Barack Obama is once again, for better or worse, the president. Like most presidents he has an agenda. Raising taxes on the rich, nominally ending the war in Iraq, shutting down medical marijuana dispensaries, supporting gay marriage when politically expeditious, and so forth. But to hear some on the right tell it, behind the Obama the man is the real Obama, who also has a real agenda. This tends to be more sinister. The lighter version usually has to do with his alleged desire to turn the country into a European-style social democracy. More outlandish charges such as those from disgraced cartoonist Dinesh D’Souza include supposed anti-Americanism, or treasonous support for an emergent “United States of Islam.”
With that kind of villain in mind, it’s not hard to see how much of the conservative movement might be deluded into thinking America had by and large turned against the president over his first term. Enter the dread bubble of epistemic closure within the conservative movement, which Conor Friedersdorf and others have already done a great job explaining. The gist is that the Republican Party and conservatives devoted a lot of energy toward propagating the myth of the real Obama and less time making the case for the benefits of conservative governance or the benefits of a free society or even deciding what those things mean. Granted, their case was undercut by the billionaire crony capitalist on the ticket who implemented Obamacare’s prototype, but a purely oppositional message can only carry you so far.
McCay Coppins reports on some self-reflection in the blogosphere:
“I think the right media may have erred,” Dan Riehl, a contributor to Breitbart News and longtime proprietor of Riehl World News, told BuzzFeed a week after the election. “I think we let Obama get into our heads and we wound up campaigning against him, rather than for the things we believe in.”
“It was a trap,” he added. “And one I can’t say I didn’t fall into.”
In electoral terms the fervor of the conservative blogging community is, obviously, far less detrimental than a candidate’s failure to articulate a message. Romney ought to have made a stronger positive case, especially on things like school choice where he had a record. Or even where he didn’t, by pointing out the Democratic party’s position on abortion that’s out of step with a majority of the country.
A study out today shows that 79 percent of Obama voters wanted changes to Medicare and Social Security. And yet, even though the President has remained more or less silent on either for his first term, the GOP wasn’t able to make a strong case either.
On entitlements, a little Medicare jujitsu managed to blunt Democratic attacks. But voters still chose to hazard the implementation of healthcare reform rather than buy a Republican pitch that essentially amounted to ‘we’ll put things right back to the way they were before Obamacare, only we’ll give you slightly less in benefits.’ They certainly didn’t buy the line about “raiding” Medicare.
At a panel last Friday at AEI, some of the writers on my “Manzi List” offered their thoughts on the Republican Party’s failure and how to bring back a “majority conservatism.” Not once was America’s inevitable decline into socialism mentioned.
Some suggestions were cosmetic and speak to a certain obtuseness that will surely go down in history as a theme of Romney’s campaign. Henry Olsen compared the women’s sections of the web stores of both campaigns. Obama’s had a plethora of trendy designs and messages of empowerment, all on clothes people might actually wear after November. His opponent had some “Moms for Romney” t-shirts and buttons with a picture of Ann.
Artur Davis claimed the GOP needed to learn how to “close better,” and pointed out that the party’s immigration position translated, especially for young people, into a nationalistic “aversion to multiculturalism.” Ben Domenech made the case for a more populist/libertarian platform, and Reihan Salam went the opposite way, arguing the GOP needs to reclaim a “politics of order” in the midst of diversity and creative destruction.
These are all fine ideas, and the debate has been long in the offing, but it’s worth remembering that these considerations all take place within the tectonic frame of powerful competing interests, both within the party and externally. Those interests are likely to favor one or the other reform track for reasons other than the health of the body politic. Big business favoring immigration, or opposing breaking up the banks. Or, most recently, the copyright lobby stifling discussion about IP reform, which should be a no-brainer for a GOP looking to move in a more pro-competitiveness, pro-Millenial, libertarian populist direction.
The conservative media is another one of those factions. If all the misinformation about the real Obama helped cost Romney the election, they’ve earned themselves the privilege of doing the same thing for another four years. Four more years of feeling like insurgents, four more years of agitated donors (if they aren’t turned off by the ineffectiveness of Karl Rove’s machine), and four more years of snarky blog posts about Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s hair. It all worked out for them, didn’t it?