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10.31.08

Obama is the Real Conservative

A speechwriter for Reagan and Nixon—who worked at the National Review for four decades—on why he's voting for Obama.

It may be something of a surprise that, as a long time conservative, I now support Barack Obama. In 1968, I was a speechwriter first for Ronald Reagan, when Governor of California, then, as Richard Nixon became the presidential nominee, a speechwriter for Nixon, working at his home office at 450 Park Avenue. I became a senior editor at National Review in 1969, a position I held until recently.

There are common sense conservatives who are prudential, who try to match means with ends, and who calculate the probabilities of gains and risks. But there are philosophical (analytical) conservatives, the most useful being Edmund Burke, whose "Reflections on the Revolution in France" (1790) understood the great dangers in trying to change society through abstract (republican) theory. My first book that dealt with these matters was "English Political writers: From Locke to Burke" (Knopf, 1963).

One thing I know is that both Nixon and Reagan would have agreed with Obama’s speech against the Iraq War… But all the organs of the conservative movement followed Bush over the cliff—as did John McCain.

Republican President George W. Bush has not been a conservative at all, either in domestic policy or in foreign policy. He invaded Iraq on the basis of abstract theory, the very thing Burke warned against. Bush aimed to turn Iraq into a democracy, "a beacon of liberty in the Middle East," as he explained in a radio address in April 2006.

I do not recall any "conservative" publication mentioning those now memorable words "Sunni," "Shia," or "Kurds." Burke would have been appalled at the blindness to history and to social facts that characterized the writing of those so-called conservatives.

Obama did understand. In his now famous 2002 speech, while he was still a state senator in Illinois, he said: “I know that a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, of undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without international support will fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda. I'm not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.”

Burke would have agreed entirely, and admired the cogency of so few words. And one thing I know is that both Nixon and Reagan would have agreed. Both were prudential and successful conservatives. But all the organs of the conservative movement followed Bush over the cliff—as did John McCain.

Obama was the true conservative, the Burkean. Like the French radicals of 1790, Bush wanted to democratize Iraq, turn it, as he said in a speech at Whitehall, into a "beacon of liberty in the Middle East." Now, Robespierre and the other radicals were criticized by Burke for wanting to turn France into a republic. Not a bad idea, but they tried to do it all at once, and according to republican theory.

Maxmillien Robespierre himself would have been horrified by the notion of democratizing Mesopotamia. That may—possibly—happen. But it will take a long time, an Enlightenment, and the muting of sectarian hatreds.

Social Security has long been considered one of the most successful New Deal programs, working well now for 70 years. Yet in 2005, the Bush plan to establish private accounts that could be invested in the Stock Market got nowhere. McCain, too, has embraced this idea. In 2008 it looks ridiculous. The Stock Market! Again, this is a radical proposal, not a conservative one.

Ever since Roe vs. Wade, abortion has been a salient controversy in our politics. But the availability of abortion is linked to the long advancement of women's equality. Again, we are dealing with social change, and this requires understanding social change, a Burkean imperative that Obama understands.

On my Dartmouth campus, half the undergraduates are women. They do not want to have their plans derailed by an unwanted pregnancy. In Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the Court ruled that the availability of abortion "enables women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the country."

Though there is a tragic aspect to abortion, as Obama recognizes, women's equality means that women have control of their reproductive capability. Men don't worry about that. The fact is that 83 percent of elective abortions occur during the first trimester, and decline rapidly after that.

Both Obama and McCain support federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, Obama more urgently. The conservative movement publications, following Bush, have been fiercely opposed. Such opposition required a belief that a cluster of cells (the embryo) the size of the period at the end of this sentence is as important (more important?) than a seriously ill human being.

I myself cannot fathom such a mentality.

In fact, embryonic stem cell research is being energetically pursued in the following nations: Israel, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China cooperating with the EU. Privately funded and state funded laboratories are moving ahead vigorously.

Recently, Harvard announced a program that will be part of a multi-billion dollar science center to be established south of the Charles River, and will be able to supply stem cells to other laboratories. I call that Pro-Life.

This analysis could be extended, but it seems clear to me that Obama is the conservative in the 2008 election.