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Did Obama Move American Government to the Right? Is the Pope Jewish?

[ 190 ] November 8, 2012 |

Larison actually has a good and important point to make here, but I’m not sure why feels compelled to spoil it by saying something this silly.   Here he is, responding to George Will’s banal claim that the American electorate “has reelected the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson and his mentor Franklin Roosevelt”:

Looking at national exit polling, the electorate that turned out this year doesn’t fit that description. I’ll leave the “most liberal since LBJ” designation for another time (just review the domestic records of Nixon and George W. Bush if you believe that).

Um, what?   To deal with the absurd claim first, this attempt to eject George W. Bush from the conservative movement, while understandable from a conservative perspective, just isn’t going to get off the ground.   Larison seems to be operating with the ridiculous assumption that liberalism has no content other than “deficit spending, regardless of the economic circumstances.”   (And he also seems to have the related delusion that actually existing American conservatism abhors statism and deficits. It was George W. Bush’s father who caused conservatives to revolt…by signing a deficit-cutting deal.)  But that’s not actually what liberalism means, and Bush’s domestic record was extremely conservative.  NCLB was a mixture of liberal and conservative goals that expanded federal intervention into education, so OK.  Medicare Part D, we’re getting shaky — yes, it addressed a longstanding liberal goal but in a way most liberals didn’t actually support.   This hardly compares to the PPACA, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Ledbetter Act, repeal of DADT, and Dodd-Frank. And of course even if we are extremely charitable and categorize the two cited Bush statutes as “liberal,” this has to be balanced against the actions that didn’t have liberal means or goals: two massive upper-class tax cuts, an atrocious bankruptcy bill, an irrational ban on D&X abortions, an energy bill that was a massive giveaway to corporate interests, Alito and Roberts, etc. etc. The idea that Bush’s domestic record is on balance anything but the most conservative in many decades (let alone more liberal than Obama’s) is absurd.

Nixon is a slightly harder case, because his presidency did involve the passage of some liberal environmental legislation, as well as an affirmative action bill. (I guess we can count wage and price controls, although if you ask me they’re not only terrible policy but not very liberal — it’s easier to control wages than prices. But some congressional liberals did at least nominally support them.) But, still, taken as a whole it’s not nearly as extensive a record of progressive accomplishment as Obama’s even taken on its face. And there has to be adjustment for context. Nixon was different than contemporary Republicans in that his interest in domestic policy was primarily political, so he was willing to sign good legislation a Democratic Congress put on his desk if it didn’t interfere with his larger political objectives. But none of the liberal legislation that passed under Nixon was his initiative; a Humphrey administration would have had a more liberal domestic record. Conversely, none of the major progressive achievements of the Obama administration would have passed in anything like the same form with John McCain in the White House. Obama’s support and agenda-setting authority were crucial to every one. (And he never vetoed progressive legislation like Nixon did to a daycare bill.)

It’s clear that Obama’s record of liberal legislative achievement is the most extensive since Johnson, and it’s also clear that American conservatives own the record of George W. Bush however much they’d like to pretend otherwise.

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  1. Anderson says:

    Larison is sharp on foreign policy. On the domestic kind, less so.

    • Aaron says:

      Perhaps it’s a definitional issue – with Larison applying some pretty simple concepts to what he sees as conservatism – desire for the power to defend the nation, but disdain for military adventurism and empire; desire for limited government, not an expanded role of government through either social programs or business subsidies; an expansive interpretation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment; a focus on reducing government spending and deficits, and the concept that new government programs should be paid for; etc.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        There’s no meaningful definition of conservatism under which Obama is more conservative than Bush, I’m sorry.

        • thusbloggedanderson says:

          Meh. I could make an argument. (I *am* a lawyer.) American “conservatism” has been infected with millenialist-infused evangelical Christianity, so that it’s just right-wing radicalism.

          One could recycle the half-joke about Obama’s being the best Republican prez since Eisenhower and make a fair argument that he’s really a conservative … and white, too.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            One could recycle the half-joke about Obama’s being the best Republican prez since Eisenhower and make a fair argument that he’s really a conservative

            If you use a definition of “conservatism” that has bears no relationship to any conservative group of any influence that has ever existed in the United States, I guess, but it’s kind of a pointless game.

            • burritoboy says:

              I’m not sure you’re correct across all of American history. I could see the argument that a certain group of moderate Republicans in the middle of the twentieth century – Lodge Jr. or Nelson Rockefeller, for instance – are not that extremely distinct from Obama.

              Now, it’s true that that form of moderate Republican is no longer in existence, and hasn’t really been in existence for at least 20 years. And it’s also true one could question whether Rockefeller or Lodge were actually conservatives in substance. But the above is at least theoretically plausible.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                The fact that Rockefeller was a Republican doesn’t make him a conservative. He failed to win the Republican nomination for president because he wasn’t.

          • Scott de B. says:

            I’ve seen the same joke about Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 — “America decided to elect the conservative” — and it didn’t make any more sense then.

            • mark f says:

              That one’s just conservative rube-running, trying to associate with the popular JFK and dump the unpopular Tricky Dick. Almost every Republican I know thinks JFK would be with them today.

