Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Two (Inadvertent) Rationales for Foreign-Policy and Fiscal Hawks to Vote for Obama

David Brooks has some interesting descriptive arguments that may turn out to be prescriptive:
The first big rift would involve Iraq. Both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have seductively hinted that they would withdraw almost all U.S. troops within 12 to 16 months. But if either of them actually did that, he or she would instantly make Iraq the consuming partisan fight of their presidency.

There would be private but powerful opposition from Arab leaders, who would fear a return to 2006 chaos. There would be irate opposition from important sections of the military, who would feel that the U.S. was squandering the gains of the previous year. A Democratic president with few military credentials would confront outraged and highly photogenic colonels screaming betrayal.

There would be important criticism from nonpartisan military experts. In his latest report, the much-cited Anthony Cordesman describes an improving Iraqi security situation that still requires “strategic patience” and another five years to become self-sustaining.

There would be furious opposition from Republicans and many independents. They would argue that you can’t evacuate troops just as Iraqis are about to hold national elections and tensions are at their highest. They would point out that it’s insanity to end local reconstruction and Iraqi training efforts just when they are producing results. They would accuse the new administration of reverse-Rumsfeldism, of ignoring postsurge realities and of imposing an ideological solution on a complex situation.
My main concern with Obama is that he'd pull the plug on Iraq, irrespective of the military reality. I was very heartened the other day when, on 60 Minutes, he vowed to let the facts on the ground dictate his policy. But Brooks's point that the political reality will constrain him more than his own judgement is somewhat heartening.

Brooks continues:
Which brings us to second looming Democratic divide: domestic spending. Both campaigns now promise fiscal discipline, as well as ambitious new programs. These kinds of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too vows were merely laughable last year when the federal deficit was running at a manageable $163 billion a year. But the economic slowdown, the hangover from the Bush years and the growing bite of entitlements mean that the federal deficit will almost certainly top $400 billion by 2009. The accumulated national debt will be in shouting distance of the $10 trillion mark. With that much red ink, the primary-season spending plans are simply ridiculous.

It’d be 1993 all over again. The new Democratic president would be faced with Bill Clinton’s Robert Rubin vs. Robert Reich choice: either scale back priorities for the sake of fiscal discipline or blow through all known deficit records for the sake of bigger programs. Choose the former, and the new president would further outrage the left. Choose the latter and lose the financial establishment and the political center.
For divided government fans, the prospect of a Democratic legislature and executive is terrifying. (NB: The prospect of a GOP legislature and executive is equally terrifying.) But if the budgetary realities make Obama careful with his spending priorities, he could be a very good President. More gridlock, with a few cherry-picked policy initiatives around the edges, sounds like a pretty good Presidency.

Note that I've been assuming that Obama will be the next President. The same arguments would apply to Clinton. And obviously McCain would be able to get nothing done but enforcing the military status quo and maybe some energy policy, all the while being a rabid deficit hawk.

I would love to vote for Obama. I believe that the man is genuiniely talented and tempermentally suited to be President. I'm extremely uncomfortable with his policy proposals. But if Brooks is right about the constaints already in place on the next Presidency and I'm right about Obama's intelligence and temperment, things could be a lot worse.

UPDATE 2/12/08: Arnold Kling offers an unsettling proposal for how the Dems can avoid budget deficits.

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