Conservatives really need to get their history straight.
Either President Obama is a "reactionary" liberal, as Charles Krauthammer insists, committed to an "unyielding defense of the 20th century welfare state" while still clinging "zealously to the increasingly obsolete structures of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid."
Or, President Obama is, in Peggy Noonan's words, a doctrinaire "revolutionary" who "means to change America in fundamental ways and along the lines of justice as he sees it" by "changing the economic balance between rich and poor" in ways that make "the rich less rich" while rewarding the needy who "request help" by promising they will "get more in government services, which the rich will pay for."
In other words, either the President is a nostalgic reactionary taking the country back to some long-lost liberal Golden Age; or he is a visionary radical forging relentlessly ahead toward some fantastical un-American socialist utopia. He can't be both. And the fact two such prominent conservatives think he can -- when they judge the progressive agenda he spelled out in his second inaugural according to two such widely contradictory metrics -- is further proof that modern American conservatism has become a furious, incoherent, name-calling mess.
How can conservatives judge the President to be outside the political mainstream when conservatives so obviously do not know what that mainstream is?
The problem shows itself in the widely-hailed speech by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal who talked a good game about the need for Republicans to diversify their political portfolio by distancing themselves from just the top 1% on America's income scale, but who in his own state proposed eliminating the income tax and making up for lost revenues by raising a sales tax that falls heaviest on the poor.
"It's important to understand the extent to which leading Republicans live in an intellectual bubble," says New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "They get their news from Fox and other captive media, they get their policy analysis from billionaire-financed right-wing think tanks, and they're often blissfully unaware both of contrary evidence and of how their positions sound to outsiders."
Thus when Mitt Romney made his infamous "47 percent" remark, "he wasn't, in his own mind, saying anything outrageous or even controversial," says Krugman. "He was just repeating a view that has become increasingly dominant inside the right-wing bubble, namely that a large and ever-growing proportion of Americans won't take responsibility for their own lives and are mooching off the hard-working wealthy."
To Republicans, rising unemployment claims demonstrated laziness, not lack of jobs, says Krugman, even when the candidate's own Bain Capital was outsourcing hundreds of them to China after buying an auto parts plant in Freeport, Illinois. Likewise, rising disability claims "represented malingering, not the real health problems of an aging work force."
"And given that worldview, Republicans see it as entirely appropriate to cut taxes on the rich while making everyone else pay more," said Krugman.
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths -- that all of us are created equal -- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."
Those words from the President's second inaugural were inspired by Jefferson's Declaration of Independence not the Communist Manifesto. Yet, Noonan only compounds the Right's historical muddle when she listens to those words and then compares the President to that other left-wing revolutionary -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt!!! -- whose own "radicalism" served as the foundation of a New Deal coalition that governed the United States for nearly one-fifth of the nation's entire existence, and whose signature achievement was a new understanding of national community that is manifest in programs like Social Security and Medicare that, 70 years later, still commands "unyielding" support among 80% of the American people, or more.
What separates genuine conservatives from right wing ideologues is that doctrinaires hate history because they seek to impose an abstract blueprint on an existing society, unlike genuine conservatives who are sensible to a society's organic and evolutionary nature and appreciate that society's institutions, traditions, customs and lived history.
That is why one of the dilemmas American conservatives have always had to confront is that the institutions, traditions and values conservatives are pledged to conserve are liberal ones -- egalitarian not hierarchical, democratic not theocratic or oligarchic, based on individual freedom and liberty not enforced conformity to existing dogma.
Four years covering a state legislature, as I did when I reported for the State House News Service in Boston, helped me develop a sort of instinctive sixth sense to distinguish narrow ideologues from skilled politicians and the even more skillful statesmen.
Effective politicians and statesmen, I came to appreciate, do not abandon their principles when they step into the political arena. But they do know and understand their adversaries' positions and guiding principles -- almost as well as their own. And it is that understanding of an opponent's point of view which makes compromise, and politics itself, possible.
What sets today's conservatives and Republicans apart from their predecessors in the past is that today's conservatives do not seem to know -- or care -- what makes the other side tick. And that is because they do not accept the other side as legitimate. Which is why I am no longer a Republican.
But conservatives did figure out long ago that the American people like the services government provides a whole lot more than they like the government which provides them. Which explains the weirdness of conservative rhetoric.
