In 2008, a few prominent conservatives hoped that Barack Obama might upend entrenched baby boomer attitudes and partisan dogmas. Aghast at the Bush administration’s financial and military recklessness, 20 percent of self-described conservatives voted for the “most liberal member of the Senate.”
After four years, President Obama’s case for re-election seems more a defense of the status quo than the call for change that propelled him into office: massive (though slightly smaller) deficits, a frail economy, Congressional dysfunction, and drift to war with Iran. The Bush-Obama status quo has amounted to the propping up of unsustainable entitlement programs and permanent, almost casual interventionism, accompanied by the decay of civil liberties and the growth of executive power. To this Obama has contributed a few unwelcome innovations, such as enhanced drone strikes and the HHS mandate, and some innocuous proposals: half-measures such as tax breaks for manufacturing and hiring more teachers.
There is a strong conservative case against Obama, but Mitt Romney has not made it. If Obama now represents the status quo, Romney offers nothing better than a promise to restore the radical policies that created the current conditions. As Daniel Larison notes, Romney is more likely to start a war with Iran by his own admission. It is revealing that his most prominent national security adviser is not a foreign policy wonk but a former Bush PR operative. At a time when the rich have seen unprecedented financial gains, the GOP nominee’s policies remain highly skewed to the wealthy, with special attention to the financial and defense industries. Amazingly, he seems to embrace the worst aspects of the Bush administration at a time when most Americans (rightly) blame Bush’s policies for our deep economic woes.
To the extent that Obama still offers a brake on the reckless forces of plutocracy and war (the Sheldon Adelson approach), which Romney plainly intends to restore, the conservative is left with no true alternative. In fact, the president’s re-election depends on a consensus around hard truths, the acknowledgment that immediately after the economic crisis, maybe we didn’t “deserve” to have the best years ever. Obama’s re-election, in a landscape hostile to any incumbent, would signify a certain reckoning, some actual grappling with the complexity of the crisis at hand, and a realization that neither Republican flag-waving nor sloganeering for “hope and change” are substitutes for hard choices. In this sense, the re-election of Obama might represent a surprising and mature moment in American politics.
At his best, Obama stands for understated stewardship and pragmatism in a time of global, structural economic shock, and in the face of a Republican opposition that hasn’t shown an interest in conservative policy outcomes. Even as a lame duck, Obama is more likely to strike a responsible deal on long-term deficit reduction, pursue a policy of restraint on Iran, address the immigration mess, and enact conservative-friendly changes to education policy and, yes, his own health care law.
Neither candidate for president offers a healthy, reality-based conservatism. But one candidate gives a fairer accounting of the realities we face. As a conservative, I opt for the familiar slog, even if it means stasis, and the “long rugged path” predicted by the current president four years ago.