Early in 2005, the newly seated junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, invited me to join him for dinner with a small group
of the heads of Washington’s most influential progressive organizations. It was a pretty depressed group, given the outcome of the previous election. This exciting young African-American’s inspiring keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, coupled with his subsequent landslide Senate victory, were pretty much the only good news anybody had seen in the preceding year’s politics.
The contents of what was said during that meeting are off the record, but I can say that after being seated next to Obama for the course of the evening, I came away deeply impressed by his poise, self-confidence and intelligence. In profound contrast to virtually every Democratic politician with national ambitions at the time, Obama evinced not the slightest concern about his ability to connect with culturally conservative and deeply religious Americans. But he was worried about his own—and his party’s—inability to offer a coherent response to the economic transformation under way in America. Long before the Wall Street crash, when housing prices were still high and most middle-class Americans felt themselves to be on relatively secure ground, Obama was looking for a way to address the problems of workers being undercut and eventually displaced by global competition. He knew how to talk to people in church; it was outside the locked factory gates in towns where the jobs had moved overseas that he felt himself stymied.
I don’t really remember if anyone had anything useful to offer that night, but if so it wasn’t much. I do know that if you ask most Americans what conservatives believe will fix whatever’s wrong with America at any given time, they can give you a simple, coherent response: lower taxes, less government, more "freedom." It may be wrong. It may benefit only the rich. But it is easy to understand and repeat, particularly when billions of dollars have been invested to make it appear plausible.
Indeed, the entire edifice of supply-side economics was constructed with this goal in mind. Neoconservative pundit Irving Kristol, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley and former Treasury Secretary William Simon, among others, made this their cause throughout much of the 1970s and ’80s, with often astonishing results. They helped channel hundreds of millions of dollars, later mushrooming into billions, into the newly created conservative counterestablishment. These groups and others championed the arguments of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek and his American counterpart, monetarist Milton Friedman, to replace the global Keynesian consensus with their own. Their ideas were further disseminated by a rash of new quasi-academic and political journals and publishing houses, later augmented by an entire alternative media structure we now understand to be a natural part of our politics and culture.