Obama Repeats 1970s Themes

Monday, 18 Oct 2010 09:46 AM

By George Will

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With Barack Obama restoring solar panels to the White House roof — the first were put there by Jimmy Carter — will Carter's cardigan sweater be reprised? The panels — environmentalism as a didactic gesture — are evidence of a '70s revival.

"Energy we have to deal with today," said Obama during a debate with John McCain. "Healthcare is priority No. 2." Instead, Obama decided that having priorities — doing this but not that — is for people less Promethean than he. The cap-and-trade centerpiece of his agenda for turning down the planet's thermostat (as Carter turned down the White House's) has foundered.

But at least when Democrats got control of Congress in 2007 they acted to save the planet from the incandescent light bulb, banning it come 2014. For sheer annoyingness, that matches Congress' 1973 imposition of a 55 mph speed limit, which was abolished in 1995.

Nothing did more to energize conservatism in the 1970s than judges and legislators collaborating in the forced busing of (other peoples') children to achieve racial balance in (other peoples') schools. This policy expressed liberalism's principled refusal to be deterred by the public's misunderstanding of what is good for it. Obamacare is today's expression of liberalism's kamikaze devotion to unwanted help for Americans, the ingrates.

Another '70s project, in the wake of Watergate, was campaign finance reform — government regulating the quantity, timing, and content of speech about government. But political purity has been elusive and today, as usual, there is, from the usual people, high anxiety about "too much" money being spent on politics. That is, what the improvers consider too much political speech, the dissemination of which is what most campaign contributions finance.

Total spending, by all parties, campaigns, and issue-advocacy groups, concerning every office from county clerks to U.S. senators, may reach a record $4.2 billion in this two-year cycle. That is about what Americans spend in one year on yogurt, but less than they spend on candy in two Halloween seasons. Proctor & Gamble spent $8.6 billion on advertising in its most recent fiscal year.

Those who are determined to reduce the quantity of political speech to what they consider the proper amount are the sort of people who know exactly how much water should come through our shower heads (no more than 2.5 gallons per minute, as stipulated by a 1992 law). Is it, however, really worrisome that Americans spend on political advocacy — on determining who should make and administer the laws — much less than they spend on potato chips ($7.1 billion a year)?

Desperation drives politicians to talk about process rather than policy. Obama, who is understandably reluctant to talk about what people are concerned about, the economy, is instead talking about the political process. He is in a terrific lather of insinuation, suggesting that torrents of foreign money are pouring into U.S. campaigns.

He recently said: "Just this week, we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations. So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections."

It takes a perverse craftsmanship to write something that slippery. Consider:
"Just this week, we learned . . . " That is a fib. The fact that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — this is what he is talking about, but for some reason is reluctant to say so — receives membership dues from multinational corporations, some of them foreign-owned, is not something Obama suddenly "learned." It is about as secret as the location of the chamber's headquarters, a leisurely three-minute walk from the White House.

"Regularly takes in money from foreign corporations." Obama cites no evidence to refute the chamber's contention that it sequesters such funds — less than one-twentieth of 1 percent of its budget — from the money it devotes to political advocacy. The AFL-CIO, which spends heavily in support of Democratic candidates, also receives money from associated labor entities abroad, but Obama has not expressed angst about this.

"So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections." The "so" is a Nixonian touch. It dishonestly implies what Obama prudently flinches from charging — that the "huge sums" are foreign money.

In the '70s, Richard Nixon begat the supposed corrective of the high-minded Carter. His failure begat Ronald Reagan. American politics often is a dialectic of disappointments. Nov. 2 may remind the apostle of change that (as a 2008 Republican bumper sticker warned) “Every Disaster is a Change.”

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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