Jon Chait has some fun with Nick Gillespie, who asserts that the problem with the Romney campaign is that it didn’t take a more libertarian approach (perhaps campaigning on the assumption that the Ryan budget was a left-wing sellout.) Because nothing says “electoral landslide” like campaigning ideas that are enormously unpopularwith your base, let alone the population as a whole.
The thing is, though, that it’s not just right-wing libertarians who can be prone to this kind of farcical projection. Somebody in the recent “
was Andrew Johnson the greatest civil rights president in history?“ would Romney be better for civil liberties?” thread linked to this post, which argues that Obama is singlehandedly responsible for eliminating civil libertarian majorities that have never actually existed. (We apparently need more frequent reminders of Garry Wills’ dictum that running people out of town on a rail is every bit as “American” as declaring inalienable rights.)
To anyone with some basic familiarity of American history, to summarize this argument is to refute it. And, yet, this evidently erroneous assumption about the popularity of civil libertarian positions seems to be the basis of the “Obama entrenched presidential powers that were all entirely entrenched before he took office” argument. This explains why two events — what happened when Obama tried to close Gitmo, and what happened when Obama tried to give KSM a civilian trial — always go down the memory hole when arguments that Obama is so uniquely bad on civil liberties that civil libertarians shouldn’t support him surface. the pundit’s fallacy version of this argument seems to be that Obama made otherwise unpopular policies of arbitrary detention popular. The far more accurate way of describing the underlying dynamic is that presidents are varying shades of terrible on civil liberties because most civil libertarian positions (especially in the context of military powers) have very little popular constituency. Should Obama have vetoed the still-terrible 2011 NDAA rather than just getting concessions Bush, McCain or Romney wouldn’t have gotten? I still lean in that direction. But let’s be clear that this almost certainly would have been an ineffectual symbolic gesture — the votes were definitely there to override his veto in the Senate and probably in the House, and even had the veto been sustained Congress would have almost certainly passed a version that wasn’t meaningfully more civil libertarian. So I can certainly understand why he didn’t. Ultimately, pretending that the American people are already with us isn’t going to make solving the problem of arbitrary executive power any sooner.