By Luke Brinker
If President Barack Obama truly subscribes to a political philosophy based on “Saul Alinsky radicalism,” as Newt Gingrich alleges, he has a funny way of showing it. Political scientist Keith Poole of the University of Georgia recently plotted the public positions of presidents from Harry Truman to Obama on a liberal-conservative scale. Poole found that, contrary to Tea Party mythology, Obama is far from a hard-core leftist. In fact, he’s to the right of every Democratic president since Truman:
Poole has also examined the phenomenon of party polarization, the topic of endless Beltway punditry. Polarization, Poole has found, is real, but it’s not the result of “both sides” moving toward the extremes. Republicans have moved much further to the right than Democrats have to the left. (Read this post for more, including some nifty charts that illustrate the point.) This is important to bear in mind when considering some of Obama’s purportedly “liberal” policies on issues like health care, the environment, and economic stimulus. Obama’s signature domestic accomplishment – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 – is grounded in the “individual mandate,” a requirement that individuals buy health insurance or pay a penalty. The intellectual origins of the mandate are on the right; the Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney are among its past backers. (It’s easy to see why: by discouraging free riding, the mandate upholds conservative notions about personal responsibility, as Romney wrote in a Wall Street journal op-ed in 2006. It also preserves the for-profit, private insurance model at the expense of a more efficient single-payer solution, which many on the left favor.) On climate change, Obama’s proposed solution has been a cap-and-trade scheme, which was also the position of the McCain-Palin ticket in 2008. George H. W. Bush implemented a cap-and-trade program to deal with sulfur dioxide emissions in the early 1990s; that market-based approach has proven remarkably successful, decreasing sulfur dioxide emissions by 40 percent since 1990. As for Obama’s economic stimulus policies, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 drew on many conservative ideas; in fact, one of economists’ chief critiques of the bill was that it was too reliant on inefficient tax cuts (which Democrats inserted in a futile effort to gain substantial GOP backing) and too light on large-scale infrastructure spending. Even where Obama has supposedly governed as a “liberal,” he’s hardly been a bona fide New Deal type.
The Tea Party may characteristically refuse to acknowledge reality on this score, but it’s clear that Bruce Bartlett is right: Obama is essentially a moderate conservative. The Tea Party Jacobins have so radically redefined conservatism that it’s hard to remember that Burkeans still exist – they’re just Democrats now.