Frame Game

The Conservative Left

Obama is trying to seize conservatism from Republicans. Should they become the new reformers?

President Obama's second inaugural address
President Obama’s second inaugural address

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images.

The reviews are in. Left and right agree: The hallmark of President Obama’s second inaugural address was his push for a liberal agenda.

I disagree. I think the president’s speech will be remembered for its reframing of history. Obama isn’t just trying to shape the future. He’s trying to reshape the past. He’s challenging the foundations of conservatism. And conservatives, in turn, must rethink what they stand for.

Obama infuriated the right with his invocations of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Founding Fathers. But what made his account potent is that it didn’t end there:

Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers. Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

This is the key to Obama’s story: History is progress, and progress is history. Ideas that were once progressive—regulation, entitlements, federal management of education and the economy—are now rooted in our past. They’re conservative.

This argument is a mortal threat to the right. Smart conservatives recognize the threat. “Obama’s larger political project,” writes Rich Lowry, is “to reorient the American mainstream and locate conservatives outside it. He wants to take the Founders from the Right and baptize the unreconstructed entitlement state and the progressive agenda in the American creed.” In this telling of history, Lowry observes, Obama’s critics “represent a break with the American tradition.” To defeat this account, Republicans must make a case against decades of what is now the nation’s history. As Charles Krauthammer puts it, they must block Obama’s attempt “to restore us to the liberal ascendency of 60 years” that predated Ronald Reagan.

The problem for conservatives is that they don’t agree on which parts of our history to accept. Obama asserted, for example, that the founders’ affirmation of equality “guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Pat Buchanan, among others, rejects this extension of equality to homosexual relationships. “When I was a kid,” says Buchanan, presidents talked about “Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill. What was he talking about? Stonewall. That’s a barroom brawl in Greenwich Village in 1969, when cops were hassling gays and their bar, and the gays fought back and threw them all out. Does that belong in a presidential inaugural?” Similarly, in his Weekly Standard critique of the speech, Jeffrey Anderson argues that marriage has “been defined throughout American history as the monogamous and complementary union of man and woman.”

Libertarians and moderate Republicans, however, don’t see it this way. “I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” writes David Brooks. Nick Gillespie agrees: “What links Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall is the removal of governmentally sanctioned inequality, not the creation of a new entitlement or protected status.”

If conservatives can’t agree on which parts of our history to conserve, maybe they’re better off talking about which parts of “progress” have become regressive. Maybe they should be the party not of reaction, but of reform. In the best critiques of Obama’s speech, you can find strong threads for such an argument. Stephen Hayes, rebutting Obama’s assumption that debates over the role of government have “been settled,” rebukes the president for resisting “structural reforms to the country’s entitlement programs.” Gillespie accuses Obama of “defending programs that fail to achieve anything more than the dispossession of the young and powerless. That’s not a progressive message.” Brooks, noting that Obama’s history left out Wall Street and Silicon Valley, argues for a national identity based on enterprise, innovation, and decentralization. “We are bogged down with a bloated political system, a tangled tax code, a byzantine legal code,” he writes. What we face in this century is “the task of reinvigorating a mature nation.”

Isn’t that a more appealing Republican message for the 21st century? In the wake of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the ballooning national debt, what the GOP needs is less worship of American history, and more talk about fixing its mistakes.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: