Radical or Moderate?
There’s currently a small debate between David French and Andrew McCarthy over at The Corner, sparked by the footage of Barack Obama praising the radical law professor Derrick Bell. The topic of this debate is Barack Obama’s own radicalism, and whether he remains a radical or if he’s undergone a transformation into a moderate.
French’s thesis is rather simple: Barack Obama might have been a radical back then, but that was mostly a factor of his current environment and he’s changed since then. French writes:
My reading of Barack Obama’s political biography is pretty simple: He’s not so much a liberal radical as a member of the liberal mainstream of whatever community he inhabits. In that video, he was doing no more and no less than what most politically engaged leftist law students were doing — supporting the radical race and gender politics that dominated campus. When he went to Chicago and met Bill Ayers, he was fitting within a second, and slightly different, liberal culture. He shifted again in Washington and then again in the White House.
So in essence, Barack Obama is a chameleon who adapts to the circumstances and takes whatever positions that is currently acceptable depending on where he is. Therefore, he might not ever really have been a convinced radical in the first place, he just played that role. While this still probably isn’t a very flattering description of Obama, it is a bit of a more positive description than the president is usually given by conservatives.
Andrew McCarthy is of a different opinion:
Obama has never shifted. He’s always been the same guy. But he adjusts to the conditions of his environment. He’s not mainstream; he’s about moving the mainstream.
Obamacare is a textbook example. As David says, many pure radicals pooh-pooh this astonishing triumph (from the Left’s perspective) as a gutless half-measure — they want single-payer, and they want it yesterday. But that was not politically possible. What Obama got done, though, was a nearly 3000-page monstrosity that gives bureaucrats limitless authority to take over the healthcare sector in an amount of time that will be much shorter than most people appreciate, and that gradually strangles private insurance out of existence. Obama got his hand on the controls, exploited the tools that were available, took the measure of his feckless opposition, and went as far as it was practical to go while maintaining a fairly good chance at being reelected (which would mean appointing hundreds more likeminded bureaucrats and federal judges, who will apply and interpret Obamacare for years to come). It is a radical masterstroke, and even if it will take time to flower fully, no pure activist could have done it better.
What McCarthy is saying, if I’m allowed to perhaps oversimplify a bit, is that Barack Obama still is the same radical as he was at Harvard. However, he’s realized that the best way to change society is by working with what is politically possible and try to move the country to the left without setting buildings ablaze (People tend to dislike that).
Who’s right? It’s incredibly hard to tell. Most of us aren’t mind readers who can figure out exactly what’s passing through Obama’s mind. One fairly common theory about individuals and their ideology is that you become less radical, and more conservative, the older you get. This is evident in things such as voting behavior where older Americans, and Europeans for that matter, tend to vote more conservative with age. Personally, I have many friends who passed through college and out into adulthood without really changing their political attitudes. So it is far from an absolute rule that has to apply to everyone.
As for Barack Obama, I believe that a thought experiment is in place. Assume for a moment that the President has almost complete authority and power over the American political system. Congress, the Supreme Court, and the bureaucracy would simply do what they are told by the President. In that situation, what reforms and changes do you believe that Barack Obama would have implemented when assuming office?
Personally, I think that his reforms in such a situation would have made Obamacare look like a libertarian alternative to whatever he would have cooked up in that situation. There’s no doubt in my mind that an unrestrained Obama would have implemented reforms much more in line with the European welfare states than what he’s done today. As McCarthy mentions in his post, Obama has still done everything in his power to move the political spectrum in America to the left. If unrestrained, he would probably have moved it even further in that direction.
In essence, I believe that I sympathize more with McCarthy’s position than French’s. I find it hard to believe that Barack Obama has made a magical journey from a young radical socialist to a moderate liberal. If he appears to have done so, that is only because he finds himself restrained by his surroundings and has decided to only do what is politically possible (for now).
Of course, this is all really speculation and we can’t know for sure. But I still find it to be an interesting discussion. What do you think yourself? Radical or moderate? Or something else?