by Victor Davis Hanson
Means and Ends in the Age of Obama
One of the stranger things about this eerie first eight months of the Obama administration is how brazenly its supporters have been about the noble ends justifying the disreputable means.
Taxes for Thee
Take taxes. I thought the mantra was that the Bush tax cuts — equal percentages of cuts to all involved, an even greater number of households excused from the tax rolls altogether — were supposed to be cruel and proof of conservative selfishness.
Candidate Obama once in an interview seemed to agree that greater revenue ensued for the federal treasury, but he felt that such benefits were not worth the empowerment of so many to become so wealthy. In other words, higher taxes were good for those who make money — and avoiding or cutting them was unpatriotic and greedy.
We now witness Rep. Charles Rangel, who not only somehow on a congressman’s salary compiled hundreds of thousands in cash in various accounts, but also seems to have skipped out on almost every conceivable tax on such lucre. We know the tired story of Treasury Secretary Geithner, who not only skipped his FICA taxes, but pocketed the cash allowances allotted precisely for them. Whether a Chris Dodd or Tom Daschle, the story is the same — insider perks from low interest mortgages to free limousine service were never reported and never taxed.
There are two ways of making sense of this paradox. One, such liberals assume that their cosmic humanitarianism and brotherly egalitarianism exempt them from following mere mortal laws (e.g., as in “We are so divine on the important stuff that we deserve a pass on small, insignificant matters”.) And two, in order to enact state planning, and superimpose an overarching government plan onto our own messy agendas, we must bow to a technocracy.
These gifted souls are like Plato’s Guardians — Übermenschen, trained at places like Harvard Law School, with government service at the Fed, years at this or that Cabinet post, or tenure in Congress under their belts, veterans of brief university postings. We are blessed with Geithners, Daschles, Obamas and others, and so can hardly demand they be bothered with minutiae like taxes, or following bureaucratic regulations governing gifts, whether Tony Rezko’s land deals or Friends of Angelo loan perks.
My Grass Roots, Your Astro-turfing
Examine also community organizing. The craft was caricatured by Rudy Giuliani at the Republican Convention as a sort of non-productive, busy-bodying, a dressed-up version of being paid to give out someone else’s money to someone arbitrarily deemed more deserving.
Be that as it may, the Obama mystique was wrapped up within such grassroots organizing and supposedly selfless public service. (Remember Michelle Obama’s referencing of how Barack could have been a cutthroat rich lawyer (I doubt that, since success in corporate law is not easy), but instead chose to go to Chicago to toil in the fields of the poor (alongside Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers)?)
But suddenly we are seeing a much more genuine form of community organizing. The team parties and town halls are not union-bussed in affairs. There are no federally-subsidized ACORN-like printed posters. Most are spontaneous protestors and dissidents, who don’t want to give up their private health care plans or endanger their Medicare privileges.
For this defiance they have been dubbed Neanderthals, mobs, unpatriotic, Nazis, and brown shirts. Community organizing and popular protest has gone from being seen as 1960s romance during the Bush years to sinister 1930s-like agitation in Italy and Germany. But the only thing that has changed is that now the community organizers are the establishment, and they don’t like being community organized. So once again, like raising taxes, we see that protest was always only a means to an ends, not an intrinsically necessary form of popular outrage.
One of the great tropes of the campaign was that a hip, cool Obama was “one of us” and had nothing to hide. In contrast, the Bush-Cheney nexus was knee-deep in secretive oil deals and military profiteering, involving the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater. Secrecy, executive privilege, and stone-walling the press were the usual tools of such a disreputable trade.
So we got promises of web postings of all pending legislation (never quite followed). There would be no planted questions or sympathetic toadies scattered at conferences and town halls (never quite followed). Instead of Scott McClellan, we were going to get something like a cross between a wonk like Paul Krugman and cool Brad Pitt — and got Robert Gibbs. There are no promised complete logs of who goes in and out of the White House.
Some of you say, “Well, yes, Victor, wake up, this is just politics”. Yes, of course, so “out of Iraq by March 2008” means 140,000 troops there in September 2009. I understand. Renditions and tribunals are Bush’s nefariousness, and Obama’s bite-the-lip necessities.
