The appointment of Rahm Emanuel is more evidence for what I suggested the other day, that Barack Obama will seek to govern from the political center. As Ben Smith and John Harris suggest on Politico.com today, one must not confuse Emanuel’s tough game playing with ideology. As they and others have argued, Emanuel’s reputation is that of a centrist, who has often sought to reign in the left-wing of his party, “who does not share the reflexively liberal views of many of his House colleagues.” That judgment was seconded by Rep. Jim McCrery (R-LA) who said that Emanuel “is closer to the center, from a policy standpoint, than many of the Democratic Party.” It was also shared by Lindsey Graham, who said that while a “tough partisan, he understands the need to work together.” Graham called him “honest, direct, and candid” and a man who will “work to find common ground.”
You wouldn’t know this, however, if you were listening to and taking your cues from right-wing talk radio. It doesn’t matter to which radio host you listen to. What you hear is a chorus that seems to think Obama’s Presidency will be the coming of some form of leftwing totalitarianism to America, in which the new Administration will shut down free speech on the radio, force socialized medicine down the nation’s throat, increase the capital gains tax instead of repeal it, give the trade unions more power over the economy and politics, etc.
This is not to say that the Democrats in Congress will indeed push for many of their favorite entitlement programs, and will want to spend more and to push for an immediate and fairly leftist set of new programs. But Obama has surrounded himself, especially when it comes to the economy, with sound conservative economic advisors. The men who sat with him at today’s press conference are tough-minded businessmen, who all want our economy to recover and to get back on the track.
The real question is how much of a realigning election Obama’s victory is. Harold Meyerson, the social-democratic journalist, argues the case that it is a fundamental one. He senses a shift in an electorate that wants more government activism, and he warns Republicans that their party is on the road to becoming a permanent minority party, based on areas of the country that are primarily rural. It is the opposite of what Karl Rove thought he would be able to build- a permanent Republican realignment.
Those who believe that the Democrats have produced a realignment that will enable them to govern for decades- the equivalent of the majority FDR built in the 30’s- want Congress to push boldly and quickly. Some have noted that Obama’s majority is not as solid as Roosevelt’s, and that a good portion of the popular vote went for John McCain. Also, Democrats who won in previously Republican districts are in fact conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who do not have the same liberal agenda as many of their House colleagues. As a perceptive column in National Journal puts it, Obama’s temperament suggests that Democrats will not overreach, will seek to keep their forces together, and forge alliances with Republicans. Former Clinton aide Leon Panetta thus thinks that Obama will have to tamp down the expectations of his supporters, and let them know he intends to work slowly for incremental steps forward.
The worst thing I think conservatives and Republicans can do is decide that their response has to be to dig in their heels and retreat to a rigid, hard-line position based on conservative dogma of yesteryear. They cannot, as Ramesh Ponnuru argues, succeed by simply moving to the right.