When Bill Clinton was president, conservatives described him as an unrepentant sixties-era leftist, a socialist class warrior whose tax hikes would doom the economy, and a rabid demagogue. Over time, it became impossible to reconcile this hysterical tone with Clinton’s political accomplishments and the success of the economy under his tenure. A socialist couldn’t have won two elections and presided over prosperity, could he? So his image began to soften, to the point where now they have little but praise for him. He was practically a conservative! Certainly in contrast to the demagogic left-wing socialist class warrior Barack Obama.
Now that Obama has won a second term, and with the economy recovering and the budget deficit falling, it is possible to detect outlines of the same transformation under way. Conservatives are not going to just come out and say that maybe considered judgment shows they were hasty in declaring that he was ending free enterprise and courting a Greek-style meltdown. The evolution is proceeding in stages.
Take three columns from conservatives, reacting to Obama’s State of the Union Address. Obama’s agenda reflects “exhaustion,” argues Yuval Levin, a close ally of Paul Ryan: “after health care, there are no large pieces left in the social-democratic puzzle the Left has been building in fits and starts for a century in America … From here on, the Left has mostly to play a defensive game of retrenchment and reaction.” Jonah Goldberg described Obama’s agenda as “a mostly spent force.”
Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, possibly searching his thesaurus for synonyms, proclaims “ideological fatigue.” This is Gerson’s fairly unkind way of summarizing an agenda he concedes, in the same column, to be largely sensible. “Many of Obama’s largest requests were downright reasonable,” he writes. Obama’s gun control proposal? “[P]rudent, incremental.” Climate change? A view “that many [Republicans] held only a few years ago.” AIDS? A stance “which should (one would hope) find support on both sides of the aisle.” Immigration reform? “[C]entrist,” “designed to accommodate GOP concerns.” Sequestration? Obama is “exactly right.” Deficit reform? He’s “generally right.” Also, “Obama is right in tackling the problem of economic mobility.”
Being a Republican, Gerson decided to frame this near-total endorsement as a damning indictment. Obama’s agenda is so obvious and so meager it just shows he’s tired and exhausted.
But you could just as easily frame all these assessments, including the less kind versions from Levin, Goldberg, and others, as praise. He is a prudent moderate, seeking to expand government only when there is demonstrable need and the opportunity for a bipartisan solution.
Over time, the conservative frame will change and the underlying arguments will stay the same, that Obama really was a sensible sort of Democrat — a deficit hawk, an instinctive compromiser. But you know who really does have a scary socialist agenda threatening to destroy all we hold dear about America? Hillary Clinton.