              • John says:

                The political trajectory of his brothers is strong evidence of this.

              • Auguste says:

                If all I ever knew about Kennedy vs. Nixon was one particular debate (I don’t even know which one, or even if there were multiple debates, so maybe that means that IS all I ever knew about Kennedy vs. Nixon) I would actually agree with this.

                In a nutshell, Kennedy came off as a red-baiter and Nixon came off as domestically focused, and domestically focused in a recognizably “Modern Democratic” way.

                • mark f says:

                  It’s even thinner than that. It’s based on “he liked tax cuts!” and “ask not what your country can do for you.”

                • John says:

                  Of course, when Obama proposed national service, conservatives believed that this was a proposal for communist-style indoctrination.

                • karma says:

                  Nixon rose to prominence as a member of HUAC and won his Senate seat by implying Douglas was a communist fellow traveler.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

              Kennedy did try to run to Nixon’s right on foreign policy. But the general claim that Nixon was more liberal than Kennedy is absurd.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Right. For that matter; it’s not like JFK’s domestic agenda was much less liberal than LBJ’s; he just wasn’t as good at getting it enacted.

                • John says:

                  Was Kennedy’s domestic agenda at all less liberal than Johnson’s? Most of the Great Society was designed by Kennedy people, wasn’t it?

                • Not to diminish LBJ’s skills as a legislator, but give V.P. Kennedy a martyred President, and his legislative record would have been pretty shiny, too.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  but give V.P. Kennedy a martyred President, and his legislative record would have been pretty shiny, too.

                  Maybe. But Caro is pretty convincing that LBJ did a lot to make that halo effect happen.

          • DrDick says:

            I am sorry, but that was Clinton.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          Well I think Obama, and Clinton before him, are more dedicated to old-fashioned fiscal conservatism (i.e. actually balancing the budget using non-fantasy versions of math) than most contemporary conservatives are.

      • Julian says:

        My friend, I believe you’re a lawyer.

      • sharculese says:

        an expansive interpretation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment

        On the federal level, yes. On the state level, Larison thinks incorporation of the First Amendment is the single greatest threat to American liberty, ever.

    • Warren Terra says:

      He’s especially atrocious whenever theology hoves into view. But he is good on the Republican party’s disconnect from reality and demographics, and as you say he’s often good on foreign policy.

      • thusbloggedanderson says:

        Hey, I like the theology! He was kind enough to recommend an introduction to Orthodox theology in his comment thread, too.

        Just glad he blogs on foreign policy and not on social issues, b/c that would be scary.

  2. JKTHs says:

    I’m sure some people will say that PPACA is similar to Part D in that it accomplished a liberal goal in not so liberal a way, which there is partially a case for. Of course that doesn’t apply to the Medicaid expansion, the taxes on the rich partially used to pay for it, or the attempts to make the health care system more efficient rather than making it as bloated as possible to justify voucherizing Medicare and block granting and dramatically cutting Medicaid. But still…

  3. bradP says:

    Under W. Bush:

    Discretionary domestic spending increased by 68%

    Medicare spending increased by 131%

    Social Security spending increased by 51%

    Income Security spending increased by 130%

    Corporate Tax revenue increased by 50%

    Economic regulation governmental workers increased by 91,196

    Bush also pushed for a $170B stimulus in tax rebates, and a $700B stimulus in the form of TARP.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Again, this is a caricature of liberalism not shared by any liberals (spending is just good under any economic circumstances, no matter on what!)

      • thusbloggedanderson says:

        Ah, I think I’ve got it now. Bush was NOT conservative … okay, but that doesn’t make him liberal. It’s not an either/or.

      • David Nieporent says:

        Again, that’s false, at least if we exclude defense from the “no matter on what.” True, a liberal policy wonk doesn’t sit down and say “More spending is always good.” But in the world of actually existing liberals in the actual political marketplace, more spending is always treated as a commitment to solving a particular issue, and less spending is always treated as cruel conservatism.

        Sure, you can craft a specific spending proposal that all liberals would oppose: “Let’s hire 10,000 cops for a special Beat Up Minorities program” — though Loomis would support it as long as the cops were unionized — and of course liberals have preferences about where to spend money (day care rather than law enforcement, perhaps) but given a simple up-or-down vote on increasing spending, and liberals will always vote yes.

        • mark f says:

          in the world of actually existing liberals in the actual political marketplace, more spending is always treated as a commitment to solving a particular issue, and less spending is always treated as cruel conservatism.

          Cf. Medicare, $716 billion.

        • But in the world of actually existing liberals in the actual political marketplace, more spending is always treated as a commitment to solving a particular issue, and less spending is always treated as cruel conservatism.

          ORLY? Is this before or after “Obama cut $716 billion from Medicare,” and all of the conservative Republicans promised to put it back?

        • sharculese says:

          ure, you can craft a specific spending proposal that all liberals would oppose: “Let’s hire 10,000 cops for a special Beat Up Minorities program” — though Loomis would support it as long as the cops were unionized — and of course liberals have preferences about where to spend money (day care rather than law enforcement, perhaps) but given a simple up-or-down vote on increasing spending, and liberals will always vote yes.

          Why do you bother to show up if you’re just going to argue against the pretend liberals who haunt your tortured fever dreams?

