By David Keene - 12/08/08 05:49 PM EST
I guess it’s the theatrical release of “Frost/Nixon” or maybe the way Barack Obama has been acting since Nov. 4, but I find myself thinking more and more these days of good old Dick Nixon.
It was he, after all, who once famously remarked that “unless your base is pissed off, you’re doing something wrong.” Ever the realist, it was Richard Nixon’s view that a politician could and should take his strongest supporters for granted and reach out to others both to win elections and to govern. This rather cynical but typically Nixonian view of the way politicians should operate in the real world worked for him, but infuriated and ultimately alienated many of his most loyal supporters.
Still, it represented an extension of the common political wisdom of the day. In presidential politics it was a given that a candidate had to and should appeal to his party’s base to win its nomination, but scurry as quickly as possible to the center to pick up the votes he’d need to win the general election.
Reporters and the more sophisticated political observers of the day knew that candidates didn’t mean much of what they said or even promised during the primary and caucus season. Those reporters tended to celebrate the way politicians abandoned their promises once they’d locked up the party nomination.
Presidents, after all, were supposed to represent “all the people,” as Lyndon Johnson bragged, or “bring us together,” as Nixon himself promised, or “reach across party lines,” as others up to and including the current president-elect have assured since.
At one level, these are admirable goals, but at another they are built on the assumption that to govern successfully, any president should simply cut the difference with his opponents on issues of vital interest to those who selected him as their standard-bearer.
The result was and is that a successful candidate’s base may well find itself, in very short order, as upset as Nixon hoped his base would be. We conservatives have discovered this time and again and today, Barack Obama’s activist army is finding out just what it can be like to be taken for granted by one in whom you have invested such hope.
Indeed, as I’ve skimmed the outrage emanating from the far left, I’ve toyed with the idea of organizing grief therapy from conservatives who’ve been there. We, after all, have dealt with abandonment issues ourselves and may be able to help this latest batch of ideological unfortunates cope.
For a time a few decades ago, it looked like things might change. The ideological movements that threatened and ultimately supplanted the old establishment leaders of both parties in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s harnessed the frustration of grassroots party activists who were upset with such maneuvering. They actually believed the men and women they nominated and helped elect should follow up on the promises they made along the way.
Reality, however, always seemed to interfere with such hopes. All candidates do have to reach out to win, but too many find it difficult to distinguish between reaching out and selling out. The sophisticated are prone to seeing this as evidence that they are “maturing” in office. Their more ideological supporters have another word for it.
Still, Ronald Reagan tried fairly successfully to stick to his ideological guns as president, and the campaigns that followed saw candidates of both parties relying more on mobilizing their base voters than reaching out. With elections in this decade, the pendulum has begun to swing back.
Thus, we now have an incoming Democratic president who swore eternal hostility to the foreign and defense policies of his Republican predecessor but who, upon taking office, appears prepared not only to continue Bush’s policies, but to keep many of those who executed those policies on the job.
What’s more, his early personnel choices are being taken as a signal by many of his earliest and most fervent supporters that he was either kidding when he promised the real change or that he’s been captured by a party establishment they despise.
What those so upset with Obama today don’t seem to grasp is that their candidate ran a general-election campaign in which he promised to govern as a centrist and is apparently trying to deliver on that promise rather than those he made earlier to his party’s ideologues. It is what countless others before him have tried. It may or may not work; it did for some and failed spectacularly for others.
The bottom line, though, is that what he’s doing shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s been done before and, in fact, represents a strategy that would make Richard Nixon proud.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.