The Collective
Monday, July 16, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Late last week, in a response to a Peggy Noonan column in which she expressed her despair with the Bush administration, Andrew Sullivan stated

I’m just alternately very angry and very sad now, and trying to figure out how we can repair the damage - globally and domestically. So far, I have only one serious, provisional thought in that respect: Obama. No one else seems close to being up to it.

The Obama reference caused Steve Bainbridge (who was in basic agreement with Sullivan’s stance on Bush) to comment:

I fail to understand Sullivan’s fascination with Obama.

Further, Sean Hackbarth responded to Sullivan’s comment by writing:

The fact that Andrew Sullivan finds political salvation in Sen. Barack Obama tells me the man should never, ever describe himself as as conservative.

While I cannot pretend to speak for Sullivan, I have a theory as to where he is coming from, and why his position should not be interpreted, as Sean has done, as a specific deviation from ideological allegiances. I think that it reflects a great deal of disgust with the current administration coupled with a concern that the front-runners in the Republican field have not indicated any substantial deviation from the problems of the current occupant of the White House (whether it be in regards to Iraq or fighting terrorism in general or issues such as civil liberties, torture and especially executive power). If one is especially upset with the current administration and with the current field of GOP candidates, then one has a choice to make in 2008: vote Republican no matter what (even if it means continuism of policies one greatly dislikes), defect to the Democrats, go third party , or abstain.

In general is appears to me that Sullivan is doing what I suspect a certain subset of Republican/conservative-oriented voters are doing (or even did in 2004 when they voted for Kerry) and that is contemplating the options within the politics of the real, not the politics of the wished-for. To wit: when it boils right down to it, in 2008 the voters will end up with two candidates who will have a real chance of winning the White House, the GOP nominee and the Democratic nominee. Now, that doesn’t explain Obama, per se. In that regards I am guessing that Sullivan finds Hillary Clinton to be an utterly unpalatable option. So, if from his perspective the GOP offers no viable options and Hillary is off the table, the only real option left is Obama, if one wants to support a candidate who actually has a chance to win the office.

And, as Sullivan intimates, there is a legitimate question as to whether a Democrat or a Republican will be better situated to deal with the US’s current international image. However, a new president will help that issue no matter who is elected.

As such, I don’t find his position all that mystifying. And while I hardly expect a large number of GOP-oriented voters to adopt similar thinking, I expect that a number will do so, while others may go third party as an act of protest or as an indication of the fact that they cannot support to current direction of the Republican Party while simultaneously being unwilling to vote Democratic.

There is even a (small government) conservative reason for doing so, insofar as if one is, in fact, concerned about overly-expanding executive power then electing a president who was not oriented towards expanding executive authority would have a (small government) conservative result, even if that president in question was oriented towards more big government spending. However, conservatives of Sullivan’s perspective are more concerned with the power issue than they are with the spending issue–especially since the GOP has not shown itself to be especially responsible in regards to fiscal matters. As such, if (and I will grant that is a debatable “if”) a Democratic would actually be less prone to expand executive power in regards to the war on terror, then there are compelling reasons to think about voting in that direction without betraying certain core conservative beliefs.

I know that for myself I am seriously considering voting third party, as I cannot support the platform of the Democratic Party, but also find myself having serious problems with the GOP front-runners on issues such as Iraq, treatment of detainees and, most especially, civil rights and executive authority. Further, I am to the point that I am so thoroughly disenchanted with Bush’s appointees to bureaucratic positions that I am not sure I could endorse a candidate who would almost certainly bring some of those individuals back into government.

And, I will note, this is an approach to party politics that I used to eschew, as I am quite aware that third party voting tends to simply help one’s least favored option win office. However, I am beginning to think that given the current failure of the GOP (not just the Bush administration, but the Republican’s stint at controlling Congress) that the time has come to send signals in regards to that discontent. Ultimately, it is a collective-action problem and unless many, many other like-minded voters do the same thing, the action would end up being primarily a personal one.

It is also worth noting that mine would be a wholly symbolic act, as the odds that Alabama will support anything other than a Republican nominee in 2008 is quite small.

