Obama: Moderate 90s Republican?

Obama's main politics are hardly as leftist as many make them out to be. Indeed, much of them could have fit well in the the GOP of 1990s and early 2000s.

James Joyner has noted on several occasions that President Obama’s foreign policy is not that much different than George W. Bush’s and I* (along with others) have noted that the PPACA (aka, Obamacare) is not that different in basic design from Republican proposals for health care reform in the 1990s (not to mention Romneycare in Massachusetts).  Along those lines, Ezra Klein points out The shocking truth about the birthplace of Obama’s policies

If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a health-care plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal coverage; a cap-and-trade plan that attempts to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans staked out in the early ’90s — and often, well into the 2000s

And, quite frankly, there would have been a stimulus (i.e., the aforementioned emergency measures) under a President McCain as well (as evidenced by the fact that much of the financial bail-out process started under Bush).

On health care:

The individual mandate was developed by a group of conservative economists in the early ’90s. Mark Pauly, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was one of them. “We were concerned about the specter of single-payer insurance,” he told me recently. The conservative Heritage Foundation soon had an individual-mandate plan of its own, and when President Bill Clinton endorsed an employer mandate in his health-care proposal, both major Republican alternatives centered on an individual mandate. By 1995, more than 20 Senate Republicans — including Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Dick Lugar and a few others still in office — had sponsored one individual mandate bill or another.

On cap and trade:

The story on cap and trade — which conservatives now like to call “cap and tax” — is much the same. Back then, the concern was sulfur dioxide, the culprit behind acid rain. President George H.W. Bush wanted a solution that relied on the market rather than on government regulation. So in the Clean Air Act of 1990, he proposed a plan that would cap sulfur-dioxide emissions but let the market decide how to allocate the permits. That was “more compatible with economic growth than using only the command and control approaches of the past,” he said. The plan passed easily, with “aye” votes from Sen. Mitch McConnell and then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, among others. In fact, as recently as 2007, Gingrich said that “if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur . . . it’s something I would strongly support.”

More in the piece itself.

Andrew Samwick, an economist who served in the Bush (43) administration, states that “it is largely the way I remember it, too” and continues:

Antecedents of President Obama’s policies — an individual mandate in health insurance, cap-and-trade on emissions, and some willingness to raise taxes to close deficits — can be found in Republican policies of the George H.W. Bush era.  I supported them then and support them now, though in a way that comes from the right side of the political spectrum rather than the left.

Indeed, if one looks at Obama’s basic policy agenda with reasonable (rather than ideological) eyes, it is extremely difficult to use terms like “socialist” (let alone “Marxist”) with a straight face.  In fact, these policies are more center (if not, in some case, center-right) than left-liberal (let alone socialistic).  If there is a group of persons who ought to be upset about Obama’s basic policy agenda, it ought to be progressives, not conservatives.  The ideological story here is more that the Democratic and Republican parties have both shifted rightward of late, not that the country has lurched left.

Back to Samwick, he goes on to support a basic policy direction (which I, along with Dave Shuler) endorse:

I would start my budget policy changes with letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for everyone and cutting defense spending by at least 10%.  I would then move to the entitlement programs, phasing in increases in eligibility ages and other benefit reductions linked to income.  The small piece of the federal budget that’s “non-defense discretionary” would also see reductions, but that’s not where the heavy lifting can be done.  I wouldn’t stop until the budget was in balance on average over the business cycle and the debt-to-gdp ratio was projected to remain steady at a number not larger than about 60 percent.

This strikes me as a reasonable approach (and it is hardly radical).

At a minimum, it would be nice to have intelligent discussions about the actual policies, because if we could set aside our politics-as-sports mentality, the fact of the matter is that there is real common ground upon which to work (as evidenced by the fact that within recent memory, many of these rather large policy areas have seen some agreement within both parties).

My main goal here (as it often is) is to get people to really think about these policies as policies, rather than as ideological point-scoring mechanisms.  But yes, I can be a dreamer…

Even forgetting any notion of rational policy discourse, the above clearly underscores that American politics are hardly populated by the rigid ideological extremes that talk radio/blogger rhetoric makes it out to be.

Although, I suppose that one should leave open the possibility that these policy shifts are, indeed, true ideological changes in the way Americans think about politics.  It does present an interesting set of questions that do require some analysis (as well as introspection by individual citizens).

