Bruce Bartlett has an American Conservative cover story arguing that Obama is best described as a moderate Republican. It is…not persuasive. I’ll leave aside the arguments about foreign policy, simply because these issues don’t break cleanly on party lines, so foreign policy views can’t really prove much of anything. (You could say that Obama is a “Republican” because his foreign policy is closer to Eisenhower than LBJ, but this is a not a productive argument.) I don’t really agree with calling Obama a “hawk” in the context of actually existing American politics but quibbling over the semantics is beside the point of his argument.
On the domestic policy questions, none of Bartlett’s analysis holds up at all:
Stimulus Bartlett makes a telling error when discussing the ARRA, arguing that “this legislation was passed without a single Republican vote.” (There were
two three GOP votes in the Senate, and had to be.) In one sense, this could be seen as helping his argument — there was minimal Republican support for the stimulus makes it even more Republican! But I don’t think so, because a lot of the tax cuts in ARRA were there to appease Snowe, who had a veto over the bill. It’s obviously true that “the election of McCain would have resulted in savings of $816 billion,” but I don’t necessarily agree that under McCain there would have been “a stimulus plan of roughly the same order of magnitude,” and Bartlett concedes that whatever the magnitude it would have been tilted much more heavily towards tax cuts. So…I just don’t see how the example helps Bartlett at all. The ARRA was Democratic policy, it doesn’t reflect the priorities of any strand of Republicanism, and Obama’s proposed ARRA was more progressive than the one that needed the support of the moderate Republicans he’s allegedly interchangeable with to pass. The fact that the ARRA was closer to a moderate Republican proposal than one might like isn’t shocking given that actual moderate Republicans had a veto over it, but this doesn’t tell us much of anything about Obama.
The ACA I’ve explained many times why Bartlett’s repeated assertions that the ACA is a Republican policy is plainly false. I will observe here only that Bartlett’s version of the argument is a particularly extreme and caricatured form. You would think based on Bartlett’s argument that the ACA consisted of one sentence saying “you must buy the health insurance kthxbi.” Just as in the version of the argument that comes from the nominal left, Bartlett ignores the historic Medicaid expansion that has resulted in more of the increase in coverage than the exchanges, despite the Supreme Court re-writing the expansion in a way that resulted in greatly reducing a scope. And this is a rather crucial omission from Bartlett’s argument, given that it’s dispositive of the idea that the ACA is “Republican policy.” Even John Chafee’s decoy health care proposal — which didn’t actually represent the preferences of any meaningful number of Republicans either — had no Medicaid expansion. Even if you want to reduce the ACA to the exchanges, they’re very different than what Heritage proposed — but you can’t do this. The ACA just isn’t Republican policy, moderate or otherwise, end of story.
Social issues As if he knows how weak the argument is, Bartlett’s discussion of Obama and same-sex marriage is perfunctory: “Simply stating public support for gay marriage would seem to have been a no-brainer for Obama, but it took him two long years to speak out on the subject and only after being pressured to do so.” Well, first of all, this still puts him to the left of most Republicans. But even so prior to explicitly supporting same-sex marriage, he opposed Prop 8, he signed legislation repealing DADT, and he refused to defend DOMA. These are not “Republican” positions. Women’s rights Bartlett just ignores entirely for obvious reasons.
Civil Rights In perhaps the most remarkable part of his essay, Bartlett asserts that “[e]ven when Republicans have suppressed minority voting, in a grotesque campaign to fight nonexistent voter fraud, Obama has said and done nothing.” This could not possibly be more ridiculous, unless you think that Eric Holder is a rogue official acting against Obama’s wishes. He has also criticized Voter ID laws. Barlett’s argument here is quite simply embarrassing, particularly in a context in which 5 Republican Supreme Court justices (including quintessential country-club moderate Republican Anthony Kennedy) are willing to rehabilitate Roger Taney to gut the Voting Rights Act.
Giving Republicans credit for Democratic policies One puzzle of the essay is exactly how Bartlett defines what a moderate or liberal Republican consists of, a point on which he is strategically slippery. Two public officials dominate the discussion: Richard Nixon and Mitt Romney (as governor, not presidential candidate.) The obvious problem with this is that the ends up giving “Republicans” credit for policies favored by overwhelmingly Democratic legislatures. One searches in vain for examples of “Republican” policies that were actually favored by unified Republican governments at either the federal or state level.
All that remains of the argument, then, is just a logical fallacy that renders the argument entirely useless. Bartlett might object to my point about reproductive rights, for example, by pointing out that liberal Republicans don’t oppose them. But so what? The fact that some Republicans support(ed) abortion rights doesn’t make everyone who supports reproductive rights a Republican. The fact that in the early 70s Republicans were not as hostile to environmental regulations as they are now does not make every supporter of environmental regulation a Republican, and so on.
This is really not complicated. Obama is a moderate liberal Democrat. He’s not any kind of Republican and in the context of American politics he’s not any kind of “conservative.” Pretending otherwise involves some combination of distorting actual Republican preferences, ignoring inconvenient facts, and simply making stuff up.