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Conservatives Lulling Themselves To Sleep

I remember when Peter Berkowitz was my favorite public intellectual. Back in the late 1990s, he covered political philosophy (broadly defined) for the back of the New Republic, and his review essays were a delight: wise, literate, tough, surprising, unideological.

But that was then. Since 9/11, Berkowitz has drifted rightward. Whereas his essays once appeared in a wide range of magazines across the ideological spectrum, now he writes exclusively for conservative outlets, most often the Hoover Institution's bimonthly Policy Review, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard. There's nothing shameful about ideological commitment, of course, but it poses dangers for a writer. Rather than allowing his mind to roam freely, the engaged intellectual will be tempted to direct it exclusively toward practical ends. Bill Kristol himself has been doing this for so long, he appears to have forgotten (or perhaps he never learned in the first place) how to think independently of ideological considerations. Berkowitz isn't there yet, but to judge from his latest essay in the Weekly Standard, he's getting mighty close.

The article, "Pragmatism Obama Style," begins by asserting that Obama has presented himself as a "postpartisan pragmatist" and then seeks to demonstrate, using a few quotations from a short book by the late pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty and three examples of Obama's actions and words in office (on Iraq, federal funding of stem-cell research, and the federal deficit), that the president's pragmatism is "aggressively partisan" in the sense that it consistently uses flexible means to achieve "progressive ends."

That's right: The president has a progressive agenda, and he's willing to compromise on how to enact it. Peter Berkowitz wants us to know, in other words, that Barack Obama is a liberal. 

But he's not just a liberal: He's a liberal who uses a rhetoric of pragmatism "to disguise the size and scope of his progressive ambitions." And that's where the problems really begin, because the president is supposedly using this rhetorical disguise to impose "far-reaching progressive policies on an unwary public" -- an approach that is "disrespectful of citizens" because it obscures the administration's "governing principles and ultimate intentions." Worst of all, Obama's progressive pragmatism is also "a threat to our freedom, which depends on a lively understanding of our constitutional principles and an informed and robust debate about the full range of consequences -- social and economic, moral and strategic -- of our political choices."

There's just one problem with this analysis and indictment: It's completely disengaged from political reality. Sure, Obama used post-partisan rhetoric, as nearly every presidential candidate does during the general-election campaign, when the contest is over which candidate will claim more of the ideological center. But no one who paid any attention to any one of the dozens of primary or general-election debates, or who visited Obama's website, or who listened to his stump speech -- in other words, no one who was even vaguely informed about Barack Obama's campaign -- could have come away believing that he was anything other than a liberal. He favored a cap-and-trade plan on the environment. He supported health-care reform. He opposed the Iraq war and the "surge," and he favored a relatively rapid draw-down of ground forces in Iraq. He attacked the Bush administration for limiting federal funding on stem-cell research. He proposed cutting taxes for the vast majority of Americans and raising them modestly (back to pre-Bush-tax-cut levels) on upper-income earners. On these issues and many others, Obama was and is a liberal.

And yet Obama won. And won big. And his approval ratings have stayed quite high among Democrats and independents even as he's moved to enact many of the liberal policies on which he campaigned. And yes, even as he's gone beyond those campaign proposals in order to stimulate the economy and soften the impact of the deep recession and banking crisis he inherited from his Republican predecessor.

And that's where Berkowitz's analysis reaches its intellectual nadir. In a series of sloppy paragraphs that read like talking points authored by the same know-nothing House Republicans who have proposed a spending freeze in the midst of a massive economic contraction -- the same proposal that another conservative writer (David Brooks) has accurately labeled "insane" -- Berkowitz hits Obama for significantly increasing the deficit, since a "truly postpartisan pragmatist" presumably would have responded to the economic downturn by cutting the deficits that George W. Bush (irresponsibly) ran up during a period of economic expansion.

Peter Berkowitz is a smart man. He must know that cutting federal spending during a recession would be far more reckless (and unpragmatic, by any definition) than increasing the deficit -- just as he must recognize that the Republican Party has far deeper problems than his essay suggests. Above all, Berkowitz must understand that Obama's persistent and broad-based popularity is most likely a result not of the president disguising "the size and scope of his progressive ambitions" but rather of solid support for those clearly and repeatedly stated ambitions. And yet, rather than responding honestly and creatively to this sobering reality (as David Frum has been trying to do at his website), Berkowitz has decided to put his mind to use composing a consoling lullaby for conservatives -- one that traces their troubles to the cleverness and mendacity of the president while denying that they deserve any blame for their significant political troubles.

I can understand why (short-sighted) Republican Party operatives would approve of such a message. The deeper mystery is why a man of Peter Berkowitz's considerable talents would stoop to craft it.