Liberalism, as we know it
By George F. Will,With Americans, on average, worth less and earning less than when he was inaugurated, Barack Obama is requesting a second term by promising, or perhaps threatening, that prosperity is just around the corner if he can practice four more years of trickle-down government.
This is dubious policy, scattering borrowed money in the hope that this will fill consumers and investors with confidence. But recently Obama revealed remarkable ambitions for it when speaking in Pueblo, Colo., a pleasant place Democratic presidents should avoid.
After delivering in Pueblo what would be his last extended speech, Woodrow Wilson suffered a collapse that prefaced his disabling stroke. And in Pueblo this summer, Obama announced what should be a disqualifying aspiration.
After a delusional proclamation — General Motors “has come roaring back” — Obama said: “Now I want to do the same thing with manufacturing jobs, not just in the auto industry, but in every industry.” We have been warned.
Obama’s supposed rescue of “the auto industry” — note the definite article, “the” — is a pedal on the political organ he pumps energetically in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere. Concerning which:
He intervened to succor one of two of the U.S. auto industries. One, located in the South and elsewhere, does not have a long history of subservience to the United Auto Workers and for that reason has not needed Obama’s ministrations. He showered public money on two of three parts of the mostly Northern auto industry, the one long entangled with the UAW. He socialized the losses of GM and Chrysler. Ford was not a mendicant because it was not mismanaged.
Today, “I am GM, hear me roar” is again losing market share, and its stock, of which taxpayers own 26 percent, was trading Thursday morning at $21, below the $33 price our investor in chief paid for it and below the $53 price it would have to reach to enable taxpayers to recover the entire $49.5 billion bailout. Roaring GM’s growth is in China.
But let’s not call that outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, lest we aggravate liberalism’s current bewilderment, which is revealed in two words it dare not speak, and in a four-word phrase it will not stop speaking. The two words are both verbal flinches. One is “liberal,” the other “spend.” The phrase is “as we know it.”
Jettisoning the label “liberal” was an act not just of self-preservation, considering the damage liberals had done to the word, but also of semantic candor: The noble liberal tradition was about liberty — from oppressive kings, established churches and aristocracies. For progressives, as liberals now call themselves, liberty has value, when it has value, only instrumentally — only to the extent that it serves progress, as they restlessly redefine this over time.
The substitution of “invest” for “spend” (e.g., “We must invest more in food stamps,” and in this and that) is prudent but risky. People think there has been quite enough of (in Mitt Romney’s words) “throwing more borrowed money at bad ideas.” But should progressives call attention to their record as investors of other people’s money (GM, Solyndra, etc.)?
In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign ran an ad that began: “For so long government has failed us, and one of its worst features has been welfare. I have a plan to end welfare as we know it.” This was before progressives defined progress as preventing changes even to rickety, half-century-old programs: Republicans “would end Medicare as we know it.”
When did peculiarly named progressives decide they must hunker down in a defensive crouch to fend off an unfamiliar future? Hoover Dam ended the lower Colorado River as we knew it. Rockefeller Center ended midtown Manhattan as we knew it. Desegregation ended the South as we knew it. The Internet ended . . . you get the point. In their baleful resistance to any policy not “as we know it,” progressives resemble a crotchety 19th-century vicar in a remote English village banging his cane on the floor to express irritation about rumors of a newfangled, noisy and smoky something called a railroad.
Given Democrats’ current peevishness, it is fitting that Sandra Fluke will address their convention. In February she, you might not remember, became for progressives the victim du jour of America’s insufficient progress. She was a 30-year-old-student — almost half way to 62, when elderly Americans can begin collecting Social Security — unhappy about being unable to get someone else (Georgetown University, a Catholic institution) to pay for her contraceptives.
Say this for Democrats: They recognize a symbol of their sensibility when they see one.