The Conservative Case for Barack Obama

Hell has officially frozen over.

National Review is a reliably conservative magazine which can usually, though not always, be counted upon to defend the Republican party line.  William F. Buckley was the editor-at-large for many years, and now that role is filled by John O’Sullivan.  Today Mr. O’Sullivan makes the case that an Obama presidency might, just might, conceivably, perhaps be in the conservative interest. Mr. O’Sullivan is British, and he makes his case with examples about Tories and Labour, including this gem:

Then there is the McCainiac position. Disraeli expressed this best in his rebuke to Bulwer Lytton who was rattling on about his principles: “Damn your principles, stick to your party.” As Disraeli also declared when someone (Bulwer Lytton again, I think) said that he would support his ministry when he was right: “That’s no use. Anyone can support me when I am right. What I need are people who will support me when I am wrong.”

This in a fascinating article, and you really ought to read it, regardless of your political orientation. But O’Sullivan’s case can be captured in these statements: (please forgive the long quotes.)

That argument does not apply quite so effectively to an Obama candidacy — and for an interesting reason. In addition to conservative parties and conservative principles, there is a third consideration: what might be called “the conservative interest.” A political event is in the conservative interest if it strengthens and stabilizes the country. At times that greater strength may be to the disadvantage of the conservative party or come at some (temporary) cost in conservative principles. But when the smoke of battle clears, conservatives will see, sometimes with surprise, that the nation is better for the change from a conservative standpoint.

A British example: in 1923 when there was a three-way split in parliament with no single party having enough votes to rule alone, George V asked the Labour Party to form its first government with the argument (I quote from memory) “Labour must have its turn.”

The king’s decision inflicted a bad government on Britain for less than two years. But it reconciled the working class to the British system of democracy (in the difficult economic circumstances after the Great War) and it demonstrated to everyone that British democracy was not a façade for class rule that the Marxists claimed. Ultimately it meant that the Britain which went to war in 1939 was a socially united country.

What does the conservative interest indicate on this occasion? It seems possible and even likely that a victory by Barack Obama would be the climax of this long policy of fully integrating black and minority America into the nation and putting the querulous politics of race behind us. As I have argued elsewhere, the mere fact of a President Obama would strengthen and stabilize America just as a Polish pope undermined Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Black and minority America would be fully integrated into the nation as the British working class was fully integrated into the British political nation by George V. Americans would feel better about themselves and the world would feel very differently about America. The conservative interest, as defined above, would therefore smile upon a vote for Obama.

And if it should turn out to be Obama, Republicans will take cautious comfort from the possibility that his presidency will advance the wider conservative interest in a less fractured America. For that would be a permanent gain for conservatism under any president.


1. Who do you think will get Mr. O’Sullivan’s vote?

2. How do the Brits manage to come up with such great names? I’ve never heard of Bulwer Lytton, but I like his handle.


  1. 1. Fascinating argument, but I suspect it will be met with scorn by the conservative establishment.

    2. The Brits have cooler names because they are, in general, cooler people than Americans.

  2. Conservatives really think that liberals will run the government badly. Even though the United States ran exceptionally well from the 1930s all the way to the 1990s under a Democratic Congress. They are delusional if they think that giving Obama the reins will ruin the country, and thereby in 2012 the country will turn to conservatives to ‘save’ them.

    Unless of course the idea is to let Obama win and then do all in their power to undermine his presidency, sort of a Thomas Jefferson maneuver. In other words, Conservatives will do all in their power to ruin the country just so they can get power back.

  3. These are the exact reasons that I, who was an ardent McCain supporter in the first go around back in 2000, am now going to vote for Obama. Of course, O’Sullivan articulated my own thoughts better than I could have.

  4. Last Lemming says:

    If you haven’t heard of Bulwer-Lytton, you have truly missed out.

  5. From the quotes you selected, I can’t tell whether:

    a) O’Sullivan would is genuinely conceding that a liberal post-partisan adminstration might help the U.S., or

    b) O’Sullivan is really just being cynical (as in, “Four years of that Marxist Obama is just what we need to really whip up our conservative base into action again . . .”)

