Obama on Conservatism

P052410PS-0239 by The White House 1

I don’t really know how to judge the political efficacy of speeches, especially since my general information about the subject suggests that speeches almost never have any impact at all, but I think Barack Obama yesterday in Pittsburgh was effective. I don’t, however, think that this is accurate:

But to be fair, a good deal of the other party’s opposition to our agenda has also been rooted in their sincere and fundamental belief about the role of government. It’s a belief that government has little or no role to play in helping this nation meet our collective challenges. It’s an agenda that basically offers two answers to every problem we face: more tax breaks for the wealthy and fewer rules for corporations.

As I’ve said on a number of occasions, I really think that principled belief in limited government has almost no practical impact on American political behavior. The people most likely to think that tax breaks for the wealthy are a good idea are also the people inclined to strongly believe that the government does have a strong role to play in meeting the collective challenge of women choosing to have abortions, committed gay couples choosing the marry, or Mexicans wanting to move to the United States to find jobs. Even in the narrowly economic domain, you never see Mike Pence inveighing against the evils of parking mandates or strong intellectual property law and conservative members of congress seem to like farm subsidies just fine.

Which is just to say that politics isn’t a seminar-room discussion about the role of government in public life. I take it that what Obama is trying to do here is reassure ordinary citizens who suffer from inchoate fear of “big government” that he’s not blind to their concerns. But I think the right way to do that is to emphasize that whether or not the state exists and intervenes in society just isn’t an issue that’s on the ballot on Election Day. Even a very minimal nightwatchman state would still have the most important power of all: Armed agents capable of arresting and imprisoning people. What is on the ballot is how well state institutions function, and whose side the state will be on.