The Ideological Vacuum

E.J. Dionne tells us something important:

It's also striking that most conservatives, through a method that might be called the audacity of audacity, have acted as if absolutely nothing went wrong with their economic theories. They speak and act as if they had nothing to do with the large deficits they now bemoan and say we will all be saved if only we return to the very policies that should already be discredited.

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Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right's narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.

The president's supporters comfort themselves that Obama's numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan's numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.

Paul Krugman argues much the same thing. No one doubts now that Barack Obama was never going to be a rhetorical partisan. He makes a show of "reaching out" to Republicans and treating them with respect, even when they react by spitting in his outstretched hand. This approach has some strategic benefit, in that he comes off seeming reasonable and open-minded, unlike his opponents.

But there is a cost as well. Because Obama doesn't speak in ideological terms – attacking conservatism by name and praising progressivism – he fails to give the public the kind of rhetorical signposts they can use to understand things. You can't be subtle in politics – people need shorthands and summaries to contextualize events and arguments. If Obama had spent the last couple of years criticizing conservative economic policies and saying they failed because of their inherent conservative nature, it would be much harder for Republicans to continue arguing that some tax breaks for the wealthy are all we need to turn around the economy.

Because Obama didn't do that, Republicans are now forced to spend virtually no time defending the fact that the years 2001-2008 provided a near-perfect test of their economic ideas, and those ideas failed miserably. As Dionne reminds us, Reagan provided a clear ideological framework that structured the entire debate around economics and government, serving him just as well when things were going poorly as when they were going well.

Right now, the debate is being shaped not by the president but by the opposition. We’re talking about whether government has gotten too big, not how to correct the mistakes of the Bush years and make it work better. It would be great to see Obama start talking in ideological terms, in order to lay that foundation Dionne talks about. But given his history, it's hard to see that happening.

--Paul Waldman

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