          Castigating actual liberals isn’t going to make them more like your persecution fantasies, champ.

          • Malaclypse says:

            Why do you bother to show up if you’re just going to argue against the pretend liberals who haunt your tortured fever dreams?

            Because he is a troll, and he gets fed.

        • I’ll give you this, Nierporent: Those who are liberals support more spending. That is true.

          However, it does not follow from that observation that those who support more spending, especially in specific situations, are all liberals.

        • DrDick says:

          Always entertaining to see your feverish and demented delusions on full display. Do come back sometime, after you have actually visited reality.

    • witless chum says:

      That’s the means. What were the ends?

      As Scott points out, even if you give Larison his definitions, Bush was not trying to accomplish any sort of liberal goals by any of that. I can’t see anything on your list that wasn’t done to make the rich richer, especially by looting the treasury in the name of privatization.

      • spencer says:

        And don’t get me started on that goddamn liberal pinko Ronald Reagan!

      • bradP says:

        I can’t see anything on your list that wasn’t done to make the rich richer

        Really? Here are some that seem to have very little to do with making the rich richer:

        Medicare spending increased by 131%

        Social Security spending increased by 51%

        Income Security spending increased by 130%

        Corporate Tax revenue increased by 50%

        Economic regulation governmental workers increased by 91,196

        I haven’t found similar numbers for Obama yet, but I would like to see how they compare.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Medicare spending increased by 131%

          Social Security spending increased by 51%

          Income Security spending increased by 130%

          Corporate Tax revenue increased by 50%

          Economic regulation governmental workers increased by 91,196

          I assume that all these figures have been adjusted for both inflation and GDP growth, because other wise this list would be shamefully dishonest.

          • bradP says:

            I pulled those numbers from Wikipedia.

            Per the CBO, Meidcare and Income Security spending increased by a good deal as a portion of GDP. Social Security increased marginally. Corporate tax revenue also increased dramatically as a portion of GDP under Bush.

            http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/ftpdocs/108xx/doc10871/historicaltables.pdf

            And Bush’s stimulus was bigger than Obama’s.

            • JKTHs says:

              You’re using budget statistics that are entirely subject to the state of the economy and the design of the programs (which mostly didn’t change under Bush) rather than the policies. Smart.

              • bradP says:

                You’re using budget statistics that are entirely subject to the state of the economy and the design of the programs (which mostly didn’t change under Bush) rather than the policies. Smart.

                That’s why Mal asked if the numbers were adjusted for GDP and inflation.

                I linked to the CBO report and stated the amount of change in proportion to GDP. Its not perfect, but that’s a pretty common way of accounting for changes in the general health and size of the economy.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  Shorter brad p: inflation and the fact that the American population got older makes George W. Bush a liberal.

                  Seriously, this is a Stoller level of argumentation here. If you want to make a case for Bush’s liberalism, you need to look at, you know, his policy record, not the effects of demographic trends he has nothing to do with.

                • JKTHs says:

                  My point’s not about the % of GDP thing which is fine. My point is that the budget is often pre-determined (as with Medicare, Social Security, etc.) or closely linked with the economy. Most factors are wayyyyy outside the control of the president.

            • Random says:

              Did that guy seriously just attribute marginal increases in Social Security to Bush, who tried to privatize the program?

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Yes. Yes, he did. And privatizing Social Security would have cost a shit-ton of money, so by this definition it would have been liberal.

                • JKTHs says:

                  It would have cost money by diverting payroll tax revenue. That’s conservative.

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  It would have cost money by diverting payroll tax revenue. That’s conservative.

                  Um, yes. That’s the point — that evaluating the “liberalism” of a policy based on the short-term expenditures while otherwise ignoring the means and ends is incredibly stupid.

                • JKTHs says:

                  Yep. Similarly, looking at Bush’s “spending increases” while ignoring his tax cuts which permanently lowered the federal government’s revenue intake is pretty short-sighted

                • Random says:

                  So the Iraq War of Self-Defense against Saddam’s WMDs, they originally said it would be a profitable venture for the US because of oil. It ended up being obscenely expensive. Does that count as Bush being a liberal again, or just a conservative with bad accountants?

    • Warren Terra says:

      My understanding is that not only is Bush not a true Conservative, he’s not even a true Scotsman!

      … or, to choose a different meme, Bush’s former status as a Conservative icon (or, on most days, a person at all) has been consigned to the memory hole. Bush, if indeed he existed, always was a dirty liberal.

    • mpowell says:

      There’s actually a really simple answer to this question. As a liberal, I strongly prefer Obama to Bush. This counter-argument rests on the contention that I’m confused or lying. Trust me, neither is true.

    • wengler says:

      Since when did balancing a budget make have any definitional importance as to whether you are liberal or conservative?

      • Hogan says:

        Or to put it another way, are there any fiscal liberals? People who believe in principle that you should spend more money than you have?

        • Malaclypse says:

          People who believe in principle that you should spend more money than you have?

          Yes. They call themselves “Republicans.”

        • John says:

          Keynesians believe that under certain circumstances you should spend more money than you have. I think that’s about as good as you’re going to get.

        • Or to put it another way, are there any fiscal liberals? People who believe in principle that you should spend more money than you have?

          The “conservative” in “fiscal conservative” is best read as the old-fashioned, small-c definition. Someone who is cautious and prudent, and doesn’t take big risks. Someone doesn’t give in to undue optimism, and plans for the worst just in case.

          Which totally has nothing to do with modern conservatism.

        • Random says:

          Liberalism is generally associated with Keynesism. We do actually believe that in bad economic weather the government can stabilize the situation with deficit spending. It’s just that we also think in good economic weather you prepare for the bad and don’t give yourself a massive Bush tax cut for rich people. Oh wait, tax cuts for rich people is liberal under the new rules, because it costs the government lots of money…..

      • Since when did balancing a budget make have any definitional importance as to whether you are liberal or conservative?

        I’d say 1920-1980. Not anymore; that’s for damn sure.

  4. Chatham says:

    And he also seems to have the related delusion that actually existing American conservatism abhors statism and deficits.

    Larison doesn’t seem to consider someone who embraces statism and deficits (or foreign intervention) a true conservative. As someone with a more libertarian bent – or even as one that thinks conservatives should stand by the values they espouse – his statement makes sense.

    • Manta says:

      I am not familiar with the guy, so I will ask: when things count (i.e., at elections time) does he stick to this “true conservative” formula?
      Or does he reliably vote/endorse the republican candidate?

      • mark f says:

        In this election, at least, he didn’t vote (he moved to a new state and didn’t update his registration in time) but said he would’ve cast a ballot for Gary Johnson. I would be shocked, given his work, if he voted for McCain or Bush.

        • Quercus says:

          Wait, we’re spending any effort at all bothering to refute the political arguments of someone who publicly admits he is either too stupid or too apathetic to even register to vote correctly?

          Boy, some of you have a lot of time on your hands..

      • Chatham says:

        I haven’t read much of hist stuff, but I did read some of his work during the primary, and he stuck to his guns then. He attacked most Republican candidates (I remember him being sympathetic to Paul), and repeatedly pointed out their foreign policy ignorance. He skewered the idea that Huntsman had a moderate foreign policy. From what I recall, in fact, he seemed to side with Obama over Republican candidates when they attacked him (since they tended to attack him from a more interventionist position).

    • Random says:

      Foreign intervention that benefits private sector donors, “statism” that benefits private sector donors, and deficit spending pursuant to creating an emergency situation that will be solved with massive tax cuts (“starve the beast” strategy)…what can possibly be more conservative than that?

      This Larison doesn’t seem to have been around very long.

    • DrDick says:

      American conservatives are not for the most part libertarians and never have been. They are much more corporatist statists.

      • Random says:

        Conservatives want the government to work for corporations. Libertarians want the corporations to be the government. They’re very different destinations but you take the same off-ramp to get to either of them so they tend to vote together.

      • Libertarians, on the other hand, are conservatives and always have been.

        Now, that isn’t necessarily, eternally so. It is possible for there to be an anti-government left. However, actual, existing libertarianism has always, since the movement first came into existence, been a subset of the anti-New Deal, anti-modern state, fusionist conservative coalition. They may have specific issues in common with liberals from time to time (elimination of the draft, for instance) but they have a cultural and professional affinity with the right (pro-sprawl, anti-PC, anti-egalitarian) that goes to their core identity.

        • bradP says:

          It is possible for there to be an anti-government left

          The use of the term “libertarian” to describe thinkers on the left who believed in spontaneous social order free of a central planning authority predates the New Deal by decades.

          Since the New Deal, revisionist historians on the left, such as William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko have very much been on the anti-government left, even in the economic realm.

          • The use of the term “libertarian” to describe thinkers on the left who believed in spontaneous social order free of a central planning authority predates the New Deal by decades.

            But like everything else, definitions change. “Liberal” used to refer to lassez-faire, “conservative” to an opposition to radicalism. “Socialism” now refers to a strong state, but the original socialists were anarchists seeking to repeal the state. Those old “libertarians” were probably also “socialists,” and didn’t have any truck with anything resembling contemporary “free market” ideology.

            I’m saying, the libertarian movement that exists today – actual, existent libertarianism – has a certain pedigree, and it isn’t to left anarchists before the New Deal.

  5. gmack says:

    Right, the formula is: liberalism = support of “big government,” where “big government” refers to policies that don’t systematically benefit core Republican constituencies.

    This is why, for instance, some of the advocates of a “new paternalism” in welfare policy (their word, not mine) argue that liberals should support such reforms–which subject poor people to constant supervision and behavior modification strategies–on the grounds that it is a big government solution to the problem of poverty.

    Perhaps we need a new tag, then? Maybe something like, “Notes on the ongoing degradation of our political vocabulary”?

    • bradP says:

      Do the new IRS health information reporting requirements and penalties required by the PPACA fall under this idea of “new paternalism”?

