The Evidence of a Bankrupt Populism

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

Editor’s Note: These passages are drawn from recent articles on The Corner.

Obama’s Real Legacy

Barack Obama’s cries from the heart as a senator about the possibility of a Bush intervention in Iran being a de facto violation of the War Powers Act have been widely circulated — juxtaposed to his sophistic gymnastics about bombs over Libya not really being much more than “kinetic action” and thus exempt from the Act. Then we have another doublet with Hillary Clinton, who said this month:

. . . the bottom line is, whose side are you on? Are you on Qaddafi’s side or are you on the side of the aspirations of the Libyan people and the international coalition that has been created to support them?

Yet said in May 2003 in the context of Iraq:

I am sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and you disagree with this administration somehow you’re not patriotic. We should stand up and say we are Americans and we have a right to debate and disagree with any administration.

The point is not that the Obama administration is two-faced, hypocritical, and shameless. Most administrations are; they act quite differently once they are in the White House and governance requires adult responsibility quite different from the cheap rhetoric of the campaign trail.

Rather, the significance in Obama’s case is twofold: Obama suffers the wages of hypocrisy far more keenly because he set himself up as a new-style politician, promising to buck the “establishment” with his hope-and-change agenda, only to govern in the worst style of a Chicago brass-knuckles machine-made pol, humiliating those who actually believed the planet-cooling/seas-receding nonsense of 2008.

Second, Obama has utterly embarrassed the entire liberal attack on the Bush’s administration’s efforts in Iraq and against terrorism. The venom between 2003 and 2008 was both cruel and nasty, and yet it was always presented as principled rather than partisan, not a grasp for power but the product of deeper respect for the American civic traditions. Now we see that entire era as a complete fraud — on matters of dissent, skepticism of the War Powers Act, Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventive detention, wiretaps, intercepts, Iraq, and predator targeted assassination. The hysterical commentary was never based on the merits of those acts, but simply because George Bush, a political opponent, embraced them. How do we know this? Through hypocritical couplets like those above — and the almost complete silence of the antiwar Left. Where now is Cindy Sheehan, the award-winning Michael Moore, theNew York Times discounted ads to, the impassioned floor speeches from a Senator Reid or Kerry?

That is the real legacy of the Obama administration: In a way the most extreme right-wing nut could not, Obama has humiliated, embarrassed, and rendered bankrupt seven years of prior dissent, showing it up for what it was all along.

Stimulus and Other Euphemisms

The old Democratic strategy of playing the adolescent and leaving it to the Republicans to make the tough cuts, while they demagogue deficit reduction as cruelly pushing grandmother over the cliff — with ample reference to the “Bush did it” boilerplate and the subtle use of the race card — was irresponsible. But it was better than the current notion of borrowing yet another round of hundreds of billions more to “stimulate” the moribund economy — an idiotic idea doomed to fail.

The situation reminds me of the drug addict who cannot go on with his daily dose and yet cannot stomach the symptoms of withdrawal, and so gives up and goes back to regular fix, determined to enjoy the hospital ride to the emergency room.

Two thoughts: First, the latest Democratic idea of borrowing even more money is de facto proof that all the bailouts, borrowing, vast increases in unemployment and food-stamp monies, Obamacare, etc., have done nothing but terrify employers, who are holding off buying and hiring. And, second, when one adds in the National Labor Relations Board roguery, the presidential quips about the wealthy, the Chrysler creditor mess, the nonstop spread-the-wealth, already-made-enough-money demonization of those who make over $200,000, etc., we are witnessing a sort of psychological stasis in which millions of employers are shrugging and collectively sighing, “I think I’ll pass until this crazy outfit is out of here.”

The only mystery is, when the nearly 50 million Americans now on foodstamps swell to 100 million, will we still call them “food stamps”?

Oil as Seed Corn

Although we are not experiencing a Katrina-like disaster and although there is not an oil embargo, the Obama administration is releasing a sizable amount of oil from the nation’s strategic oil reserve. It may be an understandable move, but like the sudden decision to cut back troops in Afghanistan, it seems eerily to correspond to sinking polls and reflects angst about the rapidly approaching election cycle.

But the move also raises interesting questions: Obama campaigned and governed on the dictum that increased drilling and supplies had no real effect on prices, hence his advice to inflate tires and “tune up” cars in lieu of more off-shore leasing, and his reluctance to grant exploration rights for shale, tar sands, gas, and oil in the West, Alaska, and the continental shelf. Is that theory now inoperative — or does releasing stored oil have some magical effect that new oil from the ground does not? Is there any sense that we would not have to release stored oil if we would instead look for new sources?

Then there is the seed-corn argument. This administration has a bad habit of consuming and redistributing without producing. We are borrowing trillions that our children must pay back. We are regulating and chastising companies rather than praising them for production. And now we will burn oil that we won’t explore for and which someone earlier bought and stored? Who will make up the millions of barrels withdrawn from the reserve, in case we see a real global war or natural disaster?

And finally, the release reflects the entire confusion about “green energy” mentioned again in the president’s speech last night. When during the campaign the president promised ‘skyrocketing’ energy prices and that he would ‘bankrupt’ the coal companies, he was serious, in the sense that subsidized, insider green companies need high fossil fuel prices to become competitive. By claiming even clean-burning fossil fuels were “pollutants” by virtue of the heat released, Obama should welcome $4-a-gallon gas. Was not that the point, after all? Why would a green president want to burn more oil at just the moment that he had gotten his wish for escalating fossil fuel prices that will discourage their use and promote his ‘green initiative’? Is the oil release a “stimulus” to do what the prior failed “stimulus” was supposed to do? And how can that be?

Now It’s Private Jets

Barack Obama is trying his hand at uninformed populist demagoguing again, this time evoking private jet travel, which must come at the expense of “kids.” This is the sort of us/them rhetoric we have come to expect, soon no doubt to be followed by heartfelt plea for “civility.”

But one thing seems unclear: How does an attack on private jet travel square with his present efforts to wow Wall Street fat cats and the junkets to Vail, Martha’s Vineyard, and Costa del Sol? Or for that matter with the once tax-exempt Kerry yacht, the private-jet networking of green capitalist Al Gore, and Nancy Pelosi’s government-paid-for jet flights back to the Bay Area?

And when he associates a $250,000 income — about $125,000 net after federal, state, payroll, and local taxes in most of blue-state America — with the class capable of private jet-owning, we are once again back to tuning up 21st-century cars and inflating tires in lieu of drilling for oil. There is an art to populist demagoguery of the sort that Huey Long and even Ralph Nader used to excel at, but it falls flat — like millionaire John Edwards’s “two Americas” populism — when Ivy League–educated, mansion-living politicos try it without requisite preparation and study.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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