When the obvious just wouldn’t do

My friends Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki take on the question of how David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, and David Gergen were able to conclude during the election that Barack Obama was other than a left-liberal, a view all three, to their credit, have already abandoned. Peter suggests that the answer lies in the cluelessnes of the elite, and I think there is something to this. George Orwell may have been right that “to see what is in front of one’s own nose needs constant struggle.” But winning that struggle doesn’t tend to impress the intellectual elitist or his elite friends. Better to discern “truths” that will not appear obvious as soon as they are articulated, even if the risk of error is high.

Todd proposes three explanations. First, there was a tendency to infer from Obama’s calm personality that he is a moderate. You wouldn’t think that this tendency could cause someone as normally astute as Brooks to err, though. Second, some of Obama’s positions seemed so silly to those on the center-right that it wasn’t easy to imagine Obama taking them seriously. But liberal Democrats have been taking most of these ideas seriously for years, so there was no rational basis for confidence that Obama did not believe them.

Todd’s third (and primary) explanation comes very close to the mark:

The passion for these ObamaCons and their desire to believe against all evidence that Obama was a moderate I think was spurred in large part because of their revulsion against Sarah Palin. In that sense, the polite establishment position was to distance oneself from the yahoos in the Republican Party in favor of the urbane Obama (although I’m not quite sure how Joe Biden fits in here). Whatever the motivation, the desire of many to believe that Obama was a moderate was really just a triumph of wishful thinking and a desire to believe that was true, rather than any actual facts.

I would expand the explanation beyond revulsion with Palin, and cite revulsion with the previous eight years and the resulting demoralization.

Years ago, there was a play called “Yanks-3, Detroit-0, Top of the Seventh.” It’s about a Yankee right-hander having a nervous break-down in the seventh inning of a baseball game. At one point, as the game unravels and his psyche frays, the pitcher (played by Tony Lo Bianco) suddenly concludes, with absolute conviction, that the way out of his jam is to pitch left-handed. This, I think, is something like what happened to certain very bright people on center-right in 2008.

JOHN adds: I wouldn’t describe any of those three–Gergen, Christopher Buckley or David Brooks–as a conservative. It may be that a few conservatives fell for Obama in the sense of actually supporting him during the election campaign, but I don’t think there were many.

I admit, though, that I too misread Obama. I thought that for him, it was race that predominated, not policy. I thought that his number one concern was his status as the first African-American President, and that his top priority would be going down in history, on a consensus basis, as a successful President. Above all, I thought he would avoid risking a Carter-type, one-term abject failure. I expected such considerations to push him in the direction of caution, i.e., moderation. Some of his early appointments were consistent with this view.

Like so many theories, it sounded plausible but proved wrong. Obama’s dedication to hard leftism–no secret, given his voting record–was strong after all. The result may well be a failed, one-term Presidency, but the damage done over the next four years could prove incalculable.

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