Sphere: Related Content

Filed under: 2008 Campaign, US Politics | |


  1. Two points to take off from a really interesting post…

    1. On “the real” vs. “the wished for” in making a voting choice…

    Voting is an expressive act, not–at least in the absence of organization and resources–an act of determining real outcomes.

    That is, voting is wishing. It is pretty much the only way in which all of us are, in effect, of equal weight to those with far greater resources. (Well, that and blogging, I guess.)

    Strategic voting–letting others with more resources structure and determine our choices as equal citizens–makes no sense to me. And, of course, I say that as a student of electoral systems and parties (Duverger, and all that).

    2. On the substance of Obama and the “small government” justification for considering a vote for him…

    Steven, you make a really interesting point here. Except that Obama is not a natural choice for those who feel that way. He favors expanding the military. That makes Obama, by definition, in favor of big government and big executive power (as none other than Madison understood).

    The only “non-continuist” with even a flicker of a chance of being a big-party nominee who deserves defecting “small-government” votes would be Bill Richardson.

    (Of course, I am not implying that one should back a pre-candidate based on only whether he or she can get the nomination–see point 1.)

    Comment by MSS — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 1:38 pm

  2. Point taken on counting as “wishing”–although I see merit to the notion of strategic voting and of making choices based not only on personal preference, but also in terms of what likely outcomes may be. Further, I think that many voters actually do make decisions just exactly that way: eschewing their #1 choice that has no chance of winning for their #2 (or #3 or #4) choice who does.

    Point taken on Richardson, a candidate I actually have some interest in, but I don’t see him as having a snowball’s chance in getting the nomination (oh, that dreaded strategic consideration…). So, at least in terms of explaining Sullivan’s choices, I understand why he defaulted to Obama.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 1:54 pm

  3. Sullivan claims to hold the mantle of the “conservative soul.” Yet is swoons over the most unconservative of top-tier candidates.

    I’d have a little more respect for Sullivan if he decides to go Libertarian in 2008. Or even better he should write-in his ideal choice. He’s smart enough to know his individual vote has a marginal value of zero. That would make more of a statement than backing Obama who has zero executive experience, has been little tested politically, and would be sure to make government bigger.

    Fine, he can back anyone he wants. What he can’t do is expect me to take him seriously as a conservative.

    Comment by Sean Hackbarth — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 1:54 pm

  4. Sean,

    I would counter your statement, and re-emphasize a point that I made above: if one believes that the GOP has gone too far in terms of executive power, then a way to reverse that trend would be vote Democratic–and, in Sullivan’s case, to openly support a Democrat knowing that his writing platform gives him some influence.

    And, I will confess, that these days I am less certain I know what is, or who qualifies as, a “conservative” in today’s politics.

    If we are talking about parties which constrain the size of the government, we have have no conservative party in the US at the moment. There is no way one can say that the Bush administration has constrained the size of the federal government, except for tax cuts. Otherwise, there is noting but growth–in spending and in the influence over the daily lives of citizens.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 1:59 pm

  5. [...] This is based on a comment I left at the previous post: [...]

    Pingback by PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Where is the Conservative Party in US Politics These Days? — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

  6. In Sullivan’s case, voting is more expressive than most peoples’ votes, since he is something of an opinion leader (granted, one that garners respect from a relatively narrow segment of the population these days; as Sean notes, contemporary “Sullivanian conservatism” may have a constituency of around one). A randomly selected voter in Florida in 2000, not so much.

    I know a few Young Democrats who like Richardson a great deal, but he has very little traction and 2-3 people in front of him that are unlikely to implode (Clinton, Obama, and Edwards — Clinton and Edwards would have imploded already if they were going to, because all their dirty laundry is pre-aired, and Obama appears to be made of teflon and has the Thompsonian “all things to all people” property to him). Dare I say the closest analog to Richardson is “Cheney ‘96″ - a candidate for the policy wonks (of course, Cheney never got in the 96 race… Richardson may ultimately wish he never got in 08’s).

    I have my own issues with trying to play “Prognostication 08″ but considering that the last time I aired them in semi-public I probably talked myself out of a job I’ll save it for some other time.

