JUNE 25, 2008
The New Yorker is hardly the optimal vehicle for reaching the conservative intelligentsia. But, last year, Barack Obama cooperated with a profile for that magazine where he seemed to be speaking directly to the right. Because he paid obeisance to the virtues of stability and continuity, his interlocutor, Larissa MacFarquhar, came away with the impression that the Illinois senator was an adherent of Edmund Burke: "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative."
As The New Yorker's assessment shot across blogs, many conservatives listened eagerly. A broad swath of the movement has been in open revolt against George W. Bush--and the Republican Party establishment--for some time. They don't much care for the Iraq war or the federal government's vast expansion over the last seven-and-a-half years. And, in the eyes of these discontents, the nomination of John McCain only confirmed the continuation of the worst of the Bush-era deviations from first principles.
But it was hardly inevitable that this revolt would translate into enthusiasm for the Democratic standard-bearer. After all, you could see similar signs of unhappiness four years ago, and none of that translated into mass defections to the John Kerry camp. And, despite Ann Coulter's vow to campaign for Hillary Clinton over John McCain, the old bête noir of the right would have never attracted many conservatives. That's what makes the rise of the Obamacons such an interesting development. Conservatives of almost all ideological flavors (even, gasp, some supply-siders) have been drawn to Obama--out of a genuine affection and a belief that he may actually better embody movement ideals than McCain.
There have been a few celebrated cases of conservatives endorsing Obama, like the blogger Andrew Sullivan and the legal scholar Douglas Kmiec. But you probably have not have heard of many of the Obamacons--and neither has the Obama campaign. When I checked with it to ask for a list of prominent conservative supporters, the campaign seemed genuinely unaware that such supporters even existed. But those of us on the right who pay attention to think tanks, blogs, and little magazines have watched Obama compile a coterie drawn from the movement's most stalwart and impressive thinkers. It's a group that will no doubt grow even larger in the coming months.
The largest group of Obamacons hail from the libertarian wing of the movement. And it's not just Andrew Sullivan. Milton and Rose Friedman's son, David, is signed up with the cause on the grounds that he sees Obama as the better vessel for his father's cause. Friedman is convinced of Obama's sympathy for school vouchers--a tendency that the Democratic primaries temporarily suppressed. Scott Flanders, the CEO of Freedom Communications--the company that owns The Orange County Register--told a company meeting that he believes Obama will accomplish the paramount libertarian goals of withdrawing from Iraq and scaling back the Patriot Act.
Libertarians (and other varieties of Obamacons, for that matter) frequently find themselves attracted to Obama on stylistic grounds. That is, they believe that he has surrounded himself with pragmatists, some of whom (significantly) come from the University of Chicago. As the blogger Megan McArdle has written, "His 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."
In nearly every quarter of the movement, you can find conservatives irate over the Iraq war--a war they believe transgresses core principles. And it's this frustration with the war--and McCain's pronouncements about victory at any cost--that has led many conservatives into Obama's arms. Francis Fukuyama, the neoconservative theorist, recently told an Australian journalist that he would reluctantly vote for Obama to hold the Republican Party accountable "for a big policy failure" in Iraq. And he seems to view Obama as the best means for preserving American power, since Obama "symbolizes the ability of the United States to renew itself in a very unexpected way."
You can find similar sentiments coursing through the Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich's seminal Obamacon manifesto in The American Conservative. He believes that the war in Iraq has undermined the possibilities for conservative reform at home. The prospects for a conservative revival, therefore, depend on withdrawing from Iraq. Thus the necessity of Obama. "For conservatives, Obama represents a sliver of hope. McCain represents none at all. The choice turns out to be an easy one," Bacevich concludes.
How substantial is the Obamacon phenomenon? Well, it has even penetrated National Review, the intellectual anchor of the conservative movement. There's Jeffrey Hart, who has been a senior editor at the magazine since 1968 and even wrote a history of the magazine, The Making of the American Conservative Mind; and Wick Allison, who once served as the magazine's publisher.
Neither man has renounced his conservatism. Both have come away impressed by Obama's rhetorical acumen. This is a particular compliment coming from Hart, who wrote speeches for both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They both like that Obama couches his speeches in a language of uplift and unity. When describing his support for Obama, Allison pointed me in the direction of a column that his wife (who has never supported a Democrat) wrote in The Dallas Morning News: "He speaks with candor and elegance against the kind of politics that have become so dispiriting and for the kind of America I would like to see. As a man, I find Mr. Obama to be prudent, thoughtful, and courageous. His life story embodies the conservative values that go to the core of my beliefs."
But, if you're looking for the least likely pool of Obamacons, it would be the supply-siders. And you can even find some of those. Take Larry Hunter, who helped put together the economics passages in the Contract with America and served as chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He concedes that Obama is saying the wrong things on taxes but dismisses it as electioneering. Of far greater importance, in Hunter's view, is that Obama has the potential to "scramble the political deck, break up old alliances, and bring odd bedfellows together in a new coalition." And, what's more important, he views the Republican Party as a "dead, rotting carcass with a few decrepit old leaders stumbling around like zombies in a horror version of Weekend at Bernie's, handcuffed to a corpse." Unless the Republican Party is thoroughly purged of its current leadership, Hunter fears that it "will pollute the political environment to toxic levels and create an epidemic that could damage the country for generations to come."
I know what Hunter and the rest of the Obamacons are talking about. As a conservative, I share their disgust with a Republican Party that still does not see how badly George W. Bush has misgoverned this country. But, while I am sympathetic to the Obamacons and have a number of friends that are, I am not one of them. I'm not ready to join the other side.
Still, I have enjoyed watching the phenomenon, which has the potential to remake the political landscape. It will also produce some of the good comedy that inevitably accompanies strange bedfellows. The blogger Dorothy King, an archeologist and strong conservative, recently outed herself as an Obamacon. This was a culturally awkward position for her. She wondered, "Do I now, as a newly minted Obamaphile liberal elitist, have to serve my guests Chablis? Or would any old chardonnay do? ... Am I even meant to admit to going to the supermarket? Should I pretend to only go to the local Farmers' Market?" There, undoubtedly, will be much more of such dislocation in the months to come.
Bruce Bartlett is the author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.