Wayne O’Leary

Compassionate Conservative

In the 2000 campaign for president, George W. Bush, at the urging of his handlers, took to calling himself a “compassionate conservative.” It was an inspired move, admired in retrospect by such practitioners of the political art as Bill Clinton. The phrase implied that while the Republican nominee was a tough-minded conservative (firm with foreign adversaries, committed to fiscal restraint, and devoted to shrinking government), he was not a hard-hearted reactionary who would allow widows and small children to starve in the cold.

As it turned out, George W. was neither particularly conservative nor especially compassionate, although he was more the former than the latter. Those on the right are still struggling to come to terms with their erstwhile hero’s spendthrift ways and budget-exploding deficits. At the same time, the Bush spending priorities were far from humane; there were billions for war and corporate subsidies, but relatively little for domestic social needs. When it came to compassion, the conservative 43rd president was fundamentally meanspirited and parsimonious - - a skinflint of the first order.

The good news for those infatuated with the compassionate-conservative label — this includes moderate Republicans, conservative DLC Democrats, and independents of the Ross Perot-Pete Peterson persuasion — is that there actually is an emerging compassionate conservative on the national scene. His name is Barack Obama, and he’s promising to become the man George W. Bush claimed to be, but was not. To the despair of the leftist legions that worked tirelessly to elect him, the current president has turned out to be no liberal in the classic New Deal mold. His administration contains few genuine progressives, and his legislative agenda rarely ventures left of center. The national mass media, however, which sets that agenda, adores him for seemingly being what they’ve lusted after for years, a truly centrist president, the David Broder of chief executives.

In his first six months in office, President Obama has taken on no vested interests and alienated no establishment power centers. His economic policy has been bankers and investors first, dispossessed homeowners and the unemployed second. His financial reforms appear designed to resurrect the status quo ante — the flawed Wall Street structure that existed prior to the great collapse. His health-care initiative, shorn of its modest public option, could have been formulated by the various private medical interest groups. And his foreign policy, fine words and gestures aside, is basically a continuation of the Bush policy of the past eight years.

Progressive activists can be excused for staring blankly into space and muttering to themselves. What happened? Partly, it’s a matter of long-suffering liberals having unrealistically invested their hopes and dreams in a man who, notwithstanding his many sterling personal qualities, was probably never really one of them. Left-liberals are people who, at heart, are angry with the unfairness of the existing order, who see obvious villains (bankers, insurance executives, drug-company CEOs), and who want a fundamental reordering of relationships in the economic sphere. They are also people at odds with the imperialistic impulses of the nation’s defense and diplomatic establishment, and anxious to redirect it away from foreign adventures. Barack Obama, contrary to some of his campaign utterances, does not fully share this perspective; he’s not at war with any particular segment of the capitalist hierarchy, and he’s comfortable, pending minor reforms and rules changes, with things as they are.

Obama will, once forced to commit, accept certain alterations to the status quo; he will sign liberal legislation, such as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) or a public-option health- insurance bill, if they’re passed by Congress. But he won’t lead the fight; he’s not that emotionally engaged. His bipartisan stance means he’d be just as willing to accept reforms liberals would characterize as conservative, providing they promised incremental progress. Not only will the president accept half a loaf, a quarter-loaf will do.

This mindset is what caused certain competitors in the presidential primaries, notably former Sen. John Edwards, to question Obama’s toughness and commitment on working-class issues. The same balanced, even temperament that allows the president to work with broad elements of the political spectrum, Edwards and others perceived, is also a potential Achilles heel in the realization of liberal objectives. What Democrats have in Obama is not a movement liberal, but a nonideological politician with some liberal instincts.

In certain respects, the current chief executive is not all that different from Franklin Roosevelt, another nonideological progressive. FDR was pushed (or allowed himself to be pushed) in a liberal direction by the desperate situation of the country (far worse than today) and by the existence of potent political forces on his left. Roosevelt had to contend with full-throated populist contemporaries like Philip and Bob LaFollette, Jr. in Wisconsin, Upton Sinclair in California, Floyd Olson in Minnesota, and Huey Long in Louisiana, all of them capable of stealing his thunder and, in the case of Long, perfectly willing (and likely) to do so. On top of that, there were angry job seekers, militant farmers, and a strong, radicalized labor movement on the march. FDR’s shift to the left in 1935-36 was a move plainly calculated to either mollify or head off — some would say co-opt — those forces.

By contrast, there is no prominent political figure occupying Obama’s left flank and little in the way of a contemporary progressive protest movement. Labor might again fill that mass-movement role, but only if EFCA allows it to rebuild. John Edwards, who could have been instrumental in pulling Obama in a more populist direction, has been neutralized and hounded from public life, symbolically sacrificed for the collective sins of his political contemporaries (too numerous to mention) guilty of, shall we say, complicated lifestyles — to the equal detriment of progressive politics and Obama himself.

So, for the moment, the new progressivism awaits new leadership capable of pushing the president off dead center and in a more activist direction. The times demand something beyond compassionate conservatism or watered-down liberalism. Barack Obama clearly has the wherewithal to provide it, but he’ll need a firm nudge — or perhaps a political scare.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine. He holds a doctorate in American history.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2009

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