    To answer your first question, I think that conservatives will ultimately rally around McCain in the general election. For conservatives, McCain vs. Huckabee or Romney might have been a controversial decision, but McCain vs. Obama or Hillary would be pretty clear cut.

    (Personally, I agree with O’Sullivan’s thoughts about how Obama’s presidency could mark a change in our country’s political and racial atmosphere.)

  6. I am an independent who leans conservative. I have not been overly impressed with McCain and have started to give Obama a closer look. I think that he is as idealistic as Bush in some regards and that we don’t know what we’d be getting if he were elected. Might turn out amazingly well, then again, might not. I think that O’Sullivan’s argument is that regardless of how Obama turns out, it will broaden the political experience and help integrate the country because of Obama’s background, but that continuing with the conservative run will keep us divided. Whether you agree with that assertion or not, I think it has merit as an idea. If Obama gets elected, he would help bring new people into the political game (Obama won, why can’t I?), and if he winds up being a great president, bonus.

  7. What ArielW said.

  8. Karl Kategianes says:

    #2 We have seen the opposition party and its minions do the same here since the “stolen” election in 2000.
    Just read the NYT, watch CNN to see what I mean.
    Assuming Obama is elected, starting Jan 21, 2009, you won’t see any more stories on the broken healthcare system, poverty, homelessness, economic malaise, etc, just like we didn’t hear about any of that during the Clinton years…

  9. I won’t be voting for Obama, but if a majority do so, it will be an unquestionably healthy thing for them to get what they want, and bear the consequences both good and ill.

  10. If anybody thinks this post is an invitation to take pot shots at cons or libs, be advised: I am in the mood to have some fun, I have some free time this afternoon, I have the authority to edit your comments, and I am itching to make an example of somebody. So go ahead, make my day.

  11. LL, that Bulwer-Lytton link is priceless. Thank you.

  12. I think it’s fascinating that Obama is still perceived by many to be a centrist and unifying figure. And what’s more, that there are conservative mormons who are thinking about voting for him! Many are in for a rude awakening.

    Obama is an ultra-liberal, along the lines of Dukakis/Mondale. Obama talks big, but his record shows that he is a partisan who advances the liberal agenda. Every. Single. Time.

    Sure he has worked with Republicans on some important issues. But so has Ted Kennedy. Obama has been very careful to avoid issues of “controversy.” You know, issues where there is an actual divide in the country. Instead he has taken on subjects that, while important, are not in the least divisive, such as aid for Hurricane Katrina victims, methods for control of nuclear proliferation, ethics reform. His biggest accomplishments are not ones that spark opposition because everyone agrees with it. Differences in the details, sure. But that’s it.

    But on the defining issues of our time: iraq, terrorism, immigration, marriage, abortion, spending, entitlements, juducial appointments, health care, border security, taxes, etc., Obama has sided with the far left every single time. Obama has never compromised or reached across the aisle. Obama has never tried to unify. He has been a liberal Democrat, a party man if you will, to its most extreme. Obama has earned the title of “Most Liberal Senator” for good reason.

    Obama is running on a platform of unity and compromise, but he has never done so himself in his entire career! He has never gone against his party once! He has always embraced the liberal agenda and his record shows it. The biggest irony, is that as Obama pretends to be someone who reaches out and compromises, unifies, transcends partisanship, it’s actually his opposition John McCain that fits that description.

    Most mormons are social conservatives. Like Obama? Look beyond the rhetoric a little- look at his record.

  13. Bill C.,

    Did you read the article I linked? I would greatly, greatly appreciate it if you (and other commenters) could confine your remarks to the argument Mr. O’Sullivan made.

  14. Obama more pro-choice than NARAL.

    It’s pesky things like his record that will make Obama unacceptable to most conservatives, regardless of how novel it would be to have our first African-American in the White House.