      • gmack says:

        No. The advocates of new paternalism (most famously Lawrence Mead), distinguish between paternalistic policies and ones that simply rely on incentives/punishments. Mead’s notion is that we need direct and close supervision of poor people who receive welfare benefits (TANF, mostly, but also other programs designed to promote marriage, employment, and so forth), and that they need to be forced to engage in certain behaviors; e.g., they must be required to take a job, even if they don’t think the job is a good offer, or they must be required to take marriage promotion classes, or disclose their sexual behavior, etc. Anyway, Mead is very clear: the new paternalism isn’t about offering incentives and punishments toward good behavior, because according to Mead, those on welfare are incapable of responding rationally to such incentives (i.e., they are incompetent; Mead argues that the fact of their incompetence is obvious from the fact that they are not engaging in “good” behavior already. Their incompetence, in other words, can be determined from the facts that they have children out of wedlock or that they aren’t employed); the upshot is that the new paternalism is a presented as a way to “fix” welfare recipients so that they are capable of acting rationally.

        • bradP says:

          Mead is very clear: the new paternalism isn’t about offering incentives and punishments toward good behavior

          You seem to be drawing a difference between “offering incentives and punishments toward good behavior” and forcing people “to engage in certain behavior” that doesn’t seem to exist in reality.

          How does government force people to engage in a certain behavior if not by applying incentives and punishments?

          For my own understanding, could you explain how a new paternalist might go about making sure everyone is covered by health insurance?

          • gmack says:

            I’m not necessarily making any such distinction; Mead is. I don’t find really any of his arguments convincing or even coherent, so I don’t have any interest in defending them.

            But let me try to elaborate on his idea: In terms of broad principles, Mead argues that citizenship requires obligations and not just rights. For him, this means that if you get X benefits from society, then you have Y obligations to it. Usually, Mead argues, these obligations are met by working in the formal economy. In the U.S., in other words, one displays one’s aptitude for full citizenship (“independence”) by being gainfully employed. However, some poor people meet this test, and so he argues that society has the right to force these people to work; it is a way of forcing them to meet the basic obligations of citizenship and reciprocity. He then combines this broad philosophical argument with a more sociological claim, namely, that many of the poor are unable to meet this obligation because they are simply incompetent. So just as a parent must intervene in a child’s life for the child’s own good, the government must intervene into and regulate the intimate details of the poor person’s life to see to it that they become capable of meeting the expectations society has placed upon them.

            Mead explicitly acknowledges that this intervention contradicts the basic principles of political liberalism (his example is J.S. Mill’s harm principle, if you care about such things). As he sees it, traditional approaches to poverty (falsely) assume that the poor are essentially competent: On his account, liberals think that just giving them opportunities (more jobs, better education, etc) will be sufficient; conservatives think that just removing them from the rolls or punishing them will promote better behavior. But he argues that such efforts will fail, since the welfare poor cannot actually respond rationally to punishments or take advantage of opportunities. If you provide them with a job, they won’t know how to show up, or they’ll have children when they shouldn’t, etc. So we must monitor, regulate, and rehabilitate them even if and even before they do anything “wrong.”

            As for your question about insurance, I don’t think there is any real application here. I don’t know anyone in the health care who assumes that people without health insurance are ipso facto incompetent/incapable of meeting the basic requirements of citizenship and thus in need of basic rehabilitation. But if someone made such an argument the same principle would seem to apply. The fact that one lacks insurance marks one as incapable of full citizenship, thus eligible to be stripped of some of the basic rights that others take for granted, and potentially subject to forms of monitoring and rehabilitation that, if they were applied to other citizens, would be considered outrageous.

  6. TT says:

    Nixon’s priority was foreign policy, full stop. Whatever domestic policy he actually cared about was focused exclusively on his re-election campaign, goosing the economy by whatever short-term means necessary, and using the DOJ, FBI, and IRS both to harass and destroy his enemies and to further divide the Democratic Party. The rest of it, as far as he was concerned, was nothing but “building outhouses in Peoria”. He signed liberal legislation purely as an afterthought.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Precisely.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Though this still makes him absolutely more liberal than Reagan, Buch, and Bush, who did care about domestic policy. And, sadly, arguably more liberal in effect than some of his Democratic successors, in part because the Democratic Congresses during the Nixon years had a very robust belief in the role of government, and because one of the many ways in which he divided and conquered his political opponents was supporting liberal, but politically divisive, measures like affirmative action.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          Bush* (preview please)

        • wengler says:

          Under bradp’s definition of liberalism above, Reagan is by far the most liberal President of the modern era, since he tripled the national debt.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          arguably more liberal in effect than some of his Democratic successor

          Well, this doesn’t really make much sense. If you replaced Nixon with Clinton you’d have more liberal outcomes, and vice versa you’d have disastrously wingnutty outcomes.

          Nixon’s indifference certainly does make him more liberal than Reagan of George W. Bush, but this isn’t actually in any dispute as far as I can tell. It’s when people claim that Nixon was more liberal than Clinton (let alone Obama) that they’re overreaching.

          • spectral Nixon says:

            Get back to me when Obama proposes an income guarantee. I was going to pass the GAI and national healthcare but you fucking liberals had to impeach me
            out of jealousy and spite. I was boss.

          • JKTHs says:

            Plus it doesn’t account for feet dragging on things like desegregation that Nixon was loathe to go out of his way to enforce.

  7. Wido Incognitus says:

    To deal with the absurd claim first, this attempt to eject George W. Bush from the conservative movement is getting absurd.

    I’m pretty sure it was always absurd (although I’m also pretty sure you may be using dry humor).

  8. Mike Furlan says:

    I am surprised that anyone pays any attention to Mr Larison, a “proud” member of the explicitly racist League of the South.

    Except maybe to point and laugh.

  9. Manta says:

    “But none of the liberal legislation that passed under Nixon was his initiative”

    It seems to me that there is an incoherence: if you count his intentions to judge Nixon, you should also count Bush failed attempt at immigration reform.

    I think that, when judging a politician’s record, one should ignore intentions (that can only be assumed) and look at actions alone: thus, legislation passed under Nixon counts, legislation not passed under Bush does not.

    • Warren Terra says:

      was the legislation even introduced under Bush?

    • Random says:

      So you’re saying I *can’t* cite the fact that Bush made a massive push to privatize Social freaking Security as evidence that he’s a conservative, because we stopped him from doing it? And I suppose I can’t cite the Iraq War as evidence of conservativism in action, because it ended up not being as financially profitable for the US as he originally claimed it would be.

      • Manta says:

        I am saying that *at the very least* you should take a consistent methodology: either you count intentions, or not.

        To answer your question: if you use the criterion I propose, you should not count the first (no legislation passed), but you should definitely count the second (there *was* a war): it’s the same difference as between words and deeds.

        • Random says:

          “Lobbying to pass legislation” is action, not just talking about action. The fact that you failed to get other people on board doesn’t mean you weren’t taking action. If I wear the Raider’s jersey and try to score points for the Raider’s, I’m probably a member of the Raider’s team. I don’t stop becoming a Raider just because we didn’t score any touchdowns.

        • Manta,

          Should we not count Pelosi’s successful opposition to Social Security privatization as a significant part of her record?

          Is Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism, arguable the most important force in our politics for the past two years, not the defining action of his public life?

          • Cody says:

            I don’t think he would argue about judging things like this.

            His argument seems valid though. You can’t compare two people and on one only use things they did, while on the other things they wanted to do.

            He doesn’t appear to be disagreeing about Nixon being more conservative than Obama, just the reasoning given.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      one should ignore intentions (that can only be assumed) and look at actions alone

      I am looking at actions, not intentions. Presidential position-taking and agenda-setting is a public act. You can analyze the role Nixon played in getting legislation passed.

      Anyway, fine with me if you count Bush’s proposed immigration reform; he was relatively moderate on immigration. But make sure you count his Social Security privitization initiative too. No reasonable analysis of his actions can make him any kind of liberal. And, by the way, when evaluating Obama make sure to account of his liberal position-taking on climate change.

      Or, if you think the only “action” that counts is signing/vetoing legislation and executive/judicial appointments, Obama’s record is way more liberal than Nixon’s.

      • Manta says:

        I was pointing out what I considered a mistaken methodology (a bit strange: you are the guy talking about “green lanternism…”).

        On the fact that, if you count actual deeds, Obama is more liberal than Nixon I will defer to your greater expertise on the subject at hand.

        • NonyNony says:

          There’s a difference between “green lanternism” and “setting an agenda and working to push that agenda through Congress and failing”.

          “Green Lanternism” is where you just pretend like if you wish hard enough, whatever you want to happen igoing to happen. We’d call it “wishful thinking” except that is way too innocent a phrase to attach things like the Green Lanternism of the Iraq War to.

          “Setting an agenda, pushing that agenda, and failing to get that agenda passed” is, in fact, a hell of a lot of work. Active work done where in the end you invest a lot of time and effort and you still don’t get what you want.

          I honestly don’t see how any model of ranking Presidential ideology doesn’t include looking at the legislation they tried to get passed and failed. Are you also going to assign ideology to Presidents based on legislation they actively opposed and vetoed and had passed by Congress over their veto anyway? It’s the same situation, just reversed after all.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            Also, there’s no “Green Laternism” involved in my analysis of Nixon. On the one hand, he could have veoted legislation he passed, which makes him more liberal than Reagan or Bush. On the other hand, the creation of the EPA was not the result of Nixon’s agenda-setting or position taking, in the way that the PPACA was.

          • Manta says:

            “Are you also going to assign ideology to Presidents based on legislation they actively opposed and vetoed and had passed by Congress over their veto anyway? It’s the same situation, just reversed after all.”

            I may be wrong, but ineffective vetoes in general strike me as so much posturing (or symbolic act, if you prefer), no much different than making a nice speech (there may be exceptions, when it was not clear in advance that the veto would be overridden, though).

          • JazzBumpa says:

            Karl Rove for Obama because he failed to get Romney elected.

    • I think that, when judging a politician’s record, one should ignore intentions (that can only be assumed) and look at actions alone

      That seems completely backwards. Wouldn’t a fight that a politician picks, knowing it’s a long-shot, and fights for against all odds, be the truest indication of who he really is, and what he really stands for?

      • Manta says:

        No: getting things done is a politician’s job: picking hopeless fights is a side-work at best.

        An example: I like and admire Obama’s position on nuclear weapon disarmament: but, since it has no chance of getting enacted, it’s not worth much.
        Re-examining your post, actively blocking legislation should also been considered.

