Maybe Barack Obama’s feints to the right will benefit him politically, maybe they’ll offend liberals who believed he really was a different kind of politician. Maybe the swing voters Obama is wooing with his less-liberal rhetoric are no longer paying attention by the time he lurches back to the left.
But one thing is clear: Obama isn’t as deep a policy thinker as his admirers pretend. Many of his issue positions, evolving and otherwise, scarcely make sense.
Take for example his recent pronouncements on official English initiatives. Plenty of voters, including sensible moderate swing voters and culturally conservative Democrats, think bilingual education is an ineffectual boondoggle and that the government should conduct its business in English. Many La Raza-style interest groups and multicultural liberals feel differently. Rather than alienate either constituency, Obama spewed incoherent mush:
You know, I don’t understand when people are going around worrying about, “We need to have English- only.” They want to pass a law, “We want English-only.”
Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.
You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe, and all we can say [is], “Merci beaucoup.”
Sounds reasonable enough to a soccer mom who wants her child to be competitive in the global economy, right? Except that the “English-only” policies Obama is condemning have nothing to do eliminating foreign-language instruction in public schools. There are no Minutemen patrolling high school hallways and reporting Mrs. Smith’s French class. The actual debate has much more to do with whether immigrants and their children will learn English, as Obama purports to favor.
Many bilingual education programs are premised on the idea that a child must become proficient in his native tongue to learn a new language. Critics argue that such programs deny children an opportunity to develop English skills at a young age when doing so is easiest. As John J. Miller put it, “One of the sad results of bilingual education is that it often leaves kids semi-literate in two languages and fluent in none.”
Yet at least this exercise in sloppy centrism was superficially plausible. Less so was Obama’s attempt to reconcile contradictory statements on abortion policy. He told Relevant, a Christian magazine, that he did not believe “mental distress” was a valid exception to state late-term abortion bans:
I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.
Except that Doe v. Bolton, the companion case to Roe v. Wade, defines a woman’s health as “all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age — relevant to the well-being of the patient.” The Freedom of Choice Act, which Obama co-sponsors and has promised to sign into law as president, upholds this standard and requires mental-health exceptions to late-term abortion bans.
So then Obama backtracked:
My only point is this — historically I have been a strong believer in a women’s right to choose with her doctor, her pastor and her family. And it is…I have consistently been saying that you have to have a health exception on many significant restrictions or bans on abortions including late-term abortions.
In the past there has been some fear on the part of people who, not only people who are anti-abortion, but people who may be in the middle, that that means that if a woman just doesn’t feel good then that is an exception. That’s never been the case.
I don’t think that is how it has been interpreted. My only point is that in an area like partial-birth abortion having a mental, having a health exception can be defined rigorously. It can be defined through physical health, it can be defined by serious clinical mental-health diseases. It is not just a matter of feeling blue. I don’t think that’s how pro-choice folks have interpreted it. I don’t think that’s how the courts have interpreted it and I think that is important to emphasize and understand.
Except there is no known “feeling blue” provision in American abortion jurisprudence. Martin Haskell, the inventor of partial-birth abortion, told the American Medical News in 1993 that 80 percent of the later-term abortions he performed were “purely elective.”
Obama, a former constitutional law instructor, had similar difficulty expressing a coherent position on the Second Amendment. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, Obama said: “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures. The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view…”
Except that Obama had previously endorsed the constitutionality of the D.C. handgun ban, the very same policy the Supreme Court was finding unconstitutional. This suggests that there is at least some distance between Obama’s interpretation of the Second Amendment and the Court’s.
In one of his few non-rhetorical differences with the netroots, Obama voted to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act with many provisions civil libertarians oppose. He tried to reassure his supporters by promising to “work with Chris Dodd, Jeff Bingaman and others in an effort to remove” immunity for telecom companies that cooperated with the Bush administration’s surveillance program. And he did vote for an amendment that would strip such immunity.
Except that he did so once it became clear the legislation would pass without the amendment. Obama had once vowed to filibuster any FISA legislation that gave immunity to the telecom companies. Instead he voted for such legislation.
Obama may be a political genius, but logically consistent policymaking doesn’t seem to be his strong suit. Either that or he just doesn’t think the voters are very bright.