Conservatives itching for an all-or-nothing showdown with Barack Obama risk playing right into his hands. A crisis is exactly what he wants. To understand this, it is necessary, once again, to understand that most of his playbook comes from radical organizer Saul Alinsky, and that his playbook also assuredly draws on the work of professors he encountered at Columbia University, Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven.
“The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength,” wrote Alinsky in Rules for Radicals. “The first step in community organization is community disorganization. The disruption of the present organization is the first step….“
Cloward and Piven, meanwhile, called for “a political crisis… that could lead to legislation for a guaranteed annual income and thus an end to poverty.” They propose actions that “would generate severe political strains, and deepen existing divisions…. [B]y the collapse of current financing arrangements, powerful forces can be generated for major economic reforms at the national level.” And: “Advocacy must be supplemented by organized demonstrations to create a climate of militancy.”
A crisis is Obama’s friend. An angry reaction is his ally. Disorder is his goal.
His mortal enemy (speaking tactically), on the other hand, is steady, sober, thoughtful, rational pressure by political adversaries who are willing to take the time to consolidate gains, explain themselves, reassure the public that it (the public) has nothing to fear from them (Obama’s adversaries), and which constantly calibrates their words and actions to make it evident that they are keeping the moral high ground. A government shutdown does not fit this model. Forcing a debt crisis does not fit this model. Incendiary rhetoric doesn’t fit the model, nor do all-or-nothing ultimatums.
This is not — repeat, not — to advocate a weak cautiousness. Boldness in trying times is definitely a strength. But it should be a well-planned boldness of considered actions — preferably “gamed out” in advance — rather than a reactive or (even worse) angry recklessness. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, for instance, is probably the boldest proposal put forth with unified Republican support in well over a decade. Yet it didn’t come out of nowhere. It was carefully crafted, carefully rolled out, and sold by a man of high intelligence whose looks and demeanor are more that of the reliably do-gooder brother than they are of the ogre the liberals want to portray. It is exactly the right sort of gambit.
Tea Partiers may not yet recognize it, but Obama knows he lost a bit more than he won on the $38 billion deal on the Continuing Resolution, and he knows he has been outflanked in the short term at least by Ryan’s plan as well. Obama is rattled. His own budget speech last week showed it. His tone was hostile, petulant, incendiary/demagogic and, in a word, unpresidential. NBC’s Chuck Todd, an astute observer but hardly a raging conservative, wrote Tuesday that Obama’s speech seems to have backfired. (This is in marked contrast to some of Todd’s earlier impressions of or interviews with Obama and.) Todd’s political antennas usually are pretty well attuned. He rightly senses that Obama is off his game. The reason Obama is off his game is that Republicans did not force things to a crisis level: Obama knew that if he turned down Speaker Boehner it would be he, the president, who looked radical — but he knew that if he went along, he would both anger his base and cede the rhetorical ground of saying that “investments” by government should outweigh short-term deficit concerns. He suffered a similar narrow loss when he was forced by Mitch McConnell in December to renew the Bush-era tax cuts.
For a guy who thrives on crises, it must really gall him that he hasn’t found a way to force a crisis from which he can benefit, while meanwhile realizing that the tide continues to flow (albeit slowly) in the direction away from his government-corporatist/semi-socialist (at least) proclivities.
Conservatives should keep the pressure on. Conservatives should use all the weapons in our arsenal. But we should not play into his hands by firing wildly, or by rushing Pickett-like over open ground. Perhaps an NFL analogy will help: For the last four years in the aggregate, the New Orleans Saints have produced more yards of offense than any other team. But the Saints aren’t known for being particularly reckless in throwing the long ball; they mix dink-and-dunk passes with just enough “bombs” to make the “big play” a real and effective threat. That model should serve conservatives, too. Keep the pressure on, keep gobbling up ground, and then look for the right opportunity for the deep strike rather than forcing a big play that just isn’t available.
Conservatives may worry that there is no time to waste. They are right that time is somewhat short — but wrong to think we’ll go belly-up within months or even a year if we don’t achieve massive savings. There’s still enough “play in the joints” for the bond markets not to panic, and for the international markets not to abandon the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, for another two or three years. The key thing is to avoid the panic. Think back to the “economic crisis” of 2008. Yes, the underlying fundamentals were weak. Yet there was no reason for an immediate collapse. A softer landing could have been engineered, if only Messrs. Bernanke and Paulson hadn’t started running around yelling that the sky was falling. When panic ensued — and only when panic ensued — it was then that the big-government advocates seized their chance. It was then that they passed TARP, and took over the car companies while giving major ownership to the unions, and upended the banking system in favor of Goldman Sachs, and passed $800 billion of misnamed “stimulus” spending.
Panic and crises play into the hands of the left. Reason and a firm steadiness of purpose play into the hands of conservatives. Obama wants to goad us into a huge mistake. We must not let him do so. The Tea Parties collectively are the best thing that has happened to American politics in at least 16 years, and maybe since the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the White House three full decades ago. But they will remain the best thing only if they don’t succumb to the downside risks of precipitous action. Let the unions be the ones who look like thugs: We’ll beat them at the polls, as conservatives did in 2009, 2010, and in the Wisconsin judicial race. Let the left, not the right, lose its cool. Let Obama be the one who loses his equilibrium. In short, learn Alinsky’s lessons, without adopting his immoral tactics. When an Alinskyite like Obama can’t goad his opposition into mistakes, when his simplistic stratagems don’t work, then he has little of substance or tactics to fall back on.
This government needs major shrinkage. The way to do that is for conservatives not to throw Hail Mary passes, but instead for them to move down the field and then win at the polls in 2012 — in all branches of government. That’s how James Madison and company designed the system. That is the system’s genius and glory: It resists radical change in any direction, while usually requiring several election cycles for full course corrections. Conservatives should be Madisonians: indefatigable, determined, but flexible enough to see that long-term goals can be achieved in zig-zag fashions. Ordered liberty is our watchword. Disorder is Obama’s preferred solution, one which puts our liberties at risk. We must not give it to him.
American Spectator senior editor is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom.