“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it,” Abraham Lincoln counseled in his great 1858 House Divided speech. In Lincoln’s spirit, Professor Charles Kesler situates the dire position of the conservative movement confronting Barack Obama.
“In President Barack Obama, conservatives face the most formidable liberal politician in a generation, perhaps since John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson,” writes Kesler:
Barack Obama is in some respects a new political phenomenon. To state the obvious, he is young, gifted, and black, and as Nina Simone sang 40 years ago, “To be young, gifted, and black / Is where it’s at”–especially if you’re president of the United States. Most Americans feel a certain pride in his achievement. Beyond that, his combination of Ivy League degrees and Chicago street cred, of high-sounding post-partisanship and hard-core self-interest, leaves people guessing. To call this combination or alternation “pragmatic,” as he likes to, is simply to accept his invitation not to think about it.
But in the decisive respect, Obama does not represent something new under the sun. Instead, he represents a rejuvenated version of something quite old, namely, the impulses that gave birth, a century ago, to modern American liberalism.
Kesler steps back to recap the impetus of progressive politics and unlimited government to which Obama is giving form. “To an amazing degree,” Kesler observes, “Obama’s agenda represents a return to liberalism’s roots.” Health care is the signal case, he adds, revealing most clearly the nature and illusions of unlimited government in the progressive State:
Here, in outline, is the liberal M.O.: Take a very good thing, like quality health care. Turn it into a right, which only centralized government can claim to provide equally and affordably and–the biggest whopper–excellently to all. Refer as little as possible to the plain logic that such a right implies a corresponding duty; that the duty to pay for this new right’s provision must fall on someone; and that the rich, always defined as someone with greater income than you, cannot possibly pay for it all by themselves. Ignore even more fervently that this right, held as a social entitlement, implies a duty to accept only as much and as good health care as society (i.e., government) allows or, ideally, as can be given equally to everyone. Having advertised such care as effectively free to every user, because the duty to pay is separated as much as possible from the right to enjoy the benefit, profess amazement that usage soars, thereby multiplying costs and degrading the quality of care. Blame Republicans for insufficient funding and thus for the painful necessity to increase taxes and cut benefits in order to protect the right to universal health care, which is now a program. Run against those hard-hearted Republicans, and win….
To overcome the contradictions of Big Government, liberals cheerfully offer Bigger Government. Consider the present case. Medicare and Medicaid are going broke. Doctor Obama prescribes a brand new, expensive health care program, which the Democrats cannot figure out how to fund, to cure the ills of the existing system. A third deficit-laden program to save two already verging on bankruptcy? The reality is that massive middle-class tax increases lie just over the horizon, along with draconian cuts in benefits, which will come partly disguised by long waiting lists, rationing of care, and shrinking investment in new drugs and technologies. Obama is betting that the socialist ethic of solidarity, of shared pain, can be made to prevail over democratic outrage at broken promises, shoddy services, and diminished liberty.
As he “claims the title deeds of American patriotism,” as Kesler puts it, and seeks the undoing of limited constitutional government, Obama confronts a weakened conservative movement. Kesler describes the arc traced by Republican politics since Reagan as “the conservative collapse.” Thus the conservative challenge, as Kesler formulates it, a call to make the case for our own understanding of, and fidelity to, American principles.
Kesler invokes Reagan, but also outlnies the limits of Reagan’s achievement. The problems that face us now, Kesler writes, are the ones that Reagan helped to diagnose but did not come close to solving, particularly the deeply intractable problem of what to do about the liberal state. Here Kesler alludes to the House Divided speech:
It has grown up among us for so long and has entwined itself so tightly around the organs of American government that it seems impossible to remove it completely without risking fatal harm to the patient. And in any case the patient’s wishes must be conscientiously consulted on the matter, and he seems rather content with his present condition. Yet the spirit of unlimited government and the spirit of limited government cannot permanently endure in the same nation, either.
Charles Kesler is of course the editor of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here) and professor of government at Claremont College. His brilliant essay “The conservative challenge” leads the new issue of the CRB and has been made available online at our request.