The point is thus twofold. The messianic promises proved (a) not just to be false, (b) but far less idealistic in reality than of those now castigated. “Culture of corruption” translated into Murtha, Rangel, and Dodd. No more lobbyists meant more than ever. Fiscal sobriety means $9 trillion more in borrowing. “Cash for clunkers” translates into borrowing millions to destroy perfectly good autos to allow down payments for consumers to go more in debt to buy imported compacts. “Stimulus” means more borrowing and little stimulation. Healthcare reform envisions those who run the DMV or the cash for clunkers program deciding whether you really need that MRI for the lump on your neck.
I’ll finish with a few lessons learned thus far about Obamics.
1) Please do not vote in any national election for any politician from Chicago. Yes, I know that statement is biased and blinkered, and there are wonderful people in Chicago politics. But after Tony Rezco, Blago, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, the history of the Obama campaigns — all of that superimposed on a half-century of two Mayor Daleys and Harold Washington — the odds are you will be getting the “Chicago Way,” like it or not.
2) Do not believe there is really anything much left to “race.” Just as feminism has descended into abortion rights (“for it” means that an aristocratic millionaire who married into a corporate fortune is a grass-roots feminist; “against it” means that a mom of five who came up from Wasilla is not a feminist), so too “minority” means nothing much at all these days.
Obama was the proof of the pudding. He was only half-African, but according to our Civil War-era race thinking that made him “black” — although he shared nothing in common with the black experience. He was not “African-American” at all, and without anyone in his family who had been born black in America. We know nothing about his undergraduate transcript in part because of fears the right will demagogue it, wanting to know how his record translated into admission to Harvard Law School.
Affirmative action is a sort of cruel joke: Barack Obama, schooled in prep school and raised as a middle class kid by white grandparents, is a “minority” in a way that a poor, jet-black Punjabi immigrant, a lower-class white kid from Tulare, or an Arab-American daughter of a taxi-driver is not, at least for purposes of government set-asides.
And add the politics: a right-wing African-American is considered inauthentic; but a liberal African-American is deserving of reparations. A black Reaganite who grew up under Jim Crow in the South and overcame vile racism to become a professional is now considered less “black” than someone near-white, who grew up in the 1960s North, and received identity-politics deference. No, minority has not much to do any more with racial discrimination, but everything to do with careerism and politics.
3) There is no more media. The New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CNBC, NPR, etc. are ministries of truth for Obama. Yes, of course, they are balanced now by Drudge, Fox News, the bloggers, and talk radio.
But that is the point, isn’t it? At one time (true or not) the former pretended to be disinterested outlets for news in the manner the latter never did (with some exceptions at Fox). Now we simply have a European-style press — one paper is left, the other right, and the news is made to fit each. I think we essentially always had a leftwing bias at a CBS or NPR, but with Obama at least the old pretense was shattered. An anchorman at ABC, or an editor at the Washington Post or Newsweek is now simply the liberal version of Hannity, without the honesty.
4) The Good Life. Obama vacations in Martha’s Vineyard, Bush in Crawford Texas. Nancy Pelosi wants twice the private jet that the prior Denny Hassert enjoyed. Edwards’s two nations really mean his mansion and those down the road. The really tony environmentalist pundits and activists think slapping on some solar panels on a five-car garage, or putting up a windmill out in front of the gazebo, is an “offset.”
I used to think that the elite left’s obsession with the good life was an amusing act of hypocrisy (gone are the Democrat’s Harry Trumans), but lately it seems far more interesting and complicated. It is almost a personality quirk: the more one desires to have private jets, influential friends, the status that comes with the right location, right schools, and the right job, the more likely one is to mouth the “correct” ideology. Elite liberalism, as we see with the Obamas and their cohorts (and with the Clinton clique as well), is no contradiction. If anything, privilege is the proper compensation for being “good” and “right” on things.
5) The United States remains a center-right country. Obama’s policies, all without exception, poll badly. His own approval ratings are tanking faster than almost any president in recent history. Oh yes, we may all be on the government take with mortgage deductions, Medicare, and Social Security, but that does not mean we like socialism. Again, we are in a race for America: how fast can Obama get his agenda through before his own unpopularity dooms it? I think he is just one more, but clearly has one more, setback away from failure. So the end of the year will be interesting since nothing is now assured and everything is in play.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson