No group in America would have more trouble adjusting to an Obama presidency than the Bush Liberals.
With the president's approval rating so deep in the tank, you might question whether there really is such a thing as a Bush Liberal. Let me explain.
This isn't about ideology or policy. This is about mindset -- a Bush mindset, a with-us-or-against-us mindset. These are folks whose version of the politics of hope is to hope that Barack Obama didn't really mean what he said in his 2004 Democratic convention speech, didn't really mean what he wrote in his books, and doesn't really mean all that he's preached during this grueling campaign about the need for healing, unity, bipartisanship, cooperation, and mutual respect. These Bush Liberals have fumed through eight long years of Bush-Cheney.
They. Want. Payback.
They want payback and they're simply not going to get it. Not with an Obama presidency.
Go ahead. Break their hearts. Vote for Obama on Tuesday.
If you want a glimpse of whose hearts exactly you'll be breaking, read through some of the comments that people posted online back in January when Obama told the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board that Ronald Reagan "changed the trajectory of America" by rallying voters who'd rejected the "excesses of the 1960s and 1970s" and had decided "government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating."
Here's one of the online comments Obama's remarks triggered:
"I've been trying to tell people that Obama is way too much like Reagan for my comfort level. His supporters do not see this at all. I wouldn't even mind if I felt Obama really had the potential to realign American politics. But unlike Reagan, Obama is just trying to build an electoral coalition based on hope and optimism, without also using every opportunity to educate people about why conservatives and Republicans are the problem. In Obama's world, partisanship is the problem. He is way off base."
Now, that quote only goes so far. I'm not trying to peddle nonsense here. While there are an eye-popping array of people from the Reagan White House who have endorsed Obama, I'm not trying to trick anyone into believing that a vote for Obama is a vote for a third Reagan term. Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, makes plain the areas in which he thinks Reagan's policies left many Americans worse off.
So if you're the type of conservative who thinks the lesson of Reagan is that trickle-down economics is a cure-all for every woe at every moment in American history, you shouldn't vote for Obama. He's not your guy. Never will be.
But you should be giving Obama a good, close look if you're the type of conservative who thinks the lesson of Reagan is that the U.S. government must deliver value to taxpayers and foster, as Obama put it, "that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship" that had gone missing during the Carter administration. Because those observations Obama made about Reagan back in January were not some unintended gaffe during his talk with that editorial board. He'd covered the same basic territory back in 2006 when he published The Audacity of Hope. He wrote there's a "good deal of truth" to Reagan's "central insight ... that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic, with Democratic policy makers more obsessed with slicing the economic pie than with growing the pie."
Such words, obviously, are not what you want to read if you're a Bush Liberal, a with-us-or-against-us liberal. Specifically, it's not what you want to read if you're that blog commenter I quoted above who thinks Democratic politics should be about seizing "every opportunity to educate people about why conservatives and Republicans are the problem."
Confession time. There's some Bush Liberal in me. Going way back. Supposedly, I spent part of my Watergate-era toddlerhood stomping around my neighborhood, chanting "Put him behind bars!" about Nixon. During high school and college, I tossed around the word "fascist" with a shameful disregard for its real meaning or history.
Two things changed me.
1) As you'll see if you are ever bored enough to read my HuffPost bio, I went into a life-changing political hibernation when I became a newspaper reporter. It's not a job you can do honorably while clinging to your ideological biases. I cared deeply about doing the job honorably. My political biases just fell away. I came to prize candor above all else. For a reporter who cares about accuracy, sources who spin are basically useless; honest sources are priceless. The source I came to respect most happened to be a Republican. Now that I've quit journalism and had my political awareness shocked back to life by the incompetence and lawlessness of the Bush-Cheney years, I can see just how much my old Republican source and I differ in our political views. But he's running for reelection to statewide office right now and I just voted for him. Again.
