I’m not the first person to make this point, but it’s worth reconsidering occasionally: in terms of policy substance, President Obama is in many ways indistinguishable from a moderate 1990s Republican. Despite all the feverish rage on the right directed toward Obama’s supposed radical socialism, the substance of most of the policies Obama supports are safely center-right by 1990s American measures. (Not to mention that by the standards of European politics, where parties explicitly advocating for socialism actually exist, Obama would simply be right-wing: consider his military policies, his support for the regressive status quo in education funding, his rejection of significantly higher taxes and lack of commitment to a significantly more generous safety net, and so on.) The usual and still best example of Obama’s 1990s Republicanism is, of course, the Affordable Care Act, which follows the same general approach to health care promoted by the Heritage Foundation and implemented by Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.
But one implication of the notion of Obama as a moderate 1990s Republican, so far as I know, has not yet been explored.
A strong case could be made that politics today – and maybe politics always – is strongly determined by tribal affiliations. If I think of myself as a Democrat, and I hear someone I identify as a Democrat supporting some policy, I will probably be inclined to think the policy is at least worth looking into. If I first hear of the policy from the mouth of a conservative Republican Senator, I will probably be skeptical.
We generally think of the tribal determination of politics as a relatively bad thing, because it involves supporting or opposing policies not based on their merits, but based on a kind of ad hominem fallacy – irrationally inferring the quality of a policy from the character or group-identity of the speaker supporting or opposing the policy.
So here’s the thought. If making political choices based on tribal affiliation is a temptation that is hard to resist, but that we should resist, then we should also be skeptical of supporting a political figure simply because he or she is “on our team.” We should give greater weight to the substance of the figure’s policy views.
Tying these threads together: if someone wouldn’t have been an enthusiastic supporter of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole in the 1990s, how does it make sense for that person to be an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama and other moderate Democrats who share his policy views today?
Or, putting the point more strongly: If you wouldn’t have been happy with a presidential election offering a choice only between George H.W. Bush and Mitt Romney, why should you be satisfied with the election of 2012?