Can Conservatives Support Barack Obama?

Retired Dartmouth Professor Jeffery Hart is a living conservative legend. In 1980, The Dartmouth Review was founded in his living room. Without his efforts, there would be probably no modern conservative campus movement, no Dinesh D’Souza, no Stanford Review. And who is Professor Hart supporting for president in the 2008 election? Barack Obama.

Andrew Sullivan is a self-described conservative who has edited or written for The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Time. The Thatcherite Brit recently penned the book The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. He is an avid Obama supporter who most recently wrote an Atlantic article entitled, “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters.”

And these two conservatives are not alone; many on the right have come out to support the young Senator from Illinois. The Senator himself dubbed them “Obamacans.” But consider this: Mr. Obama was recently labeled the “most liberal” Senator of 2007 by National Journal. Is conservative support not, then, a contradiction? Why would conservatives support Obama?

The man himself is a crucial factor, but ultimately only a part of the answer. Obama has many highly attractive, albeit superficial, qualities: eloquence, style, (relative) youth, a diverse background, and even an intellectual love for Lincoln. But his most attractive quality for conservatives is actually not in the least superficial: he has a more or less conservative temperament. Reading The Audacity of Hope, it is clear that Obama is a rational, even-handed thinker, not an ideologue. He harbors no illusions about the perfection of government or the perfection of the free market. He is a thoughtful man that, evidence considered, usually comes out on the pro-government side of the issue. Moreover, he is respectful of opposing political ideas – something not in Karl Rove’s or Mark Penn’s playbooks. But perhaps the more important rationale for conservative support of Obama is not who he is, but who he is not.

Obama, by nature, transcends the political past: Bush’s policies, the Clinton Dynasty, the Baby Boomer Generation, and identity politics.

Old-school conservatives like Hart and Sullivan are attracted to Obama’s clean break from the Bush years. Obama has opposed many of Bush’s less successful policies not solely for ideological reasons, but for practical reasons. In his prescient 2002 speech opposing the invasion of Iraq, now a cornerstone of his campaign for the Presidency, the Illinois State Senator said the following: “I am not opposed to all wars . . . What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war . . . That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war . . . A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” For conservatives who view the Bush years as a national illness, Obama appears to be the perfect remedy.

The other transcendent angle – the angle that Andrew Sullivan takes in his Atlantic Monthly piece – is essentially a generational argument. Obama is not really a Baby Boomer, and that, in many people’s eyes, is a good thing. For roughly the past 20 years, the Baby Boomer generation has ruled American politics. With their rule came a perpetuation of the scars and divisions of the 1960’s: clashing conceptions of cultural values, hippies versus squares, the war on drugs, war veterans versus draft dodgers, “doves” versus “hawks.” But Obama is too young to relive these fights. When Bill Clinton was getting high in Oxford in 1969, Barack Obama was 8 years old. He was 14 years old when the Vietnam War ended. He graduated from college while Reagan was in office. He held no national political office until 2005. He, in short, would represent a break from the “culture war”-torn past of the Boomers: certainly something that conservatives can appreciate.

Also, because Obama does not think in the same terms as the Baby Boomers, he avoids identity politics. Despite being the first serious African-American candidate for President , he has avoided making this an explicit foundation of his campaign. Given the complexities of his own racial identity, Obama sees race in general as complex. Indeed, Obama scrambles the lines of race in a way more consistent with our modern world – the world of Tiger Woods, Oprah, and Corey Booker – while leaving behind the divisive rhetoric of Al Sharpton and other self-appointed leaders of an entire segment of society.

So is it possible to be conservative and support the young senator from Illinois? It appears so. Just as Reagan Democrats sought to shake off the malaise of the 1970’s, Obama conservatives want to move beyond our current national rut. After the second Bush Adminstration, are we better off then we were four years ago?

Obama is not another Bush. He is not another Clinton. He is not a neocon. He is not a race-baiter. He is not an angry populist. He is probably not going to expand the government any more than Republicans already have. (That, indeed, would be a difficult task.) He is not in favor of an unrealistic Iraq withdrawal timeline. He is not an ideologue. And most importantly, he is not going away any time soon.

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