Lessons Conservatives Need to Learn
Obama is a formidable foe. He means to change the country and crush the GOP.
Two lessons on how conservatives and Republicans might approach the future, and a look at the meaning of Barack Obama.
Lesson one: Golf star Phil Mickelson this week complained about taxes – “I happen to be in that zone that has been targeted both federally and by the state” – and suggested he may leave California. Before anyone could jump down his throat, he abjectly apologized: He didn't mean to hurt anyone, he shouldn't have said it, taxes are a “personal” issue.
Actually they're pretty public. The American Revolution started as a tax revolt. It is not remarkable that a man might protest a 50% to 60% tax rate that means he has to work from January through July or August for the government, and only gets to keep for himself and his family what he earns from then through December.
Most fans would rather see Mr. Mickelson hit a ball with a stick than hear his economic analysis, and talking about tax burdens when you're making up to $50 million a year sounds like … well, a pretty high-class problem.
But his complaint came as kind of a relief. It was politically incorrect. It was based on actual numbers and facts and not grounded in abstractions, as most of our public pronouncements are. And it was unusual: Most people in his position are clever enough not to sound aggrieved.
Conservatives and Republicans feel a bit under siege these days because their views are not officially in style. But the Cringe is not the way to deal with it. If you take a stand, take a stand and take the blows. Many people would think that paying more than half your salary in city, state, county and federal taxes is unjust. Mr. Mickelson is not alone.
Lesson two came from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Conservatives on the ground are angry with them after the Benghazi hearings. Members of the Senate and the House have huffed and puffed for months: “It's worse than Watergate, Americans died.” Just wait till they question the secretary of state, they'll get to the bottom of it.
Wednesday they questioned Hillary Clinton. It was a dud.
The senators weren't organized or focused, they didn't coordinate questions, follow up, have any coherent or discernible strategy. The only senator who really tried to bore in was Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who asked a pointed question that was never answered: If you wanted to find out what happened when the consulate was attacked, why didn't you pick up the phone the next day and call those who'd been there? John McCcain made a spirited, scattered speech – really, it was just like him – that couldn't find the energy to end in serious questions.
Some conservatives are saying Mrs. Clinton looked unhinged, angry. In their dreams. She came across as human and indignant, and emerged untouched. What air there was in the Benghazi balloon leaked out. Someday we'll find out what happened when somebody good writes a book.
All this looked like another example of the mindless personal entrepreneurialism of the Republicans on the Hill: They're all in business for themselves. They make their speech, ask their question, and it's not connected to anyone else's speech or question. They aren't part of something that moves and makes progress.
Minority parties can't act like this, in such a slobby, un-unified way.
Hill Republicans continue not to understand that they are the face of the party when the cameras are trained on Washington. They don't understand how they look, which is like ants on a sugar cube.
Finally, it became obvious this week that the Republican party top to bottom has to start taking Barack Obama seriously. All the famous criticisms of him are true: He has no talent for or interest in sustained, good-faith negotiations, he has no real sense of alarm about the great issue of the day, America's debt. He's a chill presence in a warm-blooded profession.
But he means business. He means to change America in fundamental ways and along the lines of justice as he sees it. The proper response to such a man is not – was not – that he's a Muslim, he's a Kenyan, he's working out his feelings about colonialism. Those charges were meant to marginalize him, but they didn't hurt him. They damaged Republicans, who came to see him as easy to defeat.
He doesn't care if you like him – he'd just as soon you did, but it's not necessary for him. He is certain he is right in what he's doing, which is changing the economic balance between rich and poor. The rich are going to be made less rich, and those who are needy or request help are going to get more in government services, which the rich will pay for. He'd just as soon the middle class not get lost in the shuffle, but if they wind up marginally less middle class he won't be up nights. The point is redistribution.
The great long-term question is the effect the change in mood he seeks to institute will have on what used to be called the national character. Eight years is almost half a generation. Don't you change people when you tell them they have an absolute right to government support regardless of their efforts? Don't you encourage dependence, and a bitter sense of entitlement? What about the wearing down of taxpayers? Some, especially those who are younger, do not fully understand that what is supporting them is actually coming from other people. To them it seems to come from “the government,” the big marble machine far away that prints money.
There is no sign, absolutely none, that any of this is on Mr. Obama's mind. His emphasis is always on what one abstract group owes another in the service of a larger concept. “You didn't build that” are the defining words of his presidency.
He is not going to negotiate, compromise, cajole. Absent those efforts his only path to primacy in Congress is to kill the Republican Party, to pulverize it, as John Dickerson noted this week in Slate, to “attempt to annihilate the Republican Party,” as Speaker John Boehner said in a remarkably candid speech to the Ripon Society.
Mr. Obama is not, as has been said, the left's Ronald Reagan. Reagan won over, Mr. Obama just wins. What Mr. Obama really is is Franklin D. Roosevelt without the landslides. He has the same seriousness of intent but nothing like the base of support.
In 1932, FDR won the presidency with 58% of the vote to Herbert Hoover's 40%. In 1936 it was even better: Roosevelt won 61% of the vote to Alf Landon's 36.5%.
In 2008, Barack Mr. Obama beat John McCain solidly, 53% to 46%. But last year, against a woebegone GOP candidate, Obama won just 51% of the vote, to Mitt Romney's 47%. (Yes: ironic.)
Mr. Obama received 66 million votes in 2012 – but four years earlier he received 69.5 million.
His support went down, not up.
He is moving forward as if he has FDR's mandate and attempting to crush his enemy every bit as ruthlessly as FDR, who was one ruthless patrician.
It will take guts and unity to fight him. Can the GOP, just in Washington, for now, develop those things?