricane Sandy might well have tipped the election: Gallup’s polling showed the anti-47% candidate Romney losing a five-point advantage (51-46%) immediately after the storm (49-48%).
In a wretched campaign, Obama’s vaunted 2008 oratory was no more—replaced by demagoguery (“You didn’t build that”) and appalling personal attacks on a hapless Romney. He was even upstaged by former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic Convention. Clinton’s rescue (no president, “not [even] me,” could have undone all the damage inflicted by Bush) must have been particularly humiliating for Obama. After all, Obama had taken his own swipes at Clinton’s presidency for having triangulated and thus compromised with the spirit of Reagan, as Charles Kesler has convincingly shown.
But Obama and his team are far more cunning politicians. His personal background, in particular his ability to fill the absence of a Southerner on a winning Democratic ticket, proved superior to Romney’s political shortcomings, his contradictory views on abortion and health care, and the initial reluctance of as many as a fourth of all Republicans to vote for a Mormon. The fact that evangelicals may have supported Romney more strongly than they had McCain scarcely supports the book’s argument that Romney’s faith did not hurt him with voters. Obama passionately appealed on single issues—gay rights, abortion, immigration, and race—without fear of giving offense and aided by the “protective tone” of the media generally. Obama’s cunning choice of Catholic Joe Biden as Vice President had served him well in his anti-Catholic hierarchy policies.
Obama did not need to debate foreign policy, for he was withdrawing from the Middle East wars—while surging in Afghanistan and bombing Libya (and now intervening in Syria)—and, after calling this shot in his 2008 campaign, basked in the glory of bin Laden’s death. Of course he did not turn his rhetorical skills to support Bush’s national security policies, for better or for worse, until he was caught supporting and expanding them recently, as once again in the NSA surveillance. For better or for worse, Obama turns out to be a liberal internationalist, albeit a particularly clueless one (but see his Nobel Peace Prize lecture).
Obama’s Progressive Legacy
Polling questions showed strong margins for Romney over Obama on leadership, the economy, and vision but a gigantic Obama lead of 63 points on whether he “cares about people like me.” And unfortunately this “empathy gap” may betray a larger problem with not just the “severely conservative” Romney candidacy but the Republican Party, which apparently thinks it is a popular idea to denounce Democrats for waging “class warfare”—thus admitting it is a faction and a small one, at that—while expressing few interesting ideas to win the middle class and thus not presenting itself as a party for all America. This failing opens the way for Obama’s occasional appeals to ancient American political themes such as citizenship, now recycled for Progressive purposes of expanding government regulation.
But given the weak Republican record in presidential elections since 1996 what “fundamentals” will be decisive in future elections? The parties continue to grow further apart. “The centrist Clintonian wing of the Democratic Party no longer exists or has gone into hiding.” Here the authors present illuminating sketches of left and right aspirations:
For progressives, what is at stake is a vision of a society in which justice is defined by egalitarianism, personal ‘autonomy’ in moral matters, and the values of the (French) enlightenment above all else. To this view, the American Founding, with its emphasis on natural rights and limited government, is an anachronism and an obstacle…. In this view, Obama has put the United States on a long overdue course to join the social democratic and secular trajectory of a suitably modern democracy.
For conservatives, what is at stake is a vision of a society in which justice is defined, or at any rate secured, by liberty and by many of that things that progressives disdain: decentralized and limited government aiming for the preservation of natural rights (including property rights) under a fixed constitution, a political economy in which effort and enterprise regularly lead to unequal wealth, and a social order undergirded by enduring morals derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. To this view, concentrated government power itself is the greatest danger—the problem not the solution.
As the authors capture the progressive spirit vividly, their account of right conveys its crisis well. The aging Reaganism of the conservative portrait recalls soulless, apolitical “severely conservative” postures. We feel even more the need for conservative policy thinkers such as Yuval Levin, Peter Spiliakos, and Henry Olsen and a variety of libertarian scholars as well. And while “soft totalitarianism,” with its combination of seduction and submission, well describes much of our current crisis, the IRS, EPA, and ATF afford instances of old-fashioned hard despotism. A more thoughtful, politically astute conservatism would address both the fears and, even more, the aspirations of a free people.
As they perceptively note, the national political history of the last 30 years requires us to consider whether the Bill Clinton years were triangulated flukes, in the midst of Republican dominance. Or they may be the prelude to a period of Democratic hegemony. The challenge facing the Democrats is that they must “sustain unnaturally large margins” among youth and minority groups without polarizing the electorate and increasing white voter share and turnout for the Republicans.
Has America irrevocably lost the culture—what Tocqueville called mores and Lincoln called public opinion—that form a politics of freedom? After Hope and Change joins its predecessors in conserving what is fundamental and developing a new science of the politics of freedom.