  15. I was at the doctor’s office yesterday afternoon, and picked up an article on the September 2007 Atlantic Magazine about Karl Rove and the “failed” presidency of George W. Bush. In the article, it showed how Pres. Bush’s initial efforts at his rather admittedly vague agenda did involve a lot of bipartisan effort, as evidenced by the passage of No Child Left Behind. Although I think that law is flawed in some major respects, it did involve a good deal of effort on both sides of the aisle in both houses, to get passed.

    The article went on to show how Rove tried to force a major political realignment, ala McKinley in 1900, towards a social conservatism. However, that effort relied mostly on alienating and demonizing the opposition, and thus squandered much of the bipartisan good will that had come in the President’s first year.

    I can see if Sen. Obama can truly continue to draw diverse groups to support him, which does seem to be happening in this campaign, he could affect a real coalition that transcends race, politics, and economic divisions to a level not seen in many years. However, if in an effort to get things done, he resorts to the kinds of politics that have been practiced for the last couple of decades, that good will can evaporate.

    A somewhat less confrontational situation between the Executive and the Congress could allow for the advancement of many conservative legislation, as well as efforts towards a more universal health care system, and a rational policy on immigration.

    Mark, lots of food for thought here. I’ll be reading the National Review piece, and be back with more comments.

  16. I should also note that Jonah Goldberg, an editor of National Review Online, has argued that the election of a Democratic president will force the American Left to become full participants in the war on terror. His argument is based on the assumption that a party that is out of power and on the sidelines is also out of touch. It is easy to criticize from the peanut gallery when your criticisms and recommendations are of no consequence. It is quite another thing to be put into power and to have to perform.

  17. Sorry Mark IV. My point is that O’Sullivan is crazy if he thinks an Obama presidency would result in a “less fractured America.” Obama’s record indicates that he would be extemely partisan and work to advance a very liberal agenda– one that a lot of Americans vehomently disagree with.

    Obama may genuinely want to unify the country, but he is running for a political office that will require political solutions to our nation’s problems. In order to unify, you have to find common ground and Obama has yet to offer solutions to most divisive issues that could appeal to both sides. Even if one chooses to ignore his past, his current policy proposals are basically no different than Senator Clinton’s or Senator Edwards.

    But maybe there is some merit to O’Sullivan’s argument if one accepts that Obama is a centrist who will seek middle ground. President Clinton was very moderate. His presidency resulted in conservative accomplishments such as NAFTA, welfare reform, balanced budgets, and some might even argue the military interventions Europe, Africa and especially Iraq. And yet conservatives, especially evangelicals, were able to rally around a “hatred” of Clinton and win back the presidency with Bush. Of course, I don’t know that Clinton strengthened conservatism so much as he strengthened the Republican party.

  18. And even though I disagree with 90% of what Obama stands for, I would be proud to have an African-American president. It shows a lot of maturity by society and would reflect well with our national image.

    I was also proud of Speaker Pelosi last year when she stood behind Bush for his State of the Union address. A woman leading the House. Amazing! But I think it’s safe to say she has done nothing for conservatives. Why would Barack Obama be any different?

  19. Fascinating article. Thanks Mark.

    Bill C., I’m in the middle of studying, and was gretting pretty stressed out. Your over-the-top rhetoric provided some much-needed comic relief. Thanks.

  20. What you say is all nice and good swipe Christopher, but can you refute any of Bill C.s comments? After my own studies I am finding Obama’s record to be anti-Conservative and politically frightning. The only thing worse might be a McCain or Hillary Presidency. Yes, I am more than likely going to do a protest write-in and vote for someone I want as President. I have never felt this sick to my stomach over my election choices. It is the first time I have ever not supported anyone on the tickets.

  21. I don’t know who will get O’Sullivan’s vote, but he didn’t address one issue. 3-4 supreme court justices will retire or die in the next presidential term. It will have a long lasting impact on the makup of the supreme court. It could be argued that it will be a bigger deal than the chickens Obama is promising will be in every pot. Other than that, I think O’Sullivan makes good points, though hardly groundbreaking.

