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12.16.09

The Left's Worst Enemy

As liberals roll over on health care and Afghanistan, the president is latching onto conservative policies, says Reihan Salam—and the left, not Obama, will be blamed and discredited.

Of all the kooky conspiracies you've heard about President Obama, from the fanciful notion that he was born in Kenya to Glenn Beck's deeply-held belief that he is a closet Marxist, I can guarantee that you've never heard my own pet theory, which is that Barack Obama is a sleeper agent dedicated to destroying the American left. This isn't literally true, of course. But the president's extraordinary ability to get liberals to abandon their convictions in exchange for symbolic gestures puts Bill Clinton to shame. It took the Republican drive for impeachment to convince the left that Clinton, a neoliberal who pursued a deregulating, decentralizing, and frankly conservative-friendly agenda, deserved their allegiance. Obama, in contrast, has pulled off the same feat by offering essentially neoconservative arguments with gentle caveats and uplifting historical homilies.

I am increasingly convinced that liberals are repeating the mistakes made by credulous Bush-era conservatives.

Lloyd Grove: Has Obama Abandoned Blacks?Because I'm a pro-market conservative who thinks Washington has grown too powerful and too rich at the expense of middle class taxpayers, liberals have every reason to dismiss my take on the matter. Rest assured, I'll survive the crushing blow to my ego. I will happily acknowledge that I don't embrace the left's effort to transform the United States into a social democracy. But as someone who believes that the left has made valuable contributions to American life, the utter spinelessness of the organized left in the face of the president's near-contempt strikes me as more than a little depressing.

I am increasingly convinced that liberals are repeating the mistakes made by credulous Bush-era conservatives. When grassroots ideologues, whether they're on the right or the left, roll over and play dead, we get policies written by powerful corporate interests for powerful corporate interests.

Consider the health reform debate. In August, Mark Schmitt, editor of The American Prospect, wrote a richly informed post on the history of the public option. Jacob Hacker, the celebrated Yale political scientist, drew on the failure of President Clinton's reform effort to devise a politically shrewd plan that, among others things, gave workers and firms the option of enrolling in a public insurance program modeled on Medicare. Over time, this "public option," as it came to be known, would grow and grow thanks to its Medicare-like advantages. So while liberals couldn't achieve single-payer in one fell swoop, this strong version of the public option offered a gradual, politically palatable way of getting there.

Early on, however, the Obama administration failed to capitalize on the extraordinary popularity of Medicare to sell voters on a strong public option. Rather, the White House emphasized aspects of reform that were most appealing to for-profit insurers. Eventually, the Democratic proposals coalesced around an individual mandate that would provide private insurers with a captive market and billions in federal subsidies that would allow them to charge much more than the market would otherwise bear. Without a strong public option, the mandate-plus-subsidies plan became an almost ludicrously generous giveaway to the insurance industry, sprinkled with cost-control pilot programs that smack of wishful thinking.

Only a handful of netroots progressives fully grasped the central importance of a strong public option in achieving the left's real goals. Most other liberals marched in lockstep behind the president and Wall Street Democrats in the House and Senate. Let me emphasize that I was perfectly content to see the strong public option go down in flames. But that's because I believe in a cheaper, more sustainable safety net approach to health reform that would force most Americans to pay more out of pocket for their care, not because I wanted big insurance companies to shed crocodile tears while reaping an enormous windfall at taxpayer expense.

Because the left has decided to line up behind this neutered reform, it is the left that will be discredited when the jury-rigged starts to crumble under the weight of cost growth and administrative nightmares.

This is despite the fact that a straightforward single-payer system, traditionally the left's real goal, might actually work better than this hybrid monstrosity. The parallels to the right are obvious. When President Bush first came into office, almost every abandonment of conservative principle was ignored in favor of robotic cheerleading.

And then, when the Bush administration ran aground, it was, incredibly, conservative principles that were tarnished.

The left's naivete is most egregious when it comes to Afghanistan.

There are, of course, a noble few left-wing pacifists who won't be charmed into abandoning their convictions by a polished speech or two.

Most liberals, however, nodded along with the president's recent foreign policy speeches. Obama's Nobel address, an elegant restatement of views championed by neoconservatives like Robert Kagan, has met with lusty applause from liberals. Unlike conservatives, who fall hard for populists and faux-populists and who tend to distrust the conspicuously erudite, liberals crave brainy leaders. So it turns out that a troop escalation, and the civilian and military casualties it entails, is perfectly acceptable, provided the tone is suitably elevated. This is admittedly a rather harsh way of putting. And like most conservatives, I've praised the president for following the lead of his predecessor and committing to a serious counterinsurgency effort. Obama is learning a valuable lesson from Bush's failures in Afghanistan. It should go without saying, however, that liberals shouldn't agree with me, particularly those who believe that we spend far too much on the military as it is and that the American military presence in Afghanistan is the height of imperial hubris.

Granted, I could be completely wrong. Perhaps liberals aren't following Obama off a cliff. It could be that the president is a heroic leader who must never be questioned. Conservatives once believed this about Bush, back when bronze busts of the 43rd president's head were doing a brisk trade on conservative websites. But liberals would never let themselves get duped like that. Right?

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.