    Comment by Chris Lawrence — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 2:30 pm

  7. 1. Obama is a blank slate that anyone can make of him what they like.
    2. Sullivan had left the right many years ago when he also left the Catholic Church.
    3. Most people who supported the war (like me) also would like a better choice in the GOP but there is no way we would vote for a Democrat.
    4. Sullivan is like many people who don’t like Clinton but she is the most conservative democrat with a chance of winning.
    5.Obama is no small government guy.
    6.Obama has real problems with his Chicago support and problems with his shady connections from his Chicago days.

    Mark Griffith

    Comment by Mark — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 3:32 pm

  8. If we are talking about parties which constrain the size of the government, we have have no conservative party in the US at the moment.

    I would argue that it is a bit superfluous to talk about “conservatism” in this way–if “constraining the size of government” is your measure. In fact, every government we have had–Federalist, Democrat, Whig, Republican,etc…–has failed in “constraining the size of government.”

    At this point in time, however, the country is experiencing a serious Constitutional crisis that even most conservatives didn’t anticipate.

    The fact that so many so-called conservatives have sat by while Bush has torn the constitution to shreds is more an indication of the meaninglessness of ill-defined terms like “conservativism” than anything else.

    I think what people like Sullivan–and maybe you fall into this category, Steven–would like to see is a restoration of key classical liberal values like equality and freedom.

    A healthy dose of American pragmatism, I believe, is also desired.

    Given the fact that the Republican field has endorsed a continuation of the erosion of the rule of law and pragmatism, it seems pretty sensible that someone like Obama would get support from conservative quarters.

    Like Bill Clinton, Obama is much more “conservative” than the current WH occupant.

    Comment by Ratoe — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 3:35 pm

  9. many voters actually do make decisions just exactly that way: eschewing their #1 choice that has no chance of winning for their #2 (or #3 or #4) choice who does.

    I do not deny that. I just find it really odd. I mean, I have studied elections and voting (including the strategic variety) for decades now, and I do not understand why a voter would unilaterally do that. I understand why an organized bloc of voters would agree to give their votes to #2 (or lower) when #1 can’t win. But why an individual would do that makes no sense to me.

    Alas, you are right about Richardson, which is why–even if I do ultimately decide to vote in the Democratic primary–I probably will not vote for him. :-) However, that statement is not as ironic as it might seem, in light of what I said above, as I have a sincere choice with an even lower probability of winning the nomination.

    Comment by MSS — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 5:03 pm

  10. If we are talking about parties which constrain the size of the government, we have have no conservative party in the US at the moment.

    Yes, we do. It is called the Democratic Party.

    (And I say that as someone who is by no means a fan of either the Democratic Party or “small government” except for the latter when it is understood–as it hardly ever is by self-described “conservatives”–as drastically reducing military spending and action.)

    Comment by MSS — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 5:07 pm

  11. Here’s a related thought that I’ve been toying with for a time — Sullivan is probably supporting Obama partially because he is the only of the top 3 contenders that has been against the war from the time he came on the political radar. That’s the reason I may actually end up supporting him myself, although for reasons diametrically opposed to AS.

    Obama has been saying for some time that he would pull troops out of Iraq as with all due haste. But the President operates within a narrow window of public approval. I don’t believe the realities of the situation will allow withdrawal. Allowing a country that is our responsibility to descend to clannish bouts of genocide just isn’t something that Obama [or Clinton or Edwards or...] will have a stomach for.

    The cold war was won by BOTH parties maintaining a strong front against a common enemy — the Soviets and various allies. Right now the Democrats have the luxury of being against war without facing the probable consequences of failure. But troops will still be there in Jan 09. Once they own the Oval Office that lack of responsibility fades. The massacres in unpronouncable towns becomes Democratic problems. Obama will have to quickly jettison the talk of leaving and not fighting. This acceptance of responsibility will be necessary for the long term fight against Islamic extremism to be successful.

    GO OBAMA ‘08!!!!

    Comment by Buckland — Monday, July 16, 2007 @ 9:49 pm

  12. We know the marginal cost of a vote is zero so any vote is symbolic. Want to make a conservative statement? Vote for someone like Howard Phillips. I’d go with Ron Paul if we weren’t so off on the Iraq War and foreign policy in general (and his supporters weren’t nuts).

    On an ideological scale Obama is conservative…if you compare him to Dennis Kucinich.

