The preponderance of the political media, it seems, is aflutter with speculation on a question which could well set the tone for the next two years of American politics and inform the nomination of the Republican Party’s next candidate for the presidency of the United States: is President Obama moving toward the center of the political spectrum, and, if so, how does the right respond?
With the administration stressing its newfound concern for business and the hampering effects of regulation, along with today’s announcement of a plan to phase out liberal pets and conservative/libertarian/capitalist arch-nemeses Fannie and Freddie, first glances would suggest that the White House is center-bound for the coming campaign season.
There is, however, another consideration which may yet shed more light upon the administration’s tactics. As the president looks to sway an impatient and embittered political center which has long grown weary of divisive partisanship, it is beginning to look as though his tactical maneuvers are guiding him not horizontally— from left to center— but vertically, from higher abstractions to concrete particulars. The new Y-axis of American politics is one with which the president and his contemporaries are largely unfamiliar. Why should they be? The generation of politicians who came about in the nineties and early 2000s— a period which I now refer to as the political Great Moderation, when few could remember a time when America’s two major political alternatives posed fundamentally different alternatives; both promoting only branded incarnations of the same social welfare programs— were entirely unprepared for the ideological furor of 2010. From the vistas of Ivy League strongholds, they had looked upon a Washington that had long since grown manageable and free of the fringe moralists and the incriminating Constitutional loyalist. These were policy men, instructed in politics as a business and a science, trained to utter not a syllable of veritable substance in 10,000 words or more. The sudden uprising of American politics as philosophy, however— replete with emphasis on rights, individual liberties, the proper role of government, and the morality of taxation— is a rather exotic proposition to these traditionalists and one which many would rather see die a quick and quiet death over coffee shop chatter and in the bottom folds of Letters to the Editor.
Why should these men of action not also be men of ideas? Why have they so determinedly evaded the philosophical principles at the root of our governing documents and system? Quite simply, such ideas are politically inconvenient, functionally arduous, and detrimental to the furtherance of ideals which such men have long since devised without the use of an active, explicit rational process. Bringing us back to the current circumstance with Mr. Obama, the significance of the policies and issues which he has been stressing of late is not the policies themselves— his friendliness or unfriendliness toward business, his position on Fannie and Freddie, his monetary policy—but rather the fact that these particular issues are leading issues at all. After a devastating midterm defeat at the hands of the single most ideologically-motivated political movement in half a century, the president and his advisors recognize the necessity of retreating from the realm of ideas to the safe ambiguities of policy particulars. Their aim is to lure the Right down from the moral high ground to the nitty-gritty of bare knuckle politics. They want to level the playing field before the competition ever gets started.
Why not get in the ring? Why not take them up on their philosophical challenges? Does the Left not have an answer to the Right’s moralizing rhetoric? In short, no. What the Left can claim in philosophical grounding is paltry in comparison, and even that is easily refuted. The majority of it has been whittled away by utter pragmatism (more on this here), which by definition disqualifies them from a true discussion of proper ethics, and what remains is a nihilism which is creditable for much of the 20th century’s cultural disintegration. Thus, Mr. Obama— who may well be the greatest natural extension of liberalism’s dead-end train of beliefs— is trying frantically to return us to that comfortable origin at the base of the Y-axis, where function is king and determinable only post-facto.
In light of CPAC descending on Washington this week and all eyes on the podiums where potential Republican presidential candidates will be addressing their core constituency, one can be sure that the president is measuring his every word and motion to retain what he can of the coveted American center. Republicans cannot long prevail without acknowledging and countering the masterfully subtle tactics of one of the most effective campaign teams in many decades. As such, it is that Y-axis that they must retain, playing to their strengths and keeping political focus on the philosophical issues of rights and the role of government— issues, one might add, on which liberals are inherently disadvantaged by their own inconsistencies. America has always been a right-of-center nation and conservative candidates have only met significant political failure when they deviated from the principles of limited government on which their party is constituted. Victory, however, will be hard-fought so long as conservatives persist in shrouding their ideas in tired bromides and ambiguous verbiage. If the advocates of a free society are to definitively succeed, it is the principles of capitalism and individual rights which they must uphold firmly, explicitly, and comprehensively. As Ayn Rand taught us, “In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.” As such, I implore you: be consistent, be rational, and, as always, be vigilant.