Wednesday, January 23, 2013

January 23, 2013

Obama's Warmed-Over Collectivism
by Matt Welsh
January 22, 2013

Much of President Barack Obama's mercifully brief second inaugural address yesterday was familiar to anyone who has been listening to his rhetoric and policy ideas since 2007.

Once again, the president rejected the false choice between "caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future," a formulation that simultaneously waves aside the relentless growth of entitlement spending (from 37 percent of federal outlays today to a projected 50 percent by 2030) and valorizes Washington's other frequently wasteful expenditures as transactions from which we can expect net financial returns.

Once again, he has made the factually dubious claim that future "economic vitality" depends not only on "sustainable energy sources" that will "power new jobs and new industries," but on making damned sure that America leads the world in this sector. "That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared," he added, oddly.

And once again, Obama has asserted the centrality and indispensability of the federal government to just about everything worth caring about. Here is the passage that best encapsulates the president's post-Bill Clinton ideology, including the feinting, to-be-sure stuff in paragraph four. I have italicized the action words:

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone.  Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character.

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.  For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.  No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.  Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people. [...]

My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.

This is a man who literally cannot envision a world in which a Golden Gate Bridge gets built without central planning from Washington, or where the 21st century doesn't rely on a transport technology invented in the 19th. The true fact that "no single person" can train all the teachers and build all the networks is no more a clarion call to collective action than the fact that no single person can make a pencil from scratch. We have an app for that, you know. Maybe the next president will figure that one out.

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American Liberty, But… 
Freedom requires restrictions, timeless constants need changing, up is down…
by Charles C. W. Cooke
January 23, 2013

Drawing on their boundless linguistic ingenuity, the British have worked out a neat little trick to take the edge off when endorsing restrictions on individual liberty. “I believe in freedom of speech,” members of parliament or representatives of advocacy groups will say with real poise. And then they will add the word “but” and explain disjointedly why they don’t. For some inexplicable reason, this is startlingly effective. Human ears, it seems, couch the truthful second statement in the more people-pleasing first. The preamble to the “but” makes what follows all the more persuasive, even when the statements are contradictory. It’s quite brilliant.

In practicing this nasty little maneuver, a distant cousin of the false dilemma, speakers drape themselves in the politically desirable cloak of moderation. And faux moderation is better than none at all. Even in the Britain of 2013, one can’t come straight out and say, “I think people should be imprisoned for saying things that I consider unacceptable.” Instead, one must display at least cosmetic fealty to the principles of liberty before one promises to undermine them entirely in practice.

Apparently, The Trick has now found its way across the Atlantic. Witness yesterday’s inaugural speech, in which President Obama regularly lionized the Republic’s axiological philosophical principles just moments before articulating his own, antithetical, ideology. A lovely example:
Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.

“These are constants in our character” seems a pretty straightforward proposition. Yet then, as if by clockwork, came the “but”:

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

Those “constants” in our character, then, “must change.” And our “individual freedoms” require “collective actions.” In other words, black is white, up is down, and left is right. Individualism is collectivism if you’ll only use the magic word “but.” Likewise:

Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time . . .

First, those founding documents rather do mean that we must “define liberty in exactly the same way,” not least because they represent the highest laws in the land. But this doesn’t really matter, because there is a “but” coming:

But it does require us to act in our time.

Well, have at it then.

Speaking of “acting in our time,” a phrase that bears an unpropitious resemblance to Neville Chamberlain’s insistence that there was no threat from Germany in 1938 (as, of course, does “peace in our time,” another phrase Obama deployed on Monday), apparently The Trick works against economic gravity, too. Faced with a national debt that has increased 55 percent on his watch, with endless trillion-dollar deficits, and with the prospect of entitlements that balloon into the future, one might expect the president would be concerned. Worry not. “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” he said in his inaugural speech.

Maybe a few hearts leapt at this. If so, they were beating in the bodies of those unfamiliar with the etiquette of progressive theatre. “But,” continued the president immediately, “we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” I’m not sure what this sentence means — I imagine that nobody does, including the person who wrote it — but that doesn’t matter, because it is wrapped in a cocoon of declared concern about the deficit and is thus inured from its own vacuousness.

In the sense that both presidents outlined a vision, the comparisons of Obama’s second inaugural to Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural are apt. But there is a material difference: Ronald Reagan sketched out the American ideal and then promised to renew it; Obama held up the blueprints of the American ideal, and then promised something completely different. And a wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf.

Perhaps the greatest performance of The Trick in American history was Woodrow Wilson’s couching of his progressive agenda in terms of constitutional liberty:

The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental powers, not the increase of it. When we resist, therefore, the concentration of power, we are resisting the processes of death, because concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human liberties.

These words were spoken by a man who was openly hostile to the Constitution, who wished a parliamentary system on the country, advocated a federal income tax and the shifting of the election of senators away from the states, happily imprisoned his opponents, censored the press, demonized various ethnic groups, controlled newspaper outlets, and allowed warrantless searches. These words were spoken by a man who, as my colleague Jonah Goldberg has noted, argued that American government “does now whatever experience permits or the times demand” and who contended that “a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.”

