Obama Praises the Wrong Conservatives

In an interview on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Barack Obama to "name a hot button issue" where "Republicans have a better idea." Obama replied, "Well, I think there are a whole host of areas where Republicans in some cases may have a better idea." That response echoed his comment back in January that Republicans have been "the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time." Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and much of the liberal blogosphere piled on Obama then for seeming to endorse what Ronald Reagan unleashed.

Obama's remarks were clearly intended to reach beyond the Democratic base and demonstrate his openness to policies that appeal to independents and conservatives. But he could have responded much more effectively -- and without alienating members of his own party -- by distinguishing between traditional conservatism's legitimate concerns about the unintended consequences of public policies and the modern right wing's deep-seated hostility toward government.

He also squandered an opportunity to clarify why progressivism produces far more effective government than modern conservatism. None of the particular ideas that Obama mentioned when praising Republicans were spawned by movement conservatism. Rather, they were the outgrowth of the kind of pragmatic, trial-and-error evolution that progressives have learned leads to success.

For instance, Obama mentioned charter schools as an example of a Republican idea, when they were actually the brain child of the liberal union leader Albert Shanker. Obama cited using cap-and-trade systems instead of command-and-control regulation to reduce pollution as a Republican idea, even though that highly successful innovation evolved over many years through the work of nonideological economists. His other example, deregulation of industries like airlines, banking, and telecommunications, was pushed -- for better and worse -- by Democrats as well as Republicans.

In contrast, movement conservatism, which blossomed during the Reagan era through a network of institutions funded initially by a relatively small number of extremely wealthy families, developed and advocated ideas directly intended to weaken government -- regardless of the consequences. Those ideas are responsible for the myriad failures of the Bush administration and therefore should be attacked relentlessly rather than praised.

Independents and disillusioned Republicans will recognize how far the right has moved from empirically driven, incremental conservative thinking when they hear some examples: Social Security privatization. Supply-side economics. Politicizing the top levels of agencies with anti-government ideologues. Undercutting public health, safety, and environmental protections. Contracting out government services to campaign contributors with minimal oversight. Publicly funded vouchers for private schools. John Yoo and Dick Cheney's unitary executive philosophy. And, as Obama himself has effectively pointed out, the neoconservative mindset that produced the Iraq War.

Those ideas failed because they were radical -- the antithesis of how many Republicans and independents define their own conservatism. William Safire, the former speechwriter for Richard M. Nixon who for decades represented the right in his New York Times column, defined a conservative as "a defender of the status quo who, when change becomes necessary in tested institutions or practices, prefers that it come slowly or in moderation." Likewise, the movement's godfather Barry Goldwater wrote, "In its simplest terms, conservatism is economic, social, and political practices based on the successes of the past."

But the ideas of the modern conservative movement that Bush implemented were not based on past successes. Instead they were motivated by a determination to weaken government, even where government had succeeded in the past. That approach to governing was preordained to fail, and this campaign season presents an extraordinary chance to explain to voters of all stripes how the damage derives from the radicalism of movement conservatism.

The progressive mindset, on the other hand, is premised on building on past successes and avoiding the repetition of failures. Progressives, including all Democrats and some Republicans and independents, actually believe that government can help promote the common good and can point to plenty of examples that prove that point. One aspect of that orientation has been to incorporate the best of the sort of traditional conservatism that Safire and Goldwater described. That means that virtually every progressive involved in developing public policy today is acutely mindful of the kinds of unintended consequences that the right once warned against. We have adapted to experience, unlike movement conservatives who remain wedded to ideas like supply-side economics and "benevolent hegemony" that have repeatedly failed in the past.

So then, to answer Wallace's question, are there any hot button issues where Republicans have a better idea? In the past, prudent conservatives suggested some useful correctives in realms like crime, welfare, and taxes where government policy wasn't working. But today, because Republicans have adopted a mindset that assumes government is always the problem rather than part of the solution, their ideas keep failing. They are the ones who now need to adapt and learn as progressives have. You have to believe government can succeed to make it succeed.

The ideologically driven agenda that failed so profoundly during the Bush years is exclusively the provenance of the right wing. If the case against the dominant belief system of recent years is presented clearly and forcefully, many Americans who used to think of themselves as conservative will realize that they now have more in common with progressives.