    My problem is with Sullivan who continues to say he’s a conservative (and wrote a book about saving its soul). His bait-and-switch lost me as a reader no matter how many references to Oakenshott he makes.

    Comment by Sean Hackbarth — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 9:20 am

  13. Good comments, folks. I come from the Democratic side, and it is very heartening to see Republicans/conservatives that think and speak based on positive principles, as opposed to what I often hear (which is deeply unsettling). I know it must be frustrating for a real ‘conservative’ to see what’s been done in your name lately. I fully support you reclaiming your party, however you choose to do that in the next election. Hopefully discussions like this will lead to a good choice at that time, one that is in our nation’s best interest, when protecting our Constitution possibly out-weighs party loyalty.

    Comment by jhaygood — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 9:29 am

  14. a. The Republican party is about to go the way of the Whigs. The only thing that stops a new third Party from emerging is the unwillingness of the several parochial interests of the Conservative Base to engage in political compromise. Quickly forgotten, for instance, is that the 1856 and 1860 Republican Platforms did not call for the abolition of slavery but for there to be no extension to new states entering the Union.

    b. The wedge issues for the new party are immigration, education and health care. The enforcement of immigration laws crosses party lines. Citizens understand that the amnesty program greatly hinders the movement upwards of the existing legal population. Education reform has faild as the Democrat Party is the prisoner of the teacher’s lobby. School choice crosses party lines as well. Health care costs, especially in-patient costs, must be brought into line. It is now cheaper for a covered patient to be flown to other countries first class and have the operation performed overseas. Drug costs are a second matter.

    c. A new party must be expected to lose in 2008, but perhaps pick up seats in the federal and State legislatures, but to control the balance between two evenly matched parties by 2010 and force existing party restructuring by 2012.

    Comment by Pete Speer — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 9:36 am

  15. Fully aware that Obama is a straightforward Liberal, I still find myself believing he’s the best choice for a real (principled) conservative to choose this time around. The country can survive a spell of “Liberal” policy choices if need be. It may even help conservatives find their way again.
    What the country cannot survive is more of the power-grabbing, trashing of civil liberties and destruction of America’s good name that we’ve seen under this administration. The only “positive” angle to the Bush tenure is that his incompetence has at least given power-grabbing, trashing civil liberties and destroying our good name in the eyes of all a bad reputation. The only thing worse would be to elect someone who shares Bush values but can actually carry them out successfully! Gulliani and Romney seem to be generally competent, so electing one of them would seem likely to entrench the worst of the Bush legacy.
    What is needed is a firm rejection of Bush and all he represents in order to recapture our national self-respect, our good name and our Constitution. Clinton will not accomplish that. Obama, on the other hand, would be a clear signal to everyone that Bushism has been rejected by the American people. (Edwards would have a similar, although less dramatic, effect).

    Comment by Seth Owen — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 9:38 am

  16. [...] Andrew Sullivan further explains his position (that I discussed yesterday). [...]

    Pingback by PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » More on Sullivan and Obama — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 9:52 am

  17. Sen. Obama seems to appeal to certain self-described conservatives on three major points:

    1.) He takes a moderate view on the Middle Eastern threat to our national security. He is not a supporter of an immediate withdrawal, has proposed that a significant “residual force” be left in Iraq to target Al-Queda (or whoever), and supports an increase in the overall size of the U.S. military. These are not “liberal” positions.

    2.) He appears to take the current Constitutional crisis very seriously. On every point (habeus corpus, detainee abuse, privacy, executive power, politicization of the Justice Dept., etc. etc.) he has spoken eloquently and intelligently about restoring American values and upholding the rule of law. His lack of experience in executive matters could be out-weighed by his background in Constitutional law (which he taught as a professor at the University of Chicago: hardly a “liberal” institution).

    3.) He speaks openly, frequently, and (apparently) honestly about his personal faith in Jesus Christ, including his own “Road to Damascus” conversion experience. This endears him to faith-based voters (I include Mr. Sullivan in this group, who has certainly not left the Catholic faith), and sets him apart from virtually every other presidential candidate (except Sen. Brownback, whom no one takes very seriously). Somehow, Sen. Obama manages to speak of his own religious convictions in a manner that strongly appeals to the religious quasi-right (i.e., the “don’t like abortion, not crazy about the gays, but want to help the poor, end war, and stop global warming” branch of Christianity that’s gaining ground nowadays) without completely alienating the left-wing secular/atheist/agnostic contingent (whom no one really listens to anyway).

