The growing political infatuation with Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is fascinating, in part because it's cropping up across the political spectrum.
The Dems' weakness in the knees is understandable, given the appealing alternative Obama offers to the party's otherwise underwhelming roster of standard-bearers. On the Right, David Brooks' Oct. 19 NYT column "Run, Barack, Run" (subscr. required) titters with excitement over a possible Obama '08 presidential bid. And in our corner of the political universe, a few libertarians have confided that they are also smitten with Illinois' junior senator.
All of these valentines are surprising, given that they're directed at a senator who has been in Washington for less than two years, and who has no gubernatorial experience. But perhaps it's the unknown that's appealing. Like a Rorschach test, we can look at Obama's not-yet-established political profile and see the outlines of our own beliefs — whatever those beliefs may be.
His surface appeal is understandable; the senator comes across in interviews as thoughtful, bright, caring and articulate. Just as impressively, he doesn't immediately start mouthing the usual ideological foolishness that has become standard in the puppet theater of D.C. politics.
However, I'm not sure Brooks is correct when he writes that Obama "has a compulsive tendency to see both sides of any issue" and that he is wonderfully free of narrow-mindedness. Consider the senator's April 2005 speech to the National Press Club, in which he claims Social Security reformers and HSA proponents are motivated by a belief in Social Darwinism:
There's something bracing about the Social Darwinist idea, the idea that there isn't a problem that the unfettered free market can't solve. It requires no sacrifice on the part of those of us who have won life's lottery — and doesn't consider who our parents were, or the education we received, or the right breaks that came at the right time.
But I couldn't disagree more. If we privatize Social Security, what will we tell retirees whose investments in the stock market went badly? We're sorry? Keep working? You're on your own?
And yet, this is the direction they're trying to take America on almost every issue. Instead of trying to contain the skyrocketing cost of health care and expand access to the uninsured, the idea behind the President's Health Savings Accounts are to leave the system alone and give you a few extra bucks to go find a plan you can afford on your own. You deal with double digit inflation by going to the doctor less. Instead of strengthening a pension system that provides defined benefits to employees who've worked a lifetime, we'll give you a tax break and hope that you invest well and save well in your own little account.
Of course, the supporters of private accounts and HSAs are not Social Darwinists who want to throw the sick and feeble to the wolves. The various Social Security reform proposals that have been floated include safety nets (not to mention choice), and HSA plans require the purchase of catastrophic health insurance. A thoughtful criticism of those policies would question their workability and the adequacy of the safety nets — yet, that is not what Obama offered in his speech. It thus seems that either (1) the senator is not really thoughtful about Social Security and health care policy, or (2) he is not the open-minded non-ideologue that Brooks claims.
But perhaps this is being too hard on Senator Obama. His Press Club remarks and other such comments may be instances of him playing the political games and mouthing the ideological mantras that are required of politicians. Perhaps the man behind the Politician Obama curtain is every bit as dreamy as his admirers claim.
And indeed, Democrats interested in the Oval Office have sometimes proved to be great benefactors to free markets and limited government. Would Ted Kennedy have been such a champion of transportation regulation reform in 1977 if he hadn't wanted to take a shot at the White House in 1980? Would Bill Bradley have been such a strong proponent of the 1986 tax reform if he weren't angling for a 1988 presidential bid? Would Bill Clinton have signed welfare reform in 1996 if he weren't worried about winning a second term later that year?
Perhaps a Presidential Candidate Obama will soon be whispering sweet nothings into our ears in the form of Social Security or Medicare reform. Or perhaps a President Obama would nurture a more thoughtful and humble federal government and a civil society that re-embraces the fundamental American ideal of individual liberty.
Or perhaps I'm just lost in the magic of his eyes...