Among the multitudes singing hosannas for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy four years ago were a surprisingly large number of conservative intellectuals, christened by the press “Obamacons.”
They included not just the usual dyspeptic libertarians who always threaten to bolt the Republican Party, but also men who had been at the heart of the conservative movement. There was Bruce Bartlett, a shaper of Reagan’s supply-side economics, who wrote about the Obamacon phenomenon for The New Republic. Count also Jeffrey Hart, speechwriter for Reagan and Nixon and for 39 years a senior editor at National Review, from 1969 until the magazine severed ties with him over his Obama endorsement.
They were joined by the blogger and Michael Oakeshott disciple Andrew Sullivan, foreign-policy thinker Andrew Bacevich, and a founding editor of this magazine, Scott McConnell. There was also a host of libertarians, quarrelsome and calm alike. The trend was so pronounced that in October 2008, Christopher Buckley (son of National Review’s William F.) began a column, “Let me be the latest conservative/libertarian/whatever to leap onto the Barack Obama bandwagon.” He was promptly expunged from the magazine his father founded.
The very idea of Obamacons may seem odd now, a transient symptom of a GOP in ill-health after eight years of the widely unsuccessful Bush presidency. But the Obamacons are still around, and some intend to vote for Obama’s re-election. While they are a disparate group, there are threads that bind them: a fear of adventurism in foreign policy, alarm about national insolvency, disgust at the state of movement conservatism, and most especially a longing for political leadership.
The word that presses itself into your mind after speaking to them: homeless. They are thinkers with almost no land left to defend but the scrap on which they stand, and uncertain of the territory they’d like to conquer.
Which would explain all the sighing. “How do you view the 2012 election?” I ask.
“Well [audible sigh], I always tell people I’m a Goldwater conservative, and we are a pitifully small remnant,” says Kevin Gutzman, co-author with Thomas E. Woods of Who Killed the Constitution? “I would like to have Governor Romney give me a reason to think he is substantially different from Obama.” Another sigh. Gutzman eventually answers that he’ll vote for Romney, unhappily.
Same question for Bruce Bartlett: “[Sigh] I think if I were inclined to vote this year—which I’m not—I’d make the same decision that Obama is better. But there is a case for Romney.”
Confirming my impression, Bacevich says with characteristic bluntness: “Authentic conservatives are without a home in American politics.”
Although most Obamacons have mixed feelings about Obama now, not one of those I interviewed expressed the regret about choosing the Illinois senator over John McCain in 2008, given what they knew at the time. Foreign policy was the issue they cited over and over again: “Four years ago, I disliked McCain intensely; it seemed like the choice between Obama and someone with policies very like Obama’s except that he would also invade Iran,” says Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast.
“I thought the chief issue at the time was getting out of Iraq. I thought it was going to bankrupt the country… . If I had the same choice as I had the last time, I would probably go for Obama again, even if he has been really bad on several issues I care about,” says Gutzman.
“McCain had bought entirely into the neoconservative project,” McConnell confirms, “and he seemed eager and joked about starting a war in Iran.”
These intellectuals weren’t alone in their defection from the GOP. Colin Powell, who had served as secretary of state under George W. Bush, provided a high-profile endorsement for Obama. A few of the last scions of the Rockefeller Republican tradition, like Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, and Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrist, also voted for Obama
About 9 percent of Republicans nationwide told exit pollsters that they voted for Obama in 2008—up from the 6 percent who reported casting their ballots for Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004, though the number was not entirely outside the norm. Al Gore attracted an Obama-sized portion of registered Republicans in 2000. But the figures are more striking when ideology rather than partisanship is the criterion: 20 percent of self-identified conservatives voted for Obama in 2008. Kerry captured just 15 percent four years earlier.
Have the Obamacons been disappointed? Yes.
Bacevich’s summation speaks for most: “On balance, Obama has been a disappointment but not a disaster.”
“I did make a judgment that Obama wasn’t an inspirational figure to me, but I didn’t think he was a left-wing radical either,” McConnell says. “He seemed to be a standard liberal-centrist, which I thought the country could tolerate okay. I haven’t been thrilled with the Obama presidency, but I think that judgment has been vindicated.”
“Obviously, Obama has been way worse on civil liberties than I expected,” says McArdle. “I kind of can’t believe I was naïve enough to think that he would actually change anything—or even try to change anything, except for the incredibly stupid symbolic move of Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil, which he chickened out on anyway. But I was. Ooops.”
Bartlett sees a lamentable continuity between Obama and his predecessor: “He continued Bush’s policies without one single solitary change.” Some Obamacons, like Gutzman and Bacevich, see that continuity as reflecting a broader pattern in the political class. “I continue to have the feeling that the people in charge of the federal government are driving us into bankruptcy, and the fast-track is more war,” says Gutzman.
Exploring the reasoning of the thinkers most satisfied and most dissatisfied with Obama can be instructive. Jeffrey Hart is the Obamacon most pleased with his choice, and he is anxious to see the president rewarded with a second term. He did not simply swallow his vote as if it were bad medicine; he argues positively that a true conservative has no choice but to help elect Obama again. “One definition of conservatism would be to conserve what is good and to devise solutions to problems as they arise,” he says. For Hart, Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan secured and extended the achievements of the New Deal and Great Society. But now, he says, “I fear we’ll lose Medicare through the Ryan budget.” Asked how he feels about most self-described conservatives sticking with the GOP, he replies serenely: “They’re wrong.”
