18 May 2012

Obama's 'defining issue'

The President's latest begging letter arrived today. He's in uniter-not-divider mode this time. The word "Republican" only appears when he writes that his values "aren't Democratic values or Republican values." He eschews "class warfare" as well, adding that those values "aren't 1 percent values or 99 percent values." Yet someone is obviously opposed to those values, and the disagreement is "the defining issue of our time" -- but what are those values, anyway?

I have a deep conviction that we're greater together than we are on our own. I believe this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone, from Main Street to Wall Street, plays by the same rules. And I believe we all prosper when hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.

You wouldn't think that anyone disagrees with this, except perhaps for those dissatisfied with the President's assurance of nothing more than a "fair shot." But Obama knows well that an opposition has fueled a "raging debate" that has "left Washington in a near-constant state of gridlock." This not-so-nebulous but respectfully unnamed opposition has a philosophy of its own, the President claims. Their "philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules."

Of course, no one would expressly claim a philosophy framed in those words as his or her own. No one claims a right to "play by their own rules;" the debate rages over whether rules set by politicians and bureaucrats or rules discerned by economists and ideologues are preferable. Nor would many people assert that each must fend for himself or herself. Fewer still would deny the President's own premise that "we're greater together than we are on our own," but many would disagree on the import of the phrase. A libertarian, for instance, might agree that we're better together, but only under conditions of "spontaneous order,' free from consciously political meddling. Republicans would certainly agree on everyone's right to a "fair shot" while disagreeing with Democrats over what exactly a fair shot is and what should happen if someone takes their shot and misses. 

Occupying the center requires vagueness. In centrist mode Obama can't honestly state the terms of the raging debate, which has only been raging, with different degrees of intensity, for the past century. The subject of the debate is the size and scope of government regulation, which Obama barely implies is the precondition for fair shots, fair shares and our being greater together. But he lacks either the intellect (which seems unlikely) or the courage (ding!) to make the case for strong (rather than "big") government the way Theodore Roosevelt did as a renegade Republican turned self-styled Progressive in 1912, or the way generations of politicians did later. Until someone reaches back to Roosevelt and revives the allegedly-discredited principles of 20th century progressivism, the raging debate will be fueled by ideas from one side only, and by little more than begging letters from the other.

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