Andrew Sullivan may have hauled down the flag on the circumcision issue, acknowledging that respect for religious freedom requires allowing both Muslims and Jews to perform essential required rites of their respective faiths, but he’s taken up another unlikely cause: that people should support President Obama because he is really the ‘best’ kind of British Tory.
Mr. Sullivan has a point, which we’ll get to, but we’d suggest that President Obama’s other supporters might want to try to keep this meme out of the mainstream. Our experiences with Lord North pretty well killed the Tory vote in the United States and from that day to this any candidate effectively tagged with that label has an uphill battle in American politics. Franklin Roosevelt called his enemies Tories and President Obama isn’t exactly looking for comparisons to George III. (The Tea Party, on the other hand, may find itself in a rare moment of profound agreement with Andrew Sullivan on this one. A Tory is exactly what many of them think President Obama is.)
But optics aside, Sullivan is right, I think, that President Obama is in many ways the Tory candidate in this election and a small ‘c’ conservative. He wants to preserve the status quo in the United States: the Great Society and the New Deal. He wants to push them along incrementally (that’s what the health care program is about) and he wants to fight attempts to roll the welfare state back (which explains his decision to allow states to junk the Clinton welfare reforms).
Like the classic British Tory, our current President believes in a strong state that advances a moral agenda for the nation, collective national guidance through the Great and the Good, and he is an instinctive believer in compromise and “one nation” solidarity between the rich and the poor. While not opposed to the use of force in principle, he mostly favors a low-cost, low-risk foreign policy of realist hedging, and, though he will rarely trumpet this conviction, thinks that US foreign policy must be based on a presumption of gentle decline. He is no foe of capitalism per se, but believes that a happy middle ground exists in which a neutered market can be tamed to serve social ends.
Sullivan is correct to say that this very much represents the sweet spot of British politics; what he neglects to note is that mainstream British conservatism (and its slightly pinker twin from the Labour Party side) is a surefire recipe for drift and decline. Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, Edward Heath, John Major: they were, all of them, honorable men. And under their stewardship, Britain gently but irresistibly fell into deeper irrelevance and decay.
These were all men of good breeding, sound principles, small ‘c’ conservative methods and aims, and committed to ideals of civility and good governance. And under their eminently sane and civilized leadership Britain steadily and inexorably lost its global standing and its economic fire.