McArdle occupies the opposite pole. “Overall, I wildly underestimated Obama’s arrogance and inexperience,” she says. “I don’t think he’s the Antichrist or anything, but his presidency certainly hasn’t contained much to please me on the policy front. On the plus side, we haven’t invaded Iran.” The biggest issue for McArdle is Obama’s healthcare reform. “I think it’s a terrible Rube Goldberg apparatus that is going to have disastrous impacts on the budget.”
McArdle admits she doesn’t like Romney much: “I think he’s a technocrat whose heart is fully captured by the managerial class, very much like Obama, in fact. … I’m not sure [Obamacare] will actually be undone, if he’s elected. The bill is designed to be hard to disassemble—another reason I don’t like it.”
Most Obamacons are not as certain as these two, but there are discernible trends. If an Obamacon’s primary concerns are fiscal and economic (Gutzman, McArdle), they are likely to support Romney with sighs and reservations. If their concerns are primarily about foreign policy (McConnell, Bacevich), they are more likely to vote for Obama, with some regret and trepidation. “Second terms are usually worse than the first,” admits McConnell.
To an outside observer, there may seem to be an emerging wing of the Republican Party that could accommodate the Obamacons—the one being built by Ron Paul; his senator son, Rand; and their confreres in the “liberty movement.” Obamacon Andrew Sullivan twice endorsed Ron Paul in the Republican primaries, heaping accolades on his character and lauding his honesty about America’s finances and wars. The Pauls lead a movement that detests Washington’s expansive foreign policy and looks at budgets through the greenest of green eyeshades. It has the advantage of being electorally relevant (in congressional contests, at least) while maintaining credibility with a subset of Tea Partiers and portions of the conservative movement itself.
For Gutzman, who has been deeply embedded in that liberty movement for years, there is little choice. “The fiscal situation is you’re going to have Ron Paul’s foreign policy now or later,” he says. “We’re going to give it away the way the British did, rolling back the empire willingly, or the way the Soviets did, you go bankrupt and Poland is free. I still wish it could be done through the political process, rather than being forced on us.”
Yet none of the other Obamacons volunteers Ron Paul or his movement when asked about sources from which political sanity might spring. “I admire Paul’s anti-interventionist foreign policy perspective greatly,” says Bacevich, “and in that sense his voice is an important one. On the other hand, I’m not a libertarian. When it comes to domestic issues, I found his views, not reprehensible, but not likely to serve as a blueprint for what American politics is going to be about going forward. And I think libertarians, to my mind, tend to be insufficiently sensitive to the evils that the market can propagate. I fully respect capitalism as far and away the most effective way to generate economic growth, I’m just not persuaded that economic growth is the be all and end all of society.”
One gets the sense that though these Obamacons find Paul’s voice prophetic, they have tired of politics as an exercise in doctrine, and they see in the Ron Paul movement the same zeal and dogmatism that ultimately corrupted conservatism. They often cite Edmund Burke as their intellectual pole star, so it is no surprise they hesitate to take up anything like the creedal politics of libertarianism.
But their objections to libertarianism may drive deeper. Bacevich’s caution about capitalism is shared by other Obamacons. For Bacevich, the concern is the way the free market erodes social and civic values. Bartlett is convinced that “the working class is getting screwed” and frames his criticisms in terms of American fairness and the depredations of the plutocracy, which he believes has captured the Republican Party.
“When you think of what you want to conserve, you think of the best aspects of your country, and for me it was the 1960s. If you strip away the radical social movements, it was a more equal country, economically equal. Less power to Wall Street and more power to the middle,” McConnell says. “Now we are developing an income structure like Brazil’s.”
If these criticisms of capitalism and plutocracy seem underdeveloped, they are. The truth is that these thinkers long for intellectual leadership.
Why not go left? After all, the experience of the Bush era seemed not only to dislodge commitments to the conservative movement, but also to loosen the convictions that went with membership in it. Bartlett is open to the idea, but he finds the prospects dim. “I think one of the things liberals could do for dissident conservatives is what the right did for dissident communists and dissident liberals,” he says. “They nurtured them. Those conservatives understood that these apostates were powerful allies. But the left is too stupid to recognize the opportunity that is there.”
Unbidden, Bartlett, Bacevich, and McConnell all compare themselves and other dissident conservatives to the core group that launched National Review or the first generation of neoconservatives—a coterie on the edge of politics that has the potential to grow at the expense of an intellectually decrepit establishment. The difference, they acknowledge, is that they lack a leader.
“If you consider the career of someone like William F. Buckley, who founded National Review in 1955, when the word ‘conservative’ commanded no respect whatsoever, he seemed to be undertaking a fairly quixotic campaign,” says Bacevich. “It took him, what, 25 years before it yielded significant fruits? … If we take seriously the dictum that ideas have consequences, then we have to be patient.”
“The problem with Burkean conservatives is there are not enough of us and not enough rich ones. There’s a paucity of structures and institutions, but there could be more,” offers McConnell.
“One of the things intellectuals love to be is on the cutting edge,” says Bartlett. “We now have to write off the last 30 or 40 years and go back and start from scratch, and do what those guys [Buckley and Irving Kristol] did, although now in essence we are fighting against our own this time.”
Meanwhile, the Obamacons seem satisfied with being uncommitted. “There’s no shame in being a swing constituency,” says McConnell. “It is tactically useful.”
Michael Brendan Dougherty is TAC’s national correspondent.