During a recent family reunion, for example, I got into a disagreement with one of my ultra-conservative relatives who explained his visceral hatred of liberals as stemming from his dislike of people who, he is convinced, think they were smarter or better than everyone else and demonstrate that condescending conceit by trying to control other people's lives by using "big government" to take money from people liberals have determined earn too much so they can dole it out to people liberals have also determined have too little.
As I tried to explain to my kinsman, he is the victim of a concerted conservative effort to confuse ends with means - that except for a few tenured Marxist radicals in Ivy League schools teaching courses in comparative political systems (to fight stereotype with stereotype) very few liberals view "big government" as a virtue in and of itself. For the rest, government is a just tool -- like capitalism or the free market or any other tool - useful for solving some problems in some situations but not some graven idol to be worshiped like a god.
The point of taxing the wealthy who can afford to pay, as professor P.M. Carpenter reminds us, is to give the malnourished and ill-educated children of "help-requesting" parents the same life opportunities enjoyed by comfortably raised, well-fed and well-educated conservatives like Peggy Noonan, William Buckley Jr. and Bill Kristol. But to conservatives like Noonan, the only "point" of any taxation "is redistribution" for the sake of redistribution
To conservatives, says Carpenter, the reason we have a government isn't to make sure children can achieve their full potential in life by having three "health-inspected squares a day," or by going to a school that isn't collapsing around them or by having pure air to breath at recess and fresh water to drink thereafter or by having "competently trained teachers who come to work on publicly maintained roads."
Instead, the reason conservatives think liberals want government is to corrupt public morals, to sap its self-reliance, to build up a permanent constituency for public assistance in order to augment the base for electing Democrats. That's the problem with ideologues. They look at all problems ideologically.
"The great long-term question," says Noonan, is what change of mood the President will be able to affect in what "used to be called the national character."
Don't you change people when you tell them "they have an absolute right to government support regardless of their efforts?" asks Noonan, who fails to account for the heroic efforts of A-plus students from the projects who aren't able to go to college because their parents are too poor.
"Don't you encourage dependence, and a bitter sense of entitlement" by providing Pell Grants or other public assistance to deserving students like the ones mentioned above, wonders Noonan. Is that a rhetorical question?
"What about the wearing down of taxpayers?" asks Noonan. "Some, especially those who are younger, do not fully understand that what is supporting them is actually coming from other people. To them it seems to come from 'the government,' the big marble machine far away that prints money."
The problem with the President's domestic program, says Noonan, is that "his emphasis is always on what one abstract group owes another in the service of a larger concept."
All of this metaphysical philosophizing thus makes it side-splittingly funny to hear Noonan then complain about Democrats who practice a politics based "not on actual numbers and facts" but rather "grounded in abstractions, as most of our public pronouncements are."
But I guess if I belonged to a far right Republican Party like Peggy Noonan that faces an American people that is 70% for raising taxes on the rich, 70% for preserving Social Security and Medicare, 90% for background checks on gun buyers and other gun restrictions, 54% for gay marriage, at least 50% for a woman's right to choose, I'd try to avoid specifics too and call the President leading this center/left electorate a far left "Liberal! Liberal! Liberal!" and hope against hope that the dreaded "L-Word" still retained some of its scorpion-tail sting 30 years after Ronald Reagan first said America's liberals were so far left they'd left the country.
Only a secluded doctrinaire like Peggy Noonan, isolated in her own hermetically sealed ideological bubble, could possibly see the President's broadly popular progressive agenda as nothing more than a cynical attempt by Obama to "kill" to "pulverize" to "crush" to "annihilate" his Republican "enemy," just as Speaker Boehner said, and to do it "every bit as ruthlessly as FDR" did by, presumably, making Republicans who are helpless prisoners of their own rigid ideology take unpopular votes on popular issues that exposes their own extremism.
Only a congenital aristocrat like Noonan, whose sense of royal entitlement derives from her belief that Republicans constitute America's natural and one true governing class, could possibly say that President Obama "has no talent for or interest in sustained, good-faith negotiations" -- by which Noonan means a Democratic President who refuses to mind his place, accept who's boss, and abjectly capitulate to Noonan's white-pearled Republicanism.
But in the end, I suppose it does not really matter whether far right conservatives like Krauthammer and Noonan think President Obama is a backward-looking reactionary trying to retreat to a golden liberal past or a forward-looking revolutionary trying to smash his way toward some radical utopian future, because no matter which way conservatives turn they still see staring back at them an American history whose traditions and values they reject -- and which reject them.