    Also, he’s remarkably good looking. And tall. Therefore he might be electable.

    Comment by SGEW — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 10:04 am

  18. I fail to see the rationale for “voting is an expressive act.” If I take the trouble to vote it’s to try and make a difference, no?

    Now there might be points when I will deliberately vote for someone unlikely to win as a protest, and in that case the impact of the protest is the difference I want to make.

    But usually I’m really interested in the outcome, and that routinely means supporting a less-than-top choice. Wishing it wasn’t so won’t make it not so — and I take that to be a small-c conservative insight!

    Comment by c — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 10:13 am

  19. Republicans and conservatives have a hard time of it these days. With a radical president, a miserable domestic agenda, and an incompetent foreign policy, it must be awful to say “I supported these guys through thick and thin.” I suspect it’s that people gave in to fear and the stereotype that Democrats don’t have a spine. Wrong. See what stereotypes get you?

    I want to expand on a point made above by #10. Democrats are usually hired as president to clean up the messes made by Republican presidents. Corruption and felony crimes under Nixon? Bring in Carter (Ford wasn’t sufficient, poor guy). Debt and a collapsing confidence in the financial markets? Bring in Clinton. We’ll see who shows up after this fiasco is done.

    A further point should be made. Remember Al Gore’s “shrinking the federal government” work in the 90s? Real conservatives would have honored that work, admired that it cut costs, and so on. Oh, and real conservatives would have given credit to the Clinton administration for its part in the 90s surplus. But no, partisan Republicans can’t ever find a positive thing to say about Clinton, so it doesn’t happen.

    It all boils down to this: Not only have conservatives lost the moral right to lead this country (after supporting the Bush fiasco these past few years), but they’re hypocrites who can’t see past their own prejudices to recognize the competence and quality of work done by others. Partisan Republicanism has led to some awfully non-conservative consequences. Sorry, but I can understand why Obama, a small-c conservative in the intellectual sense of the word (meaning, as well, a small-l liberal, in the classical sense) appeals to Sullivan and others.

    Comment by mc — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 10:22 am

  20. [...] Cross-posted from PoliBlog: [...]

    Pingback by Political Mavens » Sullivan and Obama (and the General ‘08 Dilemma for Some in the GOP) — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 3:05 pm

  21. Taylor on Me on Sullivan on Obama

    Steven Taylor:Late last week, in a response to a Peggy Noonan column in which she expressed her despair with the Bush administration, Andrew Sullivan statedI’m just alternately very angry and very sad now, and trying to figure out how we

    Trackback by ® — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  22. Hey, a lot of us old-timer Democratics had good reasons to vote for Reagan in 1980. Sometimes the other guy is the right guy. If Carter had served a second term there wouldn’t have been a Democratic party anymore.

    Besides, Obama is a constitutional law prof at U of C. That’s got to count for something.

    Comment by Chris — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 8:17 pm

  23. [...] on my comments on Sullivan, Obama and what to do in ‘08: Taylor on Me on Sullivan on Obama. Sphere: Related Content Filed under: US Politics, 2008 Campaign || [...]

    Pingback by PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Bainbridge Joins In — Tuesday, July 17, 2007 @ 9:44 pm

  24. [...] I am utterly agnostic on whether Thompson runs or not (indeed, as I noted earlier in the week, I am not especially interested in any of the major candidates running for the presidency at the moment), so my evaluation here is not tainted by either my interest in Thompson or my interest in his opponents. Rather, I am simply calling it like I see it, and along those lines, James Joyner sums up the situation quite well: The story itself is rather innocuous; that his first instinct was to lie about it, though, says something about the man’s character. My guess is that this won’t seriously damage his candidacy. After all, most people think “lying politician” is redundant. Still, to the extent that Thompson’s appeal is that he’s not a professional politician, this hurts. [...]

    Pingback by PoliBlog ™: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Confirmed: Fred Thompson Did Work for Family Planning Group — Thursday, July 19, 2007 @ 8:50 am

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