Cozying Up to the New Guy

Libertarians are oddly hopeful about the Obama administration.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama 

The first in a series examining policy debates in Obama-era Washington.

After an inaugural address in which he not only endorsed “big plans” but reserved the right to announce more and bigger plans later, it’s clear that Barack Obama will not be the president of libertarians’ dreams. Other clues: He wants to spend more on health care. He’s squishy on the Second Amendment. Oh, and he’s presiding over a massive government bailout of pretty much the entire U.S. economy.

So why did so many libertarians endorse Obama last fall? And why does the infatuation continue? Last week, the Cato Institute, the nerve center of libertarianism in the United States, hosted a two-day conference called “Shaping the Obama Administration’s Counterterrorism Strategy.”

The conference’s title was clearly aspirational: It’s not likely that Cato and its allies will be shaping Obama’s strategy on counterterrorism or much else. But libertarians are an optimistic bunch. Cato’s hopes to influence the new administration are partly idealistic and partly pragmatic. The libertarians at Cato recognize that counterterrorism is an issue on which their views may get a better hearing from Obama than they did from Bush.

Tickets for last week’s conference sold out far in advance, and more than 300 people attended. Papers were issued, speeches given, lunches had. (Do not underestimate the importance of free food. “You can fairly decently judge a think tank’s influence by the quality of its lunch,” writes blogger Spencer Ackerman.) At the end of the two days, the conclusion was clear: The federal government’s counterterrorism strategy is deeply screwed up.

Cato scholars are always happy to hold forth on why [insert federal program here] is bad for the American people. The federal government’s counterterrorism strategy has had enough examples of bad behavior or misguided policy for eight panel discussions. On one panel, the former secretary of public safety in Massachusetts described the “excruciating” experience of trying to get anything useful from the Department of Homeland Security. A former manager at the DHS partly blamed the difficulty on Congress, saying it forced the department to award grants to “Shitville, Iowa,” instead of places more at risk. Not even the guy representing the DHS could muster much of a defense. His last slide began, “A lot of intellectual heavy lifting and work remains to be done.”

Enter the “Cato Handbook for Policymakers“: “Policymakers should approach the problems of terrorism with the necessary perspective. Claims that our national security hangs in the balance, or that the terrorists pose an existential threat comparable to that of the Nazis or the Soviets, build pressure for polices that do not increase our security but do erode the very liberties that define us as a nation.” Elsewhere, the handbook calls for punishing “fearmongering” politicians and says the federal response to terrorism should be one that “assiduously avoids overreaction.”

Are you beginning to see why libertarians feel more comfortable with Obama than they did with Bush? Jim Harper, Cato’s director of information and policy studies, was mostly encouraged by Obama’s remarks about terrorism in his inaugural address. And when Obama issued executive orders closing Gitmo and prohibiting torture, a Cato scholar issued a statement praising them.

But whether the Cato position on terrorism is smart policy is almost beside the point. Everyone is against fear-mongering and overreaction; the problem comes in defining terms. Do terrorists pose an “existential threat” to the United States? No, says Cato. Does the federal government approach the problems of terrorism with “the necessary perspective”? No, again. (It should focus on intelligence and leave most security to the locals.) Who decides whether something is an “overreaction”? Let’s ask the guys at the Cato Institute!

So a surprising amount of time was spent on terminology. The final panel of the conference, “Communicating About Terrorism and Terrorist Attacks,” could easily have been titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Terrorism.” The question was how best to tell a skeptical public that the risk of terrorism in America is actually quite small. “Terrorism in a lot of ways is not a very big deal,” said one panelist.

It’s not a quote you’re going to hear any politician repeat anytime soon. Which is perfectly fine with the Cato Institute, thank you, the title of its conference notwithstanding. Like a lot of think tanks, Cato has had its flirtations with power. (Its chairman emeritus, for example, was a senior official in the Reagan administration.) But it’s never quite reached the level of, say, the Heritage Foundation, which often published craven cheerleading for the Bush administration, or the Center for American Progress, whose executives began working on the Obama transition seven months ago. Cato’s disenchantment with the Bush administration was evident while he was in office, and its hopes for Obama are limited.

Still, the guys at Cato are smart enough to know that they have a better chance of getting Barack Obama’s attention on counterterrorism than on their plan to privatize the Post Office. Better for a think tank to focus on issues where its perspective is more likely to have some influence on whomever happens to be in the White House. Think-tank experts aren’t stupid. They can play politics as well as the guys on K Street. But their true calling is not as partisans but as ideologues.