Labor Day, 3 September 2012

Facebook is filled with the hyperbole of the political season. Each one strives for a more complete dismissal of the Republican nominees, while the incumbent is embraced without qualification, as if this were 2008 again and the intervening post-Bush years had never happened. These remarks are directed at true believers, and I find I'm not one of them.

The promise of 2008 was recalibration. The world had changed, the “new world order” foreseen by the elder Bush was squandered by his son, turned into mindless, prohibitively expensive adventures that failed even to secure the oil rights that the left believed was the real motive. Afghanistan, Obama’s optional war, continues. That it is not quite the same quagmire as Iraq does not excuse it. Even something as fundamental as closing Guantanamo and shifting the trials of terrorists into real courts stands undone, never seriously pursued. The neoconservative program, despite its thorough repudiation in practice, is still inexplicably alive in this nominally left-of-center administration. Obama is sharper than Bush, but he has let himself be led by events. 

Because American politics are now polarized like California’s, Romney had to move right in order to win the primaries. The sincerity of this move is open to question—certainly most of his opponents questioned it—but it saddles him with an unpalatable program socially and militarily, sort of the worst of all worlds. It makes me long for Bill Clinton, who managed to combine fiduciary conservatism with social liberalism—and avoid the big moves, militarily, that Bush junior fell into so readily. Clinton is the template for a middle-of-the-road presidency, but then Clinton is also a true politician, which isn’t true of any of his successors. Reagan, highly attuned to public opinion, was a master at paying lip service to the hidebound without ever attempting to enable their broadly unpopular ideas.

Even now, Romney could move a ways back to the middle simply by pointing to the states as the right venue to hash out vexing social issues. And the states might argue in turn that counties and cities should have something to say about them. Arizona, which is perennially tarred with the retrograde brush by the left, is split north and south—Phoenix and Tucson—on these issues. It would be a reasonable move, given the short distance between him and Obama in the polls, to imply that a Romney-Ryan administration would leave any socially conservative program to the states. The Democrats could argue that it’s less than Obama’s guarantee, which is true, but it might be enough to close the gap. What it would really signal to the electorate is that Romney gives other issues, like the economy, a higher priority. (This won't solve his Supreme Court appointment problem, a genuinely compelling reason to vote for Obama.)

Romney is a technocrat. Described as a problem solver, he is likely to be a decent strategist, capable of running the numbers and taking a longer view when required. He appears to understand that making a success of things takes work and commitment, which is a key difference between him and Bush junior. Obama also has a longer view and gets the commitment part, but he avoids doing the sums. I don’t think he’s lazy, as his detractors claim, but he isn’t good at projecting a personal sense of urgent purpose. His bid for reelection accentuates this, making it seem like it’s all he really cares about. It’s another difference between him and Bill Clinton, who really worked at being “Presidential”—in charge and in the know.

The military—what it costs and what it’s for—should be a bigger topic than it is. To his credit, Obama has proposed cutting its gargantuan budget by $250 billion. Ryan’s “Budget for America” leaves the military untouched, opening him up to the valid charge of sacrificing social programs to military ones. This may be one area where Romney differs from Ryan, but isn’t talking about it. Global business values stability. It may press for advantage or at least a level playing field, but nation-building is rarely on its agenda.

Writing in the London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen wondered if a reelected Obama would get us into a war with Iran. At this writing, Obama seems to be trying to stay Israel’s hand, although it’s hard to believe Israel would act without our explicit backing. When I read the LRB essay, I thought back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater as the peace candidate. In retrospect, it was exactly the reverse. Romney is no Goldwater, but my distrust of Obama on this point surprised me. His partisans argue that he got us out of Iraq and held back from taking a direct role in Libya. That’s true, but his actions to the contrary, like Afghanistan, muddy the waters.

Recalibration takes courage. One of its requirements is to examine the past and call to account those responsible for its excesses, from the financial crisis to torture, murder, and wanton disregard of the Constitution and due process. I don't think Romney is in any sense the man to do it, but Obama, coming into office with a substantial mandate for change, left crucial things undone. Were they impossible? He never really said. Were they unimportant, devices for getting elected? It's hard to know.


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