“Change you can believe in” had enough?
Following President Obama’s war speeches at West Point and Oslo —- two breathtaking exercises in political cynicism that killed any hope of authentic liberal reform — I’ve got only one question: Have the liberals who worshiped at the altar of “change you can believe in” had enough?
There was already ample evidence of Obama’s feeble commitment to peace, progress and justice. Ever since he started fund-raising for his presidential campaign, it’s been clear that the principal change in the offing was skin tone and slogans. One only needed to read “The Audacity of Hope” to see how thoroughly Obama was enmeshed in the neo-liberal orthodoxies of the Robert Rubin-Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. Obama’s impeccably establishment party credentials — that is, his fealty to the Democratic leadership of Chicago and Capitol Hill — practically guaranteed that he would hew to the status quo when forced to choose.
Even before he announced his candidacy for president, Obama endorsed the Iraq hawk Joe Lieberman for re-election to the Senate; then, when Lieberman lost the primary to the antiwar Ned Lamont, Obama made sure that he was never seen with the official nominee of the Connecticut Democratic Party, a bald act of realpolitik that helped Lieberman win as an “independent.” In the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, Obama’s voting record on Iraq war funding was identical to Hillary Clinton’s.
Liberals, exhausted by President Bush and heartened by Obama’s challenge to the pro-invasion Hillary, ignored their new hero’s record and fixated on his one major anti-Iraq speech, delivered when he was a state senator. Ironically, it was Clinton who best characterized Obama’s candidacy when she said that she and John McCain would “put forth” a “lifetime of experience” while “Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002.”
Indeed, apart from extraordinary ambition, there wasn’t much more to Obama than that one speech.
So what’s left of the liberal adoration of Obama? The first major defector among the camp followers was Gary Wills, who denounced the Afghanistan escalation as a “betrayal.” As Wills astutely noted in a New York Review of Books blog, “If we had wanted Bush’s wars, and contractors, and corruption, we could have voted for John McCain. At least we would have seen our foe facing us, not felt him at our back, as now we do.”
Then there’s Tom Hayden, the former radical and author of the Students for A Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement, who was a belligerent booster of Obama during last year’s campaign. Hayden, too, is upset about Afghanistan, but not enough to cast aside his self-delusion about Obama. Claiming to speak for “the antiwar movement,” he laments that the “costs in human lives and tax dollars are simply unsustainable” and, worse, that “Obama is squandering any hope for his progressive domestic agenda by this tragic escalation of the war.”
Unsustainable? Tragic? There’s no evidence that Obama and his chief of staff see any limit to their ability to print dollars, sell Treasury bonds and send working-class kids to die in distant lands. And what “progressive” agenda is Hayden talking about? So far, Obama’s big domestic goals have been compulsory, government-subsidized insurance policies that will further enrich the private health-care business, huge increases in Pentagon spending and purely symbolic regulation of Wall Street.
While Obama was speaking to the unfortunate cadets, I couldn’t help thinking of Richard Nixon and his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, a plan that entailed a long and pointless continuation of the fighting. Most liberals would agree that Nixon was a terrible president. Yet, for all his vicious mendacity, I think the sage of San Clemente had a bad conscience about the harm he did, about all he caused to die and be crippled.
Instead of shoring up Obama’s image of goodness, liberals really should be asking, “Does the president have a conscience?” Because if he does, he’s really no better than Nixon.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.