        The reason why I deeply distrust considerations of intent is that:
        1) words are cheap
        2) politicians lie, especially to their supporters
        3) the oldest trick in the bag is to pretend to endorse a legislation that has no chance of getting enacted.

        • Perhaps the answer is that politicians should be judged on more than one measure.

          Looking back, I note that you did say “judging a politician’s record.”

          • Manta says:

            Yes, exactly: judging them as “human beings” (so to speak) is not something I am much interested in (maybe for religious reasons)

            • But we also have to judge them as candidates.

              You know what Scott Brown managed to accomplish in the Massachusetts state senate. Diddly and squat. And yet, somehow, I managed to figure out that he would vote a pro-corporate line and for a reduction of the social safety net if elected to the U.S. Senate. The man wasn’t a cipher – he could be known through his efforts.

              • Manta says:

                True that: but we were discussing Nixon Vs. Obama: it is unlikely they will be more elections where either of them will be a candidate.

                Moreover, even as candidate, when the election is to a second (or more) term at the *same* place, looking at what the guy actually did seems to me a pretty good heuristic.

                • but we were discussing Nixon Vs. Obama: it is unlikely they will be more elections where either of them will be a candidate.

                  Well, you did write:

                  The reason why I deeply distrust considerations of intent is that:
                  1) words are cheap
                  2) politicians lie, especially to their supporters
                  3) the oldest trick in the bag is to pretend to endorse a legislation that has no chance of getting enacted.

                  So it looks to me like you aren’t only talking about grading someone’s record when they are done, but about how to predict what they will do.

                  Also, I want to go back to nuclear disarmament:

                  I like and admire Obama’s position on nuclear weapon disarmament: but, since it has no chance of getting enacted, it’s not worth much.

                  Barack Obama, of his own initiative and without any discernible push from his allies or supporters, restarted nuclear reduction diplomacy, took political blow after blow to push it (missile defense bases in Eastern Europe, “more flexibility”), and sacrificed other political goals (the tax deal in the 2010 lame duck) in order to get a treaty passed. And yet, what was there except “just words” to indicate that he would pursue this goal?

              • mark f says:

                That’s not fair, Joe. He pushed through the controversial check-box on state tax forms for Iraq & Afghanistan veterans. That was an unpopular cause and those were long odds, but Scott Brown did it!

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              To reiterate once again, nobody’s judging presidents as human beings. They’re judging their role in getting legislation passed, which is not in fact a constant.

  10. parrot says:

    by fiat and axiom, any comparison to nixon has to take into account he resigned his office … notwithstanding his, and kissinger’s, illegal execution and escalation of the vietnam war … this eclipses everything the bastard did/didn’t do … the tragedy of dick nixon is dick nixon … and he hauled the american public through the sewer of his character … epa, biological weapons closure, china, etc, are footnotes that we benefit from, but his resignation is the singular comparative data point of consequence … a huge crisis point in the contemporary american political realm

  11. rea says:

    The medicare drug plan was more a scheme to loot the treasury than an actually functioning drug plan.

    • JKTHs says:

      Yes. Make it as inefficient as possible to push up Medicare spending so someone can come along and say “Gee, Medicare spending’s going way up, let’s turn it into a voucher”

      • Janastas359 says:

        Ezra Klein had a thing about this earlier in the year – the plan seems to be “Cut everyone’s taxes to cover a huge tax cut for the wealthy. Then, when taxes get sufficiently low enough on the lowest brackets, demand social program cuts and an increase in taxes for the power, because they don’t have any skin in the game.”

        It’s also what they’ve been doing to FEMA, bringing in unqualified clowns to ruin it, then use the fact that it performs badly as an excuse to cut it.

  12. rea says:

    And Bush’s immigration reform proposal didn’t have much in common with a liberal’s idea of immigration reform–the “guest worker” part teetered on the brink of legalizing slavery. Obama, on the other hand, supports real immigration reform, but so far has not had a hope in hell of getting such a proposal through Congress.

    • tonycpsu says:

      +1. We’ve created a society that can’t function without underpaid illegal immigrants, and then we have the nerve to harass them and deport them. You have to go way past Bush’s immigration reform to get to something that’s humane, let alone liberal.

      • parrot says:

        it’s the mindset of the corporate class and their enablers … the term human capital comes to mind … something to coerce, manipulate, squeeze, use, toss/discard when done … much like the mindset towards nature as a resource for exploitation and extraction … the idea of partnership, cooperation, understanding is beyond the model … profit/loss, zero-sum outcome, social darwinism … ya know, libertarian stuff …

      • Cody says:

        Let’s be fair here – if they weren’t exploiting illegal immigrants they would have to get rid of minimum wage.

        Then the legal immigrants can just be wage slaves along side people who were already citizens!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Off topic: Nate Silver speculates that Senator-Elect Heitkamp will be the target of Veep speculation in 2016. I have to say: I hope not. In general, I think Democrats have been way too careless lately about cannibalizing state parties for national office. It was a bad idea when Obama pulled Napolitano and Sebelius out of red states and made the Arizona and Kansas Senate races foregone conclusions, and it would be a bad idea for the Democratic nominee in 2016.

