THE MENDACITY OF HOPE: BARACK OBAMA AND THE BETRAYAL OF AMERICAN LIBERALISM
By Roger D. Hodge
Harper, $25.99, 272 pages
In 2008, conservative publisher Regnery pumped out a quickie campaign book titled "The Case Against Barack Obama." Its author, the young political reporter David Freddoso, debunked several conspiracy theories about the Democratic nominee for president, including the latest birther drivel. Mr. Freddoso's sober case against Mr. Obama was grounded in his subject's actual experience in Illinois politics.
The Chicago pol could talk a good game, Mr. Freddoso argued, but the record showed he was no passionate liberal reformer. His career was funded by developers and made possible by the cooperation of corrupt Chicago fixers, and he wasn't above playing dirty. To wit, when Mr. Obama first ran for office, his handlers managed to kick all of his opponents off the ballot. Mr. Freddoso predicted that any reforms a President Obama enacted would not be real contributions toward more progressive politics but rather corporatist Frankenstein creations.
In "The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism," former Harper's editor Roger D. Hodge gets around to seconding that assessment. "The passage of the health-care bill in March 2010 no doubt saved Obama's flailing presidency, at least in the eyes of the media," he writes. But the substance of the bill Mr. Obama signed is less impressive. It amounts to a "bailout of the private health industry that seeks to guarantee some 30 million additional customers for insurance companies and continued obscene profits for large drug manufacturers."
Though the law contains some "praiseworthy measures," Mr. Hodge must grudgingly admit, "in broad terms it merely postpones the kind of fundamental reforms that our broken health-care system demands." We are heading into a midterm election that will be a referendum on the bill Mr. Obama managed to get passed. Mr. Hodge's first book shows why many liberals aren't happy about that. They had wanted Canada. Instead, they got Massachusetts, and even that much is not certain. The last two years of the Obama administration may be spent fighting to salvage his less-than-ideal reform.
Many liberals are upset because of the short-term political liabilities. It likely will cost them the House of Representatives and will give the GOP at least enough strength in the Senate to filibuster any and all legislation that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell finds irksome. It also has taken many progressive must-have items off the table. Unions didn't get card-check legislation. Greens didn't get "cap-and-trade." Feminists didn't get "potty parity." (Look it up.) In fact, Congress was so spent after passing the health care bill in March that it couldn't be bothered to pass an actual budget. Final recess: end of September.
Mr. Hodge includes that pragmatic criticism as well as the expected concerns about Mr. Obama's record on the war on terror. Mr. Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. He hasn't yet. He drew down troops in Iraq only to send them to Afghanistan. His legal team has helped shore up the anti-civil-liberties victories of the George W. Bush administration. All of that is here, but Mr. Hodge has historic fish to fry. He wants to propose a progressivism that is rooted in the American tradition. That is not an easy thing to do. He has to deal with the ultimate triumph of Alexander Hamilton in finance and Andrew Jackson in the outsized role of the executive, as well as the fact that businesses nowadays spend so much money on politics.
Mr. Hodge's criticism is ultimately Pauline in nature, with our president's love of campaign donations as the root of all evil. These funds made it possible for a purported liberal to be elected to the White House but at the same time restrained him from enacting the sort of broad-based reforms the left craves. "The Mendacity of Hope" concludes with a chapter calling for all kinds of leveling measures, including an end to the courts' treatment of corporations as citizens, a ban on campaign advertising, free network airtime for candidates and wealth ceilings for candidates for public office.
Some may find these proposals inspiring - I find them daffy - but are they realistic? Have they a chance of passing, say, anytime in the next decade? Of course they have, replies Mr. Hodge: "In a nation that enacted the prohibition of alcohol by constitutional amendment, anything is possible."
Jeremy Lott is an editor for Real Clear Politics and author of "William F. Buckley" (Thomas Nelson, 2010).
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