By most measures, I should be a ripe target for the group Bruce Bartlett is describing in his New Republic article on the rise of the Obamacons — conservatives who support Barack Obama for president. I am a conservative who mostly agrees with Bartlett’s critique of President Bush in Impostor. I am even less a fan of John McCain. My disagreements with Bush and McCain extend to all the usual areas — immigration, campaign finance reform, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts (where Bush was good and McCain bad), the Medicare prescription drug benefit (Bush bad, McCain good), No Child Left Behind, Sarbanes-Oxley, cap and trade, etc. I also oppose the Iraq war and am not eager for a repeat with Iran. I spent my first three years as a full-time journalist in seriously anti-Bush conservative circles.
So I read Bartlett’s Obamacons piece sympathetically but ultimately didn’t find many of the pro-Obama conservative arguments terribly persuasive. In fact, many of them amount to the kind of wishful thinking that would elicit laughter from these same conservatives when applied to McCain or any other Republican. One libertarian Obamacon is “convinced of Obama’s sympathy for school vouchers,” a position for which there is far less evidence than the Illinois senator’s numerous campaign promises to increase spending and grow the federal government. School vouchers are opposed by a major Democratic constituency, teachers’ unions, and not supported by any comparable constituency in either party — who is a first-term president with a Democratic Congress more likely to side with, the National Education Association or the Cato Institute?
Another libertarian Obamacon hopes Obama will scale back the Patriot Act. That seems somewhat more realistic. But much of the Patriot Act is rehashed from Clinton-era anti-terrorism bills. This is exactly the kind of issue Democrats tend to lose interest in once they hold power, just like Republicans do with government spending. Bartlett quotes Megan McArdle saying, “[Obama’s] goal is not more government so that we can all be caught up in some giant, expressive exercise of collectively enforcing our collective will on all the other people standing around us in the collective; his goal is improving transparency and minimizing government intrusion while rectifying specific outcomes.” But that could be said of most liberalism since the New Deal. The G.I. Bill, Social Security, and Medicare were all designed to address specific needs rather than explicitly “enforcing our collective will on all the other people standing around us in the collective.”
Other arguments are purely impressionistic: Obamacons like Obama’s style and his association with “pragmatists.” Not only do these arguments emphasize style over substance. They completely ignore what to most conservatives would be downsides of an Obama presidency –the Freedom of Choice Act, national health care, liberal judges, a potentially larger tax increase than the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — and his associations with leftists who aren’t pragmatists.
To my mind, only three of the Obamacon arguments have force: ending the war, forcing conservative soul-searching, and the negative case against McCain. For now, I’ll address only the first: Antiwar conservatives are a minority and one that mostly opposed Bush’s reelection in 2004. Perhaps their numbers and willingness to buck the party line have intensified since then, but Bartlett doesn’t provide much evidence for this. Second, given that Obama’s proposed Iraq exit is conditional upon there being no “security vacuum filled with terrorism, chaos, ethnic cleansing and genocide that could engulf large swaths of the Middle East and endanger America,” he might not actually end the war in any meaningful sense.
Finally, there isn’t much evidence that Obamacons exist in large numbers at the grassroots level. Most polls show McCain winning twice as much Democratic support as Obama wins Republican support. In past elections, it has tended to be the least conservative Republicans who have voted Democratic. Bloggers, columnists, academics, and other conservative elites are important, perhaps more so than the average voter. But if Obamacons are men (and women) without a country, their “rise” won’t have much impact on the election.
I’d be interested in how the Obamacons answer these various points.