  22. Cheer up, Jettboy. The sun will still come up on November 5, regardless of who wins the election.

    Conservatism concerns itself with the proposition that the good things in life are not delivered by government, and that government cannot and should not be the primary focus of citizens’ lives. All this caterwauling and hand-wringing about what goes on in Washington D.C. is more properly reserved for professional whiners. It’s time to put on our big boy pants and get out of the sandbox.

  23. Bill C.,

    It’s pretty laughable that you say “look beyond the rhetoric” and then link to an article on WorldNet Daily?!

    Your blanket denial of Obama’s “unifying” creds is rather sloppy as well. Look, for exampe, at his speech on faith to see what I think is an extremely healthy model for dialogue on divisive issues.

    I’m still not sure where O’Sullivan is coming from. I think he might be genuine in his suggestion, and not just cynically saying that conservatives let the country go to pot for four years just to teach the electorate a lesson. Even if it’s the latter, however, I’ll still be sending the link to all my arch-conservative friends…

  24. Jettboy, the point of my response to Bill wasn’t to debate his comments. That, as I understand it, is not the point of this thread. I was simply thanking him for the good laugh I got out of the rhetoric he used to make his case.

    I, too, have found “Obama’s record to be anti-Conservative”, which is precisely why I voted for him (via an absentee ballot I sent in this morning) in Texas’s primary election. That record, to me, is not “politically frightening.” And, just for the record, you ignored my comments “refuting” your post on Mormon support for Obama the other day, so your comments are a bit hypocritical (nor did you “refute” any of O’Sullivan’s argument, for the record).

  25. Mark Brown says:

    KyleM, the appointment of SC justices is certainly an issue, but I don’t think it is as important as most people do. For social conservatives, the SC is important primarily because of the potential impact on the abortion question. And yet, the number of abortions in America has been declining for years already, regardless of the makeup of the SC.

    In addition, we need to keep in mind that a conservative president doesn’t necessarily appoint conservative justices. Look at Reagan’s and GHWB’s appointments, for example.

  26. Mark, I normally agree with your point that the appointment of SC justices is normally overblown. The only reason I think it matters at all now is the shear number of justices that need to be replaced, though I don’t think either party has a monopoly on nominating strict constitutionalists.

  27. Jeremy Jensen says:

    “But on the defining issues of our time: iraq, terrorism, immigration, marriage, abortion, spending, entitlements, juducial appointments, health care, border security, taxes, etc., Obama has sided with the far left every single time.”

    Are you sure? He supported the border fence, which is about as far from far left as it gets. He’s also not in favor of Gay Marriage, but civil unions, which is not far left.

  28. Well, if electing Obama will do for America what the Polish pope did to the Soviets, I might have to pass. I mean, I gotta tell you guys… I miss the Cold War.

  29. Jeremy- You’re right. Obama voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 which authorized funding of a border fence, although he hardly broke party ranks to do so. Obama scored an 8% by USBC, indicating an “open-border stance.” He opposes gay marriage in name only, as his definition of civil union will extend all of the rights of marriage to homosexual couples, including full adoption privileges and access to reproductive technologies.

    Christopher- You may think it’s hyperbole, but it’s a little known fact that if you take the 5th, 7th, and 11th (5+7+11=23 as in “The Number 23”)letters in Obama’s name they spell Che.
    baraCk HussEin obama.
    I’ll bet you have some voter’s remorse now!

    By the way, here’s a John Derbyshire reply to the O’Sullivan article cited above:

  30. I agree with many parts of the argument. I do think it would be tremendously unifying to have an African American President so that so many black Americans who feel alienated can feel that they are a part of the system. While I think some of the feeling of alienation is valid I think much is encouraged by black leaders for their own political reasons and which has taken on a life of its own.

    I’d hope that an Obama Presidency (which is what I expect at this stage) would allow the African American community to perhaps move on from mere identity politics that it so often falls prey to. (Not that they are alone in this)

    So to the degree it allows that community to feel more American it is an amazingly positive thing. I admit that back before the