Back to the Drawing Board

Democratic fantasies face the bracing slap of reality.


In just about every speech at their 2008 convention, Democrats promised voters that a change in the White House would, in Barack Obama's formulation, restore "our moral standing" in the world. Replace the unilateralist cowboy at the top with a humbler multilateralist, and the path would finally be cleared to fix vexing international issues such as curbing carbon emissions and dealing with the mullahs in Iran. Like many of the party faithful's long-nurtured beliefs, this hope has disintegrated on contact with reality.

"America is losing the free world," said a January headline in the Financial Times. While that statement is exaggerated, the sentiment behind it has been gaining traction around the globe, especially in the wake of the climate conference debacle in Copenhagen. It's not just that the less confrontational American president has been unable to deliver results. He can't even get his phone calls returned.

"On the last day of the [Copenhagen] talks, the Americans tried to fix up one-to-one meetings between Mr Obama and the leaders of South Africa, Brazil and India—but failed each time," Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times piece. "The Indians even said that their prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had already left for the airport. So Mr Obama must have felt something of a chump when he arrived for a last-minute meeting with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, only to find him already deep in negotiations with the leaders of none other than Brazil, South Africa and India."

It was easy for many Democrats to believe, during the nightmare years of "freedom fries," that George W. Bush alone was to blame for the diplomatic prickliness between, say, Washington and Paris. But the basic conditions for American foreign policy have more to do with America's outsized position in the world than with any particular politicians. Bill Clinton tangled constantly with the French, and now a visibly irritated President Nicolas Sarkozy has gone within a year from vying for Obama's attentions to taking (in the words of a competing politician) an openly "anti-Obama position."

Obama's approach was supposed to produce a more cooperative Tehran and Moscow, fewer terrorists in the Muslim world, and vast new initiatives to fight global poverty. Instead, Iran has murdered dissenters while speeding up its nuclear program, Russia hasn't discernibly budged even after the U.S. abandoned its missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, a Muslim suicide bomber was stopped at the last minute from blowing up a plane over Detroit on Christmas, and global gatherings have produced even less concrete action than usual.

These developments illustrate a phenomenon that has been playing out across a variety of public policy areas: Progressive Democrats, after being outfoxed by Ronald Reagan, triangulated to the policy margins by Bill Clinton, then routed under the first six years of George W. Bush, are having many of the nostrums they championed during the wilderness years tested in the real world for the first time in decades. The initial results of this long-delayed peer review have been a shock to the progressive system.

The Copenhagen crackup was a dream killer in more ways than one. Not only did the breakdown give the lie to the notion that a cranky Texas oilman was the single greatest impediment to international cooperation and enlightened environmental policy; it laid waste to the argument that yoking the developing world to a "do as we say, not as we did" policy of energy consumption will somehow prove to be an economic and environmental "win-win." If that's true, the leaders of India and China—the latter of which has been serially praised for its green-energy initiatives by the likes of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—certainly don't believe it. No amount of international do-goodism is going to prevent countries from acting in what they perceive to be their own self-interest.

Obama and the Democrats have been peddling a similar win-win line about the creation of up to 5 million "green jobs" in America, through a combination of cap-and-trade carbon permits, home weatherization, clean coal, higher gas mileage standards, environmental regulation, and various renewable-energy mandates. The "green jobs" political juggernaut has been credited to Van Jones, who was obliged to resign as Obama's "Green Czar" last summer after reports surfaced that he'd signed a petition supporting an investigation of Bush's involvement in 9/11. What's interesting about Jones' beautiful-sounding concept is that even its chief supporters admit there's no evidence the theory is true. Which is hardly surprising, since most of Obama's proposed environmental policies involve making energy more expensive while using more tax dollars to subsidize expensive clean energy sources. As The New Yorker put it in a long, flattering profile of Jones in January 2009, "the mechanics of creating green jobs—or even what jobs should qualify for the title—have yet to be worked out."

The debate over these phantom jobs, against a backdrop of double-digit unemployment, will likely suck up the political oxygen in Washington after the protracted health care debate finally wheezes to a close. But Americans already have found empty pots at the end of other Democratic rainbows. 

The $789 billion stimulus package of February 2009, thanks to a theoretical "multiplier" that would convert federal dollars into more than their worth in job creation, was supposed to (according to administration economists) "create or save" 3.5 million jobs and prevent unemployment from reaching as high as 9 percent by the end of 2010. Instead, joblessness shot through the 10 percent barrier before the end of 2009, and the government's own tracking of the jobs allegedly created or saved has become a laughingstock with its double counting and imaginary ZIP codes.

What about the lobbying scourge that Democrats (like all good opposition parties) opposed so vociferously in 2008? Progressive theory holds that regulation of K Street, as opposed to a cutback in overall regulation, is the key to "change the culture of corruption" in Washington, as candidate Obama repeatedly promised to do. How'd that work out in practice? In December Politico reported that "Washington's influence industry is on track to shatter last year's record $3.3 billion spent to lobby Congress and the rest of the federal government—and that's with a down economy and about 1,500 fewer registered lobbyists in town."

In the truer-believing regions of the progressive political world, the broad agenda of carbon price hikes, centralized health care, greater regulation, increased taxes, and government-mandated diversity in boardrooms are not just sound and moral policy. They are inherently popular, if only the usual obstacles to justice and reform can be neutralized or removed. Back when he was still considered a plausible stand-in for "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" (enough to win 2.7 percent of the presidential vote in 2000, much of it from progressives disgruntled at New Democrat policies), Ralph Nader insisted on a daily basis that his agenda was essentially "majoritarian."

Such fantasies can serve as a salve when you live on the margins of the policy debate. And as long as you remain on the sidelines, the underlying proposals tend to go largely unchallenged. But now that progressive economic thought has its first real foothold in Washington since the 1970s, many long-marginalized ideas are being dusted off for real-world testing, from taxing stock transactions to "getting people out of their cars." If we're lucky, those debates will take place before the ideas are cemented into law. Better yet, maybe the growing unpopularity of central planning will dissuade the enthusiasts from inflicting their experiments on the rest of us in the first place. 

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.