    • Joe says:

      Next concern there — Kerry being made SOS and having Scott Brown getting his job back the way he got it in the first place (special election).

      • mark f says:

        What I wonder about there is if Brown would want to go through the whole thing again. Kerry’s seat is due up in 2014, so even if Brown won the special election he’d face being a Half-Term Himbo twice. Of course, 2014 isn’t a presidential year, so that helps him, but there’s talk that he’s interested in the governorship. My guess is he sobers up and takes a K Street gig.

        Anyway, what I’ve read today seems to indicate that Susan Rice is going to get State. Poor John Kerry if true.

      • Anon21 says:

        Far better political climate now than in 2010. No reason to expect that holding down the MA seat would be a stretch. In general, I have no problem with poaching Democrats from deep blue states. Pulling them out of North Dakota is just throwing away an incumbency advantage for no reason.

    • witless chum says:

      That seems like Obama’s silliest political screw ups. There are plenty of people who could run Homeland Security or HHS, not so many who can win statewide as a Democrat in Kansas. I guess he really likes senators.

      • mds says:

        I agree with HHS, as Sibelius was still inexplicably popular in Kansas. But Napolitano was going to be term-limited out in 2010 anyway, and the bursting housing construction bubble was hitting Arizona’s economy hard, so if she had remained in office her popularity would likely have plummeted enough to rule out dethroning John McCain. At worst, it just made a batshit closet fascist like SOS Brewer governor two years earlier. Granted, that would have been two more years of breaking her own record for vetoes of deranged far-right stupid shit expelled from the cesspool of the Arizona legislature, but it would have been a mere rearguard action.

        • Anon21 says:

          Even having Napolitano in reserve as a threat to McCain might have induced him not to yoyo straight back to one of the most conservative members of the Senate. It just was not a smart percentage play, and I hope the party has learned its lesson on that front.

          • mds says:

            Even having Napolitano in reserve as a threat to McCain might have induced him not to yoyo straight back to one of the most conservative members of the Senate.

            While I can see your point, I offer as counterpoint the slight quaver in his voice as he pointed his finger and said, “That one.” He seems to detest the guy who beat him, which is why he immediately resumed being a total right-wing asshole openly, instead of merely always voting like one. I don’t really see the threat of an outgoing governor with declining popularity keeping his legendary hair-trigger pissiness in check, especially when the “moderate” and “maverick” baloney was primarily for Village consumption.

            • Anon21 says:

              I completely agree that that’s what drove the yoyo effect. I just think it might have been possible to put the fear of Napolitano in McCain and force him to compromise on a few Democratic priorities. But I freely admit I’ve never followed Arizona politics, so it’s entirely possible I’m overestimating how formidable a threat the governor would have been.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      I think there’s a very good chance the next Democratic presidential nominee will be a woman. If it is, I think there’s a virtual guarantee that the VP nominee will be a man.

      • mark f says:

        Obviously I don’t at this point put much stock in Hillary Clinton’s denial of interest, but maybe for one reason or another she doesn’t run. Are any of Gillibrand, Klobuchar, etc. known and talented enough to win the nomination? I also wonder what the fundamentals will say about the Democratic nominee. I expect the economy to be on better ground and Obama to be seen as a success, and demographics should continue to favor Democrats, but I wonder if a fatigue factor will dampen all that.

        • Anon21 says:

          I think Gillibrand is moderately likely to run. I don’t know enough about her to say if she’d be a strong candidate or not. Amy Klobuchar has less national profile, so while I wouldn’t be surprised to see her run, I would tentatively consign her to the also rans.

          Hillary is the wild card. If she gets in, only an Obama-backed alternative could stop her, and I don’t know that he has an obvious heir apparent, assuming Biden doesn’t run.

          • Cody says:

            Rahm Emmanuel!

            Lord save us all.

          • Joe says:

            From my vantage point in the state, Gillibrand seems a possible VP candidate. I don’t see her running a national campaign ala Hillary Clinton. If she does run, I doubt Obama will challenge her. I’m not quite gung ho on her running to be honest but then there is Andy Cuomo, the fan (I kid) of so many around here.

      • parrot says:

        michelle obama … i kid of course … i kind of suspect the obama’s will be getting out of dc in 01.2017 … to raise dogs or something …

  14. David Nieporent says:

    This hardly compares to the… Ledbetter Act

    Seriously? The Ledbetter Act may have had great symbolic impact on Democrats loonily trying to pretend that there’s a “war on women,” but it was an absolutely trivial piece of legislation that in the real world of employment litigation does almost nothing.

    Bush’s signing of the ADAAA was far more significant and liberal in effect. (And no, I don’t mean that as praise.)

    (Yes, I know you just listed the Ledbetter Act as one of a string of acts from Obama, but it’s like saying Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, and Kelly Gruber. I don’t know why you would list that as a major accomplishment — and if you were going to, then Bush deserves far more blame (or in your world, credit) for the ADAAA.)

  15. [...] to count me out of the “Richard Nixon was really a liberal because he was willing to sign some of the [...]

  16. [...] part of my longstanding argument that people making “Nixon was really a liberal president” arguments are being too clever by at least three quarters, Gary Bass’s new book The [...]

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