Monday, March 03, 2008

Buckley and Obama

William F. Buckley is dead, long live William F. Buckley. Buckley's smart, stylized prose galvanized a beaten conservative movement that had been mired in Henry Ford-styled diatribes. Bringing panache and wit to defenses of the seemingly indefensible, Buckley stands as the architect of partisan discourse that would find its ultimate instantiation in the divisiveness of the last decade.

The Coulteresque approach has roots in Buckley's writings, but Buckley always sought to engage what he saw as the liberal Establishment, trying to win the argument legitimately rather than disengaging and replacing the entire conversation with one that eliminated the other side altogether. Part of Buckley's legacy was to clarify the central question asked by conservatives and liberals. FDR asked "How may we best care for those who need it?" while Buckley's question was "At what point can I stop caring about those who need it?" Buckley's power was in confronting the liberals' ever-present imperative to care beyond self-interest.

The rhetorical grandchildren of Buckley have maintained the spirit of his views while surrendering the spirit of his approach. Buckley's question ceased to be used as a retort, but as replacement of any other discussion. The result has been hyper-partisanship in which our conversations occur within the confines of intellectual foxholes (or FoxNewsHoles), surrounded by fellow warriors for our cause, seeking to legitimize claims of being under siege. Volume replaced finesse.

With growing repugnance for the current means of deliberation, its antithesis has been portrayed as the "bipartisanship" of Michael Bloomberg, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain. But this view is better termed "neo-partisanship" as it remains every bit as eliminationist, disdainfully waving off all who disagree with their Solomonic line as fringe of the left or right. But it is indeed nothing new. Buckley himself fought many a battle with Eisenhower's faction of his own party for decades and what we see hailed as a new trend is, in fact, a retread.

But in Obama's campaign, a true alternative does threaten to appear. His vaunted hope is ridiculed as ill-defined rhetorical chicanery. The lines drawn in the sand since Buckley have become trenches in which it is thought that the only hope is conquest of the other side. Yet here, is something in Obama's appeal to independents and Republicans that does not fit into those usual lines. He is not non-partisan. Obama's policy positions are clearly mainstream Democratic fare and his defense of them is full-throated.

But it is indeed post-partisan because what is novel is its ability to advocate the liberal worldview's notion that government is there to help create the preconditions for widespread human flourishing, while maintaining the conservative's question about the limit of the government in executing that role. We see this in Obama's work in the Senate. Take for instance, the Coburn/Obama Transparency Bill which brought him together with the extremely conservative and extremely partisan Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to mandate the creation of a searchable database of all government spending allowing sunshine on the millions of dollars of secret earmarks. Here was a project that advanced nakedly partisan goals on both sides, but avoided the quicksand of hyper-partisanship.

It is this possibility of re-engaging the partisans that is exciting hope. The hope does not come from the possibility of eliminating those who had been seen as unmovable obstacles, but rather engaging them fairly in rational civil discourse, sometimes compromising, sometimes marrying our different interests, and sometimes winning or losing fairly. This means erasing the lines drawn so cleanly by Buckley's writing, but it also means civil re-engagement of the sort that Buckley so well embodied. Obama's words may offend every aspect of the spirit of Buckley, but his use of words restores it.