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Belmont Club

The mandate of heaven

August 24th, 2009 - 10:51 pm

The most problematic dimension of decisions is their futurity. It’s not what decisions are about that is most worrisome. It’s what they will lead to that we don’t anticipate that causes the most problems. A turning changes a trajectory in a fundamental way. Take choosing a pair of sunglasses. If you buy an expensive pair, they’ll look funny unless you have a shirt to match, which will look strange unless you’ve got pants to go with them and they in turn will force you to buy a good pair of shoes. You can get a whole new wardrobe from a choice of sunglasses. Here’s another example from those familiar with the tabloids. Newly divorced or widowed men who for some reason think to date a supermodel-type girlfriend may soon find they’ve acquired more than a new romantic interest; that they’ve bought into a whole new lifestyle — as their purchases of hair gel, tooth implants, gym training and contact lenses will soon prove.

This happens in politics too. Take electing Barack Obama. Some of his supporters may have believed that his ideology was decoration at the margins: that things would stay the same and go on much as they always have; that Obama’s edginess could simply be blocked off in one little corner while he governed from the center. Only one really leftist thing leads to another: bailouts, cap and trade, health care. It’s a serial which once begun seeks an ending. Those events are not disconnected from news that the Obama administration is going to question CIA officials about the interrogation of terrorist suspects. Hot Air quotes news sources as saying that Leon Panetta had a vociferous argument with an unnamed senior administration official over plans to prosecute the CIA and “now officials tell ABC to expect some turnover in national security positions”.

Why so serious? Maybe it’s because it sends the signal that successor administrations are prepared to prosecute their predecessors. If pursued in all but the most limited and circumscribed manner, then the way lies open to for each successor to power to criminalize those who came before. Like the sunglasses or the supermodel girlfriend, maybe one thing leads to another and the leftist mission creeps gradually forward and has no logical end until the makeover is complete or it encounters some constraint.

But what if proposing constraints itself becomes illegtimate? Fouad Ajami warns this could lead to unpredictable results. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Ajami says:

So we are to have a French health-care system without a French tradition of political protest. It is odd that American liberalism, in a veritable state of insurrection during the Bush presidency, now seeks political quiescence. These “townhallers” who have come forth to challenge ObamaCare have been labeled “evil-mongers” (Harry Reid), “un-American” (Nancy Pelosi), agitators and rowdies and worse.

A political class, and a media elite, that glamorized the protest against the Iraq war, that branded the Bush presidency as a reign of usurpation, now wishes to be done with the tumult of political debate. President Barack Obama himself, the community organizer par excellence, is full of lament that the “loudest voices” are running away with the national debate. Liberalism in righteous opposition, liberalism in power: The rules have changed.

But wait? How can the rules simply change? Here lies the greatest of all sources of instability because it breaks the system and Ajami is not shy about warning where it might lead.

In the American tradition, the “mandate of heaven” is gained and lost every day and people talk back to their leaders. They are not held in thrall by them. The leaders are not infallible or a breed apart. That way is the Third World way, the way it plays out in Arab and Latin American politics.

Those protesters in those town-hall meetings have served notice that Mr. Obama’s charismatic moment has passed. Once again, the belief in that American exception that set this nation apart from other lands is re-emerging. Health care is the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it is an unease with the way the verdict of the 2008 election was read by those who prevailed. It shall be seen whether the man swept into office in the moment of national panic will adjust to the nation’s recovery of its self-confidence.

If the administration continues to paint itself into a corner, a curious thing will happen: some will begin to argue for the desirability of giving President Obama the chance to climb down without damaging himself too much. One of the supposed necessities of maintaining a long term relationship is a requirement to overlook lapses in the name of continuity. Thus diplomats lobby to release terrorists in the name of “engagement” and party-goers pretend not notice when their dinner companion burps in the name of civility. But for it to work there has to be a tacit acknowledgement that one party is being given a chance to recover. If one side continues to press their advantage then everyone at the table will soon conclude that the rules have truly changed and a return to the old unspoken rules becomes harder to achieve. You can give Eric Holder an inch; but you can’t give him a mile.

Maybe the real key to returning to the unspoken rules of the past lies in the willingness to abide by them. Unless “yes we can” means there is no room for losers.


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