CHANGE CAN APPARENTLY ONLY MOVE IN ONE DIRECTION…. I’m generally inclined to leave criticism of Pete Wehner, the former aide to Karl Rove and Minister of Propaganda for the Bush administration, to Jon Chait — who seems to enjoy it.
But this Wehner gem deserves special attention. Politico ran an interesting item about the culture war, and the ways in which the right has responded to the Obama presidency by starting a fight over “whether he’s moving the country toward socialism and over the very definition of what it means to be American.” Wehner’s insights on the subject were ridiculous, but important.
Pete Wehner, a former top official in the George W. Bush administration and a social conservative thinker, described the resistance to Obama as “beyond politics.”
“What we’re having here are debates about first principles,” Wehner said. “A lot of people think he’s trying to transform the country in a liberal direction in the way that Ronald Reagan did in a conservative direction. This is not the normal push and pull of politics. It gets down to the purpose and meaning of America.”
Read that quote again, because it’s really significant — Obama wants to move America to the left to the same extent that Reagan moved it to the right. This, Wehner believes, is “beyond politics” and falls outside “the normal push and pull” of our political system.
Now, whether Obama really is fulfilling Wehner’s vision — serving as a liberal counter-weight to Reaganism — is open to debate. Hell, whether Reagan really succeeded in pulling the country to the right, by the standards of 21st-century conservatives, is itself worthy of skepticism. But the key here is Wehner’s overarching contention — politics in the United States can change, but it’s only allowed to move in one direction. Reagan’s conservative agenda was within American norms, because it was conservative. Obama’s progressive agenda deserves to be labeled radical because it’s not conservative.
A Democratic presidential candidate can present a progressive agenda to the electorate; that candidate can be easily elected, giving that agenda a mandate; and in office, that successful candidate can begin making compromises to move the vision forward through a labyrinthine Congress. But if the Democrat is successful, the result is necessarily at odds with “the purpose and meaning of America.”
A center-left candidate, in other words, is allowed to run, and even allowed to win. He/she is not, however, allowed to govern. Why? Because it’s fundamentally unacceptable — liberalism is not part of “the normal push and pull of politics.”
It’s the kind of maxim that brings the larger political landscape into sharper focus.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently endorsed a very similar line of thinking a few weeks ago. He told reporters that, after the midterm elections, policymaking will have to change.
“What I hope we are going to have after November is more balance, more balance, which would give us the opportunity to do things together that simply were missing when you have this kind of disparity,” McConnell said. “But, I’m not going to be very interested in doing things left of center. It is going to have to be center-right. I think the president is a flexible man. I’m hoping he will become a born-again moderate.”
On its face, this seems idiotic. A “balanced” approach to lawmaking, McConnell argued, reflects a system in which the left gets nothing, and everything has to be center-right. Indeed, a “moderate” Democratic president would have no choice but to agree that every proposal be right of center.
But with Wehner’s contention in mind, the coherence of McConnell’s seemingly-insane demand comes through — of course McConnell sees his way as an example of “balance”; in American politics, the left necessarily has to lose every dispute. Ideas are “balanced” if they strike a compromise between the right and the far-right.
Looking back over the last year and a half, it’s hard to overstate how illustrative this is. The GOP line with the Obama White House has always been the same: “I’m willing to compromise with you, unless it means you getting some of what you want, in which case, forget it.” This is precisely the kind of thinking, for example, that leads Republicans to embrace 80% of the Democratic health care plan, but nevertheless literally characterize it as “Armageddon” when it passes — the left got some of what it wanted, which necessarily made the bill un-American.
Republicans really should just drop the pretense, and forget words like “balance” and “the normal push and pull of politics.” What they mean isn’t ambiguous: only Republicans should be allowed to govern, no matter what voters have to say.
Steve M. summarized this well: “If we were having an honest, well-informed discussion of modern American politics, we would acknowledge that this is what right-wingers believe: that governments to the left of a certain point simply should not be allowed to exist in America, regardless of any electoral results. And we would ask ourselves whether we still have a democracy if one party reserves the right, like guerrilla warlords, to destabilize any duly elected government that doesn’t meet its criteria of acceptability.”