Neocons at Play: Making Liberals Squirm

Why are neocons claiming that the president is now one of them? Because their primary motivation is to drive liberals crazy.

Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg / Getty Images

My Beast colleague Andrew Sullivan noted yesterday the preposterous spectacle of various neoconservative commentators praising Barack Obama’s speech and averring that he had become one of them. In Friday’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer takes the argument to even more laughable lengths, asserting not merely that Obama has joined the neocons but that he has embraced the Bush Doctrine!

You’ll recall that the Bush Doctrine, as Sarah Palin famously didn’t know, was built uniquely around the premise of the right of unilateral military preemption. I’m pretty sure (as in completely sure) that I did not hear Obama come within a light year of endorsing any such notion Thursday. Andrew put the matter succinctly: “The distinction between Bush and Obama on democratization is now and always has been that Bush wanted to impose it by force and Obama wants to coax its indigenous evolution. Is that so hard to grapple with?”

No, it’s not, and surely neocons secretly know this. I mean, look at it this way. If we asked Krauthammer and Max Boot (quoted by Sullivan) and other neocons if they expected Obama to launch a preemptive strike on Damascus one day, I feel certain that they’d uniformly say no, he’s still far too weak and constrained and conflicted to do something that courageous. So they don’t actually think he’s become one of them. Yet, they say it. Nay—they thunder it. Why? This gets us to an important difference between how conservatives and liberals approach politics, polemics, and rhetoric, not just in foreign policy but across the board. It’s all about the squirm factor.

No liberal I’m aware of has claimed this week that Newt Gingrich is now secretly on our side on Medicare. It would be plainly ridiculous to say so.

Conservatives love, more than practically anything, to watch liberals squirm. It satisfies them in some very deep emotional place. Why do rank-and-file right-wingers love Sarah Palin so much? It’s not her positions, although they like those fine. It’s her razor-sharp instinct for getting under liberals’ skin. That’s what makes her a star. Or made. Maybe she’s been replaced now by Michele Bachmann. But between the two, there’s very little difference on this point. Bachmann first shot to truly national attention by saying on Hardball in 2008 that members of Congress should be investigated on patriotism grounds. You could have been sitting in Kansas and still heard liberals squirming at the Peet’s on Winthrop Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She became a star from that moment on.

Ann Coulter. Bernard Goldberg. The list goes on. The m.o. is the same: the first and main thing is to traduce and offend liberal sensibility. But then, the crucial corollary is that when a liberal adopts what appears to be a conservative position, say, “Aha! This one has come to his senses.” Drank of reality. Accepted the world as it actually is. It was said of Bill Clinton when he backed NAFTA and announced that he’d sign the welfare reform bill. It was said of Hillary Clinton when, as New York senator, she became an Israel hawk.

Liberals, by contrast, rarely talk this way about conservatives. You hear it a bit on gay marriage: Dick Cheney accepted that this is the moral tide of history, I recall many liberals (probably me included) saying when he endorsed the position. But I sure don’t remember liberals crowing when George W. Bush came up with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Medicare Part D (his prescription drug act of 2003). In these cases, liberals adopted their/our usual “this isn’t nearly good enough” posture, and we batted roughly .500, as NCLB has been attacked by pedagogues and experts for a decade while Part D has in fairness met with better results than 2003 liberals would have had one believe.

But liberals just don’t get the same emotional satisfaction out of seeing conservatives squirm. Of course, it’s also far rarer that conservative politicians appear to adopt liberal positions than vice-versa, but even when it happens, liberals don’t go in for the kill. No liberal I’m aware of has claimed this week that Newt Gingrich is secretly on our side now on Medicare. It would be plainly ridiculous to say so—as it is also plainly ridiculous for neocons, particularly insightful ones like Boot, to be saying what they’re saying about Obama today.

There may be other explanations. Neocons want to be right. They want to be vindicated. They want to claim victory. But mostly, they want to run a chainsaw through the middle of the broad liberal coalition. Saying “X is now one of us,” on even the flimsiest evidence, is a handy way of doing that. Liberals shouldn’t nip at the bait. I hope today all is quiet in Kansas.

Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.