Ezra Klein had an article this weekend arguing that Barack Obama is a … moderate Republican. Let’s peel this back a bit.
Perhaps this is just the logical endpoint of two years spent arguing over what Barack Obama is — or isn’t. Muslim. Socialist. Marxist. Anti-colonialist. Racial healer. We’ve obsessed over every answer except the right one: President Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican of the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.
If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis,
Hold it right there. The emergency measures — chosen, not “required” — are at the heart of many people’s problems with Obama. You had the bank bailout — started by Bush, but supported by Obama. You had money siphoned from TARP to bail out Fannie/Freddie and the auto-makers — liabilities the White House ignores when it hilariously claims we made a “profit” on TARP. In the auto bailout, they over-rode the usual bankruptcy rules to make sure the unions got what they wanted. And you then had a “stimulus” bill which mostly consisted of tax cuts for people who don’t pay taxes and all kinds of left wing special interest spending.
This is like saying, “if you ignore Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he was a liberal Democrat”. Actually, Bush was something like a liberal Democrat, but … well, let’s see what Ezra has to say.
If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal health care; a cap-and-trade plan that attempts to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans have staked out before.
This, as a far as it goes, is true. Of course, we’re ignoring some really important Obama policies — the radical shift of the NLRB, the moratorium on offshore drilling, etc.
But let’s break these down a bit.
First, of all, the healthcare plan. It’s true that Obamacare has its roots in Romneycare and the Heritage Foundation’s proposals in the mid-90’s (and is, in fact, similar to what Paul Ryan is proposing for Medicare). However, those policies were put forward as alternatives to the more radical vision of Hillarycare by such as Bob Dole. They never enjoyed popular support among the rank and file GOP and never saw any kind of push while the GOP held power from 1994-2006. (Also, Klein calls Romneycare a huge success. This is debatable to say the least.)
Cap-and-trade is an idea that comes from the GOP and has demonstrated tremendous success in reducing sulphur dioxide emissions. However, there are many people who accept AGW — myself included — who think that applying cap-and-trade to greenhouse gas emissions is like using knee surgery as a model for brain surgery. SO2 and CO2 are different problems. SO2 was a small easily controlled marked. CO2 would be a gigantic market rife with corruption (and, indeed, Waxman-Markey carved out special dispensations for special interests while McCain-Lieberman created huge spending slush funds).
It is true that the GOP has slid too far into the “global warming is a giant conspiracy” camp. But the opposition to cap and trade has less to do with a supposed radicalization of the GOP and more to do with the current proposals being pieces of shit.
As for the Bush tax rates — keep in mind that those tax increases came as a part of a compromise with the Democrats that included big spending cuts and, in the case of Reagan, a gigantic overhaul of the tax system. And the goal was deficit control. Obama’s proposal have few spending cuts, no overhaul and are motivated primarily by a desire to, in his words, spread the wealth around. And the original proposal was simply to let the tax cuts expire — no spending cuts or deficit control included. This is not what moderate Republicans did in the 90’s. They didn’t just raise taxes for the hell of it.
Right now, Tom Coburn and others are working on a grand bargain that may broaden the tax base in exchange for big cuts in spending, something similar to Simpsons-Bowles. And Coburn ain’t a moderate. Many in the GOP might accept revenue increases if it meant real spending restraint or an overhaul of a tax system that creates hundreds of billions in deadweight loss on the economy.
(It also bears noting that all of the policies above — cap and trade, insurance exchanges and Clinton-level taxation — were denounced the Left as dangerously radical at the time. So if you turn Ezra’s article around, what it really say is, “Boy, were we full of shit in the 90’s”. On this, we can agree.)
Overall, the logic here is simply bizarre. Ezra seems to say, “You once supported A to solve B. We now support A to solve C. Why don’t you? Because you’re radical.” But that’s bullshit. I doubt Ezra would say that Bush was a “moderate Democrat” because many of the Patriot Act provisions were originally proposed by Clinton to deal with the early 90’s crime wave (and rejected at that time). Different problems have different solutions. Circumstances change. This is simply a game of “gotchya”, unworthy of the usually smart Klein.
I will agree with him on one thing. The attempts to portray Obama as some kind of crazy socialist Kenyan anti-American Manchurian candidate or whatever are a bit silly. His proposed tax hikes would still leave us with tax rates lower than any time before 1982. His health care plan is less radical than Nixon’s was. His kowtowing to Big Labor has been Democrat policy for 75 years.
Obama is of a tradition with American liberalism. His ideas and policies — expansion of government, support for Big Labor, big spending — these would not be out of place in the Carter, Johnson or Roosevelt Administrations. To the extent that he differs from past liberals, it’s in his complete abandonment of any support for basic civil liberties.
What’s changed is that our current debt situation and the aging of our population makes those policies much more dangerous and stupid than they were thirty years ago. We could afford to fuck around with Keynsianism in 1971. Now we can’t. Socialism was fine to play with in 1964. Now it leads to disaster. Labor unions were critical to improving the life of the American worker in 1935. Now they’re bankrupting us.
It’s possible you could shoehorn Obama into something approaching a “moderate Republican” of about forty years ago. But the debate has shifted. The problems have changed. I’m not saying the Republicans do have the answers or that their opposition to Obama is not mostly partisan crap. What I am saying is that dragging out twenty year old policy papers on different issues is of interest to historians; it has little relevance to today’s debate.
Update: Nate Silver concurs.