2) Barack Obama's message has changed me even more. It's one thing for me to look past ideology and vote for a former source because he demonstrated his integrity to me -- one-on-one, repeatedly, without fail. It's quite another thing to seek out conservative ideas and open myself to the possibility that they might have something useful to teach me. But that's something I do now. Because Obama's words have persuaded me that my kids' futures will be brightest if we can stop glaring at each other across ideological divides. It hasn't hurt, either, that I read Team of Rivals this spring and learned all about the dream-team cabinet Lincoln assembled from the political foes he beat out for the presidency.
There are flashes when I see so clearly how much I've changed. One such flash came Sunday when my phone lit up with an e-mail from a good friend. She'd forwarded something titled "Fair Warning," a satirical letter to America's red states, threatening a blue-state secession if "you manage to steal this election too." There's stuff like this: "We get Harvard. You get Ole Miss. We get 85% of venture capitalists. You get Alabama."
Now, the old-old me would have found "Fair Warning" hilarious. The post-journalism, Bush/Cheney-loathing, pre-Obama me would have taken some grim, vengeful comfort in passages such as "you ... will have to cope with 88% of obese Americans (and their projected healthcare costs)."
Suddenly, though, I'm the jerk who's become so allergic to words like those that I sit in my car in a supermarket parking lot, tapping out an instant response to my poor, unsuspecting friend. As politely as I can manage, I write that "this seems like an unhelpful moment to be quite so condescending." I go on to be all preachy about how we shouldn't look down our noses at Ole Miss. I cite a public-radio piece I heard about how the univeristy has transcended the ugly reputation it earned during the civil rights movement. I write about our "shared American-ness" and add "Obama's campaign grows out of the insight that we're stuck with each other and might as well try to make the most of it."
Who is this person who's taken over my body and commandeered my phone to send that e-mail? And why am I so much happier being him than I was being a Bush Liberal, a with-us-or-against-us liberal?
This is not unique to me. Not by a long shot. Many more people are looking toward the future than the past. That's no easy thing. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Obama's "rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking." Yes, the Bush car wreck is spectacular. Dazzling in its carnage. Magnetic to our eyes. We're looking. Not staring. Looking. Because we're looking beyond it, too. Far beyond. As Noonan added, "(Obama's) victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief."
This is what this moment offers. Conservatives -- true conservatives, who've watched Bush sully conservatism's name badly -- need to decide whether they want to help make this "fresh start" happen.
Sarah Palin should decide this for you. If you look at Sarah Palin and see a cure for Bush's non-conservative spending binge, non-conservative war of choice in Iraq, non-conservative dreams of sprinkling magic democracy dust all around the world, there's only one choice for you Tuesday. If you look at Sarah Palin and see the best possible future of your party, there's only one choice on Tuesday: Vote for McCain.
But if you see the future in Romney or Fiorina or Jindal or Whitman or Pawlenty or Petraeus or Condi Rice, you've got some serious thinking to do. Because this ticket is not your party's varsity squad. This is your JV. Palin is pure JV. McCain, whatever he once was, proved with his reckless, unvetted pick of Palin that he, too, is JV.
This is not a JV moment in American history. A JV administration will make things worse. Surely, you know deep down -- both in your brain and in your gut -- that this is true. We'll be right back here in four years with an angrier electorate even more desperate for change than it is today.
Conservatives wouldn't get to handpick the Democratic change agent who finally sweeps the JV team from the White House. Maybe that change agent would be Obama again. More likely, it would be someone who convinces Americans that Obama and all his pretty talk of hope and bipartisanship amounted to a naive recipe for defeat. Me, I'm betting the 2012 change agent would be a Bush Liberal.
So you can have your bipartisan, collaborative, team-of-rivals administration now. Or you can watch a with-us-or-against-us, winner-take-all, it's-payback-time president take the oath of office in 2013.
If it sounds like I'm trying to scare you, I am. But I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't believe it. It scares me, too.
We don't need a Bush Liberal in the White House any more than we need a third Bush term. We don't need payback. We don't need big pendulum swings in our politics. On issue after issue, we need to return to the sane center of American politics. We need durable progress, the progress that comes from building a broad coalition for change. Obama offers the best chance for durable progress in many years -- probably the best chance in my lifetime.
Obama has promised to give Americans the tools for unprecedented civic involvement. Real conservatives need to decide how much faith they have in the power of their own ideas. They need to decide whether unprecedented civic engagement sounds scary or whether it sounds like an unprecedented chance to win lifelong converts and forge a fresh, new conservative majority.
At base, conservatives need to decide how invested they are in America and in conservatism. You need to decide whether -- ideologically speaking -- you're building a business you can pass on to your kids and grandkids or whether you're a huckster out to make a quick, fly-by-night buck.
If you're a fly-by-night huckster, your choice is clear: McCain-Palin.
I can't for the life of me figure out what the McCain-Palin mandate would be. That neither of them has a foreign-sounding name? That neither one of them "pals around with terrorists"? That neither one of them has ever been falsely rumored to be a Muslim? That neither of them (despite their non-conservative pander to buy up hundreds of billions of dollars in bad mortgages) has been smeared as a "socialist"? That Palin's extremist pastor got less news coverage than Obama's ex-pastor? This is perfect Rove-style, fly-by-night hucksterism: a meaningless temporary coalition held together with fear, bigotry, greed, and ignorance.
So we get malignantly out-of-context claims that Obama wants to bankrupt the coal industry. We get socialist bribes to voters during the same rallies that McCain and Palin smear Obama as a "socialist" who wants to be "redistributionist-in-chief." I think all this "redistribution" talk is, fundamentally, a smokescreen to keep conservatives from seeing how much they have in common with Obama's worldview. Obama spoke the seemingly toxic phrase "redistributive change" in passing back in 2001 while criticizing the 1960s civil rights movement for relying too much on an activist Supreme Court to improve the lives of African Americans. Sounds sort of conservative, doesn't it?
But it's hard to hear Obama's substance over the dim-witted din.
America deserves better. Conservatives deserve better. Conservatives deserve a presidential candidate who won't flee from deregulation when it becomes politically dicey. Conservatives deserve a presidential candidate who will stand up against the headwind of the mortgage crisis and explain that the market is doing what it does best: punishing the foolish and the careless and sending their assets down and down and down until someone prudent and sensible can purchase them and bring renewal. Conservatives deserve a presidential candidate who will argue that a $700 billion bailout is about the only thing that can keep financiers from learning the ruthless lesson the market is teaching. Instead, conservatives have McCain. Which is to say that conservatives have nobody.
The conservative thinker Andrew Sullivan wrote this today in a long, moving piece summarizing his endorsement of Obama:
"His fiscal policies are too liberal for me - I don't believe in raising taxes, I believe in cutting entitlements for the middle classes as the way to fiscal balance. I don't believe in 'progressive taxation', I support a flat tax. I don't want to give unions any more power. I'm sure there will be moments when a Democratic Congress will make me wince. But I also understand that money has to come from somewhere, and it will not come in any meaningful measure from freezing pork or the other transparent gimmicks advertized in advance by McCain. McCain is not serious on spending. But he is deadly serious in not touching taxes. So, on the core question of debt, on bringing America back to fiscal reason, Obama is still better than McCain."
Sullivan has also posted his top 10 reasons why conservatives should vote for Obama. Click here to consider them.
If you want to experience a sharp contrast between huckster conservatism and the sort of conservatism you can bequeath to your grandchildren, read William Kristol's empty-headed, disingenuous column in today's New York Times and then read this Sullivan piece.
Reclaim your movement. Start fresh. Collaborate with an Obama presidency when its proposals are sound. Raise hell when the proposals aren't prudent. Make America think. Trust in your ideas. If Obama succeeds in moving us past longstanding impasses, be there to recruit women whose votes are freed from a one-dimensional defense of abortion rights, gays who are freed from worrying they'll be barred from visiting the love of their life in the hospital, hard-working immigrants freed from being used as a perennial political pinata.
Build an ideological legacy you can leave to your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. But first, reject the huckster conservatism on this year's ballot. Vote for Obama. Then start fresh.
Just don't expect the Bush Liberals to thank you anytime soon. Or ever.