That’s one hell of a “but.”

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Conservatives Underperform Our Issues
The political right communicates wrong(ly).
by Quin Hillyer
January 23, 2013

The depressing spectacle of Barack Obama inaugurating a second term should not obscure this truth: Conservatives win on issues. They lose in elections because they don’t know how to frame the choices, even on those many issues on which the majority of the public is in their corner.

Consider the most recent poll numbers. Gallup on abortion: “Would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” Answer: 50 to 41, pro-life.

Gallup on whether government “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” or instead “should do more to solve our country’s problems.” Answer: By 54-39, “is trying to do too many things.” And 51 percent think the federal government “has too much power” versus 40 percent “has about the right amount of power” — and only 8 percent thinks it “has too little power.”

Impression of the National Rifle Association? Fox News, just last week: 56 percent favorable, 33 percent unfavorable. Will tough guns laws help stop incidents like the Newtown school shooting? Only 22 percent say yes, while 71 percent say “the people who commit these kinds of acts will always find the guns to commit violent acts.” And: “Which is more important: protecting the constitutional rights of citizens to own guns, or protecting citizens from gun violence?” Rights defeat protection, 51-40. And CNN, also last week, asked: Would “having stricter gun control laws… reduce the amount of violence in the country, or not?” Not: 61-39.

And by 47 percent to 40 percent, those polled support having “armed guards in every school” ahead of “stricter gun control laws.”

Okay, how about the debt ceiling? CBS last week gave three options: “Raised without conditions” or “raised with spending cuts” or “not raised at all.” The answers: 17 to 60 to 18. Put the latter two together, and a whopping 78 percent want the limit either to remain unchanged or to be raised only with spending cuts attached. And, to repeat: Only 17 percent support Barack Obama’s position of raising the limit without preconditions.

For traditionalists out there, the news isn’t even hideous on homosexual marriage. Forty percent of Americans — only a plurality — support “marriage equality.” The middle ground, if traditionalists want to seize it, is to support “civil unions,” which garners 30 percent support — and which, if combined with the 24 percent who want no “legal unions” of any kind, means a majority still would stop short of having the law fully ratify homosexual marriages.

As for the conservative label, it still carries weight. Gallup last May reported that those who self-identify as conservatives on economics outnumber liberals, 46-20. On social issues, conservatives win 38-28. And without mentioning issue areas, but just asked to self-identify overall, the numbers were 41 percent conservative, 33 percent moderate, and just 23 percent liberal. These numbers are in line with the numbers in polls for many, many years.

We can play these polling games for hours. Or for years. They won’t help conservatives unless conservatives learn how to re-connect the public impression of their positions with the positions conservatives actually take, and with the reasoning behind them. Conservatives tend to be at once too vague and too unwilling to use broad labels. Yes, they do both at the same time. For fear of having the establishment media blast them for “name calling,” conservatives almost never label their opponents as “liberals,” “hard leftists,” “welfare expanders,” or any other of the monikers of the sort that the late Lee Atwater, for example, was so fond of using. Atwater had many flaws, but it was a political virtue that he did not shy away from honest labels that served raw political ends.

The key, though, was that Atwater didn’t just stop with the labeling. He worked assiduously to give content to the labels. He chose real issues that were legitimate in and of themselves, and that also served as effective symbols for larger, broader arguments.

One need not run a photo of Willie Horton — Atwater never did so, by the way — to complain about how a furlough program and revolving-door prisons lead to more violent crime. Or, to leave Atwater behind, Ronald Reagan was a master not just at making crystal clear what his broader philosophical points were — as in: We must build our defenses in order to secure world peace — but at using specifics to bolster his broader themes.

Consider his famous campaign debate against Jimmy Carter. Establishment media accounts in retrospect make it sound as if Jimmy Carter knew all the facts, but that Reagan won the debate merely by virtue of a few famous, well-delivered one-liners. Bah, humbug. Reagan spent an entire debate giving meat to the themes he encapsulated in his famous riffs, such as the one about American not being “better off” than it had been four years earlier. Consider this litany on defense: “Now, Gerald Ford left a five-year projected plan for a military build-up to restore our defenses, and President Carter’s administration reduced that by 38%, cut 60 ships out of the Navy building program that had been proposed, and stopped the B-l, delayed the cruise missile, stopped the production line for the Minuteman missile, stopped the Trident or delayed the Trident submarine….”

Today, unfortunately, conservatives seem to have lost the knack to talk specifics without lapsing into incomprehensible legis-speak. They talk of “sequesters” and “premium support” and “out years” and “chained CPI.” Or, perhaps worse, they just repeat the vague mantra that America needs to “cut” spending and balance its budget. They are either too lost in the weeds or too up in the clouds.

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