January 22, 2010 11:04AM

Ideological Arrogance

Today Politico Arena asks:

The road ahead for the White House? Are the Clinton and Reagan lessons useful for Obama?

My response:

Are the Clinton and Reagan lessons useful for Obama? Sure — if he paid them any heed. Reagan had a game plan from day one, grounded in reality, and he stuck with it even after the modest but expected electoral set‐​backs of 1982: Lower taxes, less regulation, and, with those signals, the economy would correct itself, as it did. Clinton was less focused and therefore was able eventually to shift when reality, in the form of the 1994 elections, forced itself upon him: He finally accepted the welfare reform congressional Republicans had crafted, admitted that “the era of big government is over,” and the stability that Reagan had secured after the turbulent Carter years continued.

So far, however, there are few signs that Obama will heed such lessons. He’s perhaps the most ideologically driven president we’ve ever had, but his ideology comes out of the left, which means that it clashes with the real world and with the larger part of the American electorate, once they’ve come to see it in practice. In that respect, in fact, a single example sometimes captures the character of an entire administration. Although there’s no shortage of such examples in this case, the eminent historian James Q. Wilson discusses one such in this morning’s Wall Street Journal — the administration’s decision to try confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four al‐​Qaeda cohorts in a civilian court in downtown Manhattan.

Set aside the profound legal questions that decision has raised — classified evidence, confrontation rights, finding an impartial jury, speedy‐​trial rights, protecting witnesses and jurors, pre‐​trial prejudice (Obama: “when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him”; AG Holder: “failure [to convict] is not an option”), procedural compromises needed to convict spilling over to ordinary trials, to cite just a few — Wilson asks a simple question: Will Washington pay for the terror trials? He starts with the nonmonetary costs, zeroing in on the actual real estate at play in the “inner perimeter” — the government buildings, churches, apartment buildings, public garages: Everyone who wants to get to one of those, he notes, “will face road blocks, car searches, radiation monitors and pedestrian checks,” for the year the trial is expected to last. And the monetary costs, excluding those of the federal government, are estimated to be $216 million, for a city that has lost over 6,000 officers in recent years due to budget cutbacks. And here’s the kicker: The decision to hold this trial not before a military commission on a secure army base but in crowded downtown Manhattan was made with no consultation with city officials.

The indifference to the practical, to say nothing of the legal and political, problems surrounding this decision bespeaks an arrogance so surpassing that it can be explained only by an ideologically driven vision of the world — an arrogance that in other hands and other centuries has led to human tragedies of incalculable proportions. We’re fortunate in America that we have constitutional checks on such power, as we saw yesterday, when the Court put a halt to congressional incumbents’ efforts to hobble challengers, and on Tuesday, when the people themselves put a halt to machine politics as usual. So will Obama learn? Not likely, but if he doesn’t, we are not without recourse.