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


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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