CHARLOTTE – A few years ago, it was fashionable for Democrats to describe themselves as "members of the reality-based community." These days, it seems the foreclosure crisis has hit them so hard they've been forced to move to another neighborhood.
Metaphorically, at least, they've set up a refugee camp here this week. In this political Brigadoon, things are going well in America, so well in fact that President Obama obviously deserves a second term because Americans are better off than they were four years ago, and that the Republican Party is little more than a haven for old-fashioned robber barons who think like Klansmen but dress like Mr. Monopoly.
Obama doesn't quite say it like that, but he's perfectly happy to have his subalterns — some at the Democratic National Committee, some at MSNBC— make that case for him. Obama tries to take the higher road, insisting that the GOP represents old ideas while he champions a new approach. For instance, after letting it be known that he didn't watch the Republican convention, the president held a rally in Colorado over the weekend talking as if he had seen the whole thing. The convention in Tampa was so "last century," he explained. "You might as well have watched it on a black-and-white TV, with some rabbit ears." His chief strategist, David Axelrod, chimed in on Fox News Sunday that the Republican convention was a "terrible failure" because it lacked any new ideas.
"Obama tries to take the higher road, insisting that the GOP represents old ideas while he champions a new approach." It's a remarkable claim for a president who has taken Franklin Roosevelt as his lode star and hopes that Republicans of the sort that dominated the party during the Eisenhower administration will return to power. It's as if Democrats think pouring money into roads is some sort of cutting-edge, outside-the-box idea. You know who else invested a lot in roads? Julius Caesar. That doesn't make it a bad idea, necessarily, but please let's not talk about it as if it's some sort of major policy innovation.
What's so new?
The same goes for pretty much the entire suite of Obama policies: more government control of health care, more regulations of the free market, more goodies for college students, more cash for state government employees. Culturally, the Democrats sound like it's not so much still the "recovery summer" but the Summer of Love, promising abortion on demand and free birth control. It's hardly as if Obama is a time traveler visiting us from the future with great policy boons that our unevolved brains can scarcely imagine.
Oh, but what about all his innovative ideas for green energy: faster trains local governments don't want and electric cars consumers won't buy? TheNew York Times reports that the electric car "has long been recognized as the ideal solution" because it is "cleaner and quieter" and "much more economical." The Times reported that in 1911. Obama has turned his back on nuclear power while investing massively in a technological breakthrough pioneered by Heron of Alexandria in the first century: the windmill.
There's a bizarre double standard in public policy debates that treats Keynesian spending binges as a cutting-edge and novel approach while casting free market reforms of entitlement programs as throwbacks to the horse and buggy age.
"Everybody's watching what's going on in Beijing right now with the Olympics," Obama said while campaigning in 2008. "Think about the amount of money that China has spent on infrastructure. Their ports, their train systems, their airports are all vastly superior to us now, which means if you are a corporation deciding where to do business you're starting to think, 'Beijing looks like a pretty good option.'"
First of all, that's nonsense. Our infrastructure is vastly superior to China's. For instance, we have more than 11 times as many airports with paved runways as they do. China's Olympic stadium is falling apart, unused today. Far more disturbing is the fact that Obama looks at the huge economic strides made in China since it adopted market-based reforms and concludes that what we should learn from the communists is to drop more money on vast state-run boondoggles. That's just weird.
It also illustrates the real problem with how the self-described inhabitants of the "reality-based community" see the world. They sincerely see government as a key generator of innovation.
Obviously, government can help — spending money on basic research and the like. Beyond that, government far more often serves to stifle innovation and insulate itself from new ideas created by the market. That's what public-sector unions — one of Obama's core constituencies — do. Whether it's health care, education or manufacturing, government retards new ideas and makes innovation more expensive, or impossible. But it does excel in one department: finding new ways to claim that old ideas are new.
Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.