E.J. Dionne has a thought-provoking column up, making the case that Barack Obama is the new Ronald Reagan, and that his inaugural speech might signal “a long-term electoral realignment.”
This might turn out like George W. Bush’s “permanent governing majority,” but sometimes realignments really do happen. And while conservatives will probably mock Dionne’s prediction, it’s not clear to me whether or not he is correct. At the very least, I believe this is what Obama is aiming for.
For example, reflecting on his recent inaugural speech, Ed Kilgore argues that, “Obama made the long-lost liberal case that collective action is necessary to the achievement of individual freedom, instead of implicitly conceding that social goals and individual interests are inherently at war.”
But Greg Sargent points out that this wasn’t just something that popped up in a speech. “This overarching philosophical argument was at the center of the 2012 election,” Sargent writes. “The battles over Obama’s ‘you didn’t build that’ speech, and over the GOP suggestion that the President’s ‘redistributionist’ and ‘collectivist’ tendencies are fundamentally at odds with the nation’s values, were at bottom an argument over the true nature of our shared responsibility to one another.”
This is messy business. We can probably concede that there are many variables involved in an electoral victory. Obama is more charismatic than Romney — Obama ran a better campaign than Romney, etc. (This is not to deprive Obama of a mandate, but it is to say that his victory may or may not have had anything to do with his having won the national argument about the proper role of government.)
There are still a lot of things we don’t know. For example, did Obama’s vision win, or is he just a really good politician? In other words, is his popularity transferable? Could, say, a Joe Biden perform as well running on the same platform?
That’s still not clear.
But here’s the big question. Let’s suppose that Reagan’s philosophy temporarily won the day after big government’s overreach, but now things are coming back into equilibrium — which is to say, let’s suppose collectivism is more appealing today than rugged individualism.
Assuming that’s the case, there’s nothing to say that conservatives can’t tap into a conservative version of the zeitgeist.
The tea party backlash against Barack Obama moved the GOP and the conservative movement in a more libertarian direction. Presumably, Mitt Romney was attempting to pander to this wing of the conservative base when he talked about the 47 percent — and when he made “you didn’t build that” the theme of his convention.
(At the time, some of this struck me as a mistake. See my August post, “What about all the voters who aren’t entrepreneurs?”)
But while conservatism opposes “collectivism,” traditional conservatism is not anti-communitarian. Strong communities, strong churches, strong families — all of these things are well within the mainstream of American life. This is why I recently wrote that “To modernize, the GOP must embrace compassionate conservatism.”
It strikes me that there are some potential Republican candidates more capable of selling the traditional conservative argument than others. In my estimation, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. Marco Rubio are probably best-equipped to represent this mainstream brand of traditional conservatism.
Obama’s collectivist ideology might trump an “every man for himself” philosophy — but can Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton beat a young conservative selling a mainstream, family-friendly message?