*Here’s a post at PoliBlog.  I have written similar things at OTB as well, but can’t find it at the moment.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. What Massachussetts did was limited to Massachussetts. Obamacare takes it to a whole ‘nother level.

    Some of us have been complaining about Republican spending habits for, dare I say it, 20 years now, so no reason to let up now or say that becaue they did it he can to.

    As for the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide, the $1.5T deficits as far as the eye can see, the Stimulus Package, drilling prohibitions seemingly everywhere, Card Check, Cap and Trade, Justice Sotomayor, Eric Holder’s DOJ, amnesty, Green Jobs, throwing bankruptcy law down the crapper for his union friends, and the disgraceful treatment of our allies in the United Kingdom, perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree. As to how we fights wars, I think he could learn a lot from Bush. Just continuing Bush’s policies ain’t enough by a long shot. Is it because he just doesn’t know what to do?

    Yes it could be worse, and maybe Obama won’t be worse in some areas than, IMHO, McCain or Graham or Romney or (gasp!) Palin, or maybe his crony capitalism is no worse than Bush’s, but so what? I think the country has lurched to the right in some ways and lurched to the left in others the last twenty years. Personally, I’m not that interested in the cultural wars, like any good libertarian, but care a lot about the financial irresponsibility coming from both parties. But I digress.

  2. Or maybe I should have just said you’ve kind of nailed why RINO has become such a derogatory term in some circles.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Yes, of course Obama’s a moderate. Always has been. He’s a consensus guy, a compromiser, a deal-maker not someone who postures. Despite his obvious communications skills, he’s fundamentally a behind the scenes guy.

    As for the way forward some of the big things that must be done — let go of the tax cuts, cut defense, means-test Medicare — are more or less agreed on by rational people on all sides.

    Which brings us to the famous Adlai Stevenson quote. When a supporter said, “You have the support of every thinking person,” Stevenson replied, “That’s not enough, I need a majority.”

  4. steve says:

    Card Check was not passed, or even voted on AFAIK. What amnesty? The bankruptcy blogs went over the GM bankruptcy pretty closely. You should read them. This DOJ vs Bush’s. Meh. Disgraceful treatment of UK allies? Because he replaced a bust of Churchill with Lincoln’s? And this?

    “As to how we fights wars, I think he could learn a lot from Bush.”

    Have you read nothing on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Afghanistan went well for a few months. Iraq was good for a short while. Then Afghanistan was ignored. Having ignored prior war gaming, we set up the eventual problems in Iraq. The occupation was completely mismanaged.

    “drilling prohibitions seemingly everywhere,”

    Other than the Gulf prohibitions after BP, what new ones were passed? And of course…

    “the $1.5T deficits as far as the eye can see”

    Does the composition of that debt and hew we got their matter to you at all?


  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    He’s a consensus guy, a compromiser, a deal-maker not someone who postures.

    lol….he is a puppet!!!!!

  6. ponce says:

    “lol….he is a puppet!!!!!”

    Don’t you mean Obama is a Puppet…master, G.A.?

  7. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Is there anything more useless than the political ruminations of a full-time academic in a nonsense discipline? Other than the ruminations of a liberal journalist, that is.

    There are chasm-like differences between the George Bushes of the world and the Obamas of the world. Only on the Internet, in media newsrooms, and on university campuses, could those stark dichotomies not clearly be appreciated.

    The media and soft science academia have devolved into abject cognitive dissociation. Reading some of these blog entries is akin to watching someone drown in their own vomit. Seriously.

  8. mattb says:

    I think that this dovetails nicely to an alternative reading of “lead from behind.”

    One of Andrew Sullivan’s astute comments about Obama is that, in many ways, he acts like a community organizer through-and-through. One aspect of that — for better or worse — is a tendency towards letting people talk themselves out while making small, incremental moves in the background. Sullivan often refers to this as a sort of rope-a-dope. Its a good model for the bureaucratic sort of tactics that appear to me to be a hallmark of Obama’s first term and also, legislatively speaking, account for how someone who has appeared to do so little has accomplished a number of key initiatives. It also helps understand some of the big failure areas.

    In this respect, he’s largely allowed the meme of “progressive” to be attached to himself while always remaining largely moderate — again, claims that he was the most liberal senator have always been based on a flawed system of calculation. At best he always was the most “mainstream” democratic senator.

    This leads to the second point — something I mentioned in a different post — discussion as you note is necessarily based on at least agreeing to the possibility of a shared reality. And that sharing precludes always winning. That problem of winning — often tied to those who treat politic as tribal sport (and I do mean sport as opposed to warfare) — has always chilled conversation.

    It would be fun to, following the twitter meme, do a “why do you comment” open thread at OTB. I’d love to see why some people here say they choose to comment (and/or respond to comments).

  9. michael reynolds says:

    Being lectured by someone so ignorant he names himself after Nicholas II, a weak, superstitious, incompetent, pu**y-whipped boob who managed to lose an entire empire and get his family shot?

    Yeah, I hope you feel bad, Steven.

  10. @Michael,

    I feel horrible and am contemplating giving up writing altogether!

  11. ponce says:

    Hey! Ease up, Michael.

    He was better than Bush!

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Several progressive bloggers have made the point that the Republican proffers for healthcare reform, etc. that are being pointed to as evidence that President Obama would have fit neatly with moderate Republicans of 20 years ago were feints or misdirection. Not actual serious policy proposals but merely counter-proposals to Democratic ones.

    I think that we might all consider that so have been the Democratic policy proposals. Why isn’t the PPACA a single-payer scheme? It was passed on a straight party line vote. Why wasn’t it stronger?

    I think the answer is that stronger measures are merely talking points.

    That fits the bill for a long list of areas including the environment, energy, immigration, taxation, and so on. The greater priority (getting re-elected) has so overwhelmed the lesser priorities (the stuff they were sent to Washington to do) that most policy proposals are rhetorical in nature rather than practical.

  13. PJ says:

    But, but, but, National Journal said he was the most liberal Democrat in the Senate!

  14. Axel Edgren says:

    I know you like using outmoded faculties like “reason” and “empiricism”, Steven, but the Village insects, the libertarian anti-democrat zealots and their republican trainers have a much simpler message that they’ve repeated enough to make it Required Knowledge:

    Every. Democrat. Of Significance. Is. The most leftistomarxist politician. EVER.

    You are playing chess with cavemen playing tic-tac-toe in the mud, Steven. From the “moderates” like Megan McArdle to the “slightly shrill but still thought-worthy commentators” like Ed Morrissey, the message is simple: Obama is the latest democratic politician to have power. Therefore he is too leftist.

  15. Rob in CT says:

    Obama’s no radical, nor was Clinton. Both were painted as such by certain folks. Those folks now totally run the GOP. If Hillary had won, the commentary would be similar (not quite the same, as the ammo would be different – no birther nonsense, but we’d be talking about Vince Foster again or something like that).

    Obama’s been a disappointment for the Left for being a centrist (and for some poor decisions independent of his moderation/liberalism – such as failing negotiation 101 and his excellent Lybian adventure).

    He is despised by the Right mostly for being a Democrat.

  16. wr says:

    Tsar N said: “Is there anything more useless than the political ruminations of a full-time academic in a nonsense discipline? Other than the ruminations of a liberal journalist, that is”

    Well, certainly it does add the same kind of value to society as a whining blog comment by an anonymous internet troll, but that’s obviously a high bar.

  17. wr says:

    “Every. Democrat. Of Significance. Is. The most leftistomarxist politician. EVER.”

    And every adjustment in the tax code is The Biggest Tax Increase EVER.

  18. Tlaloc says:

    The code really wasn’t that hard to crack.

  19. mattb says:

    To be fair, it should also be said that GWB wasn’t particularly conservative once you moved beyond the areas of national defense (at least in a NeoCon sense) and “Culture War”/Evangelical issues. And in terms of national defense it’s worth teasing out the differences when Cheney was in ascendance (first term) vs second.

  20. tom p says:

    The greater priority (getting re-elected) has so overwhelmed the lesser priorities (the stuff they were sent to Washington to do) that most policy proposals are rhetorical in nature rather than practical.

    Dave, you are absolutely correct. We have been sold down the river.

    As I have taken to saying, “Got Vaseline?”

  21. Rob in CT says:

    mattb – true, Dubya was not a conservative’s dream on domestic policy, though the tax cuts + increased spending are right out of the GOP playbook (then, conveniently, the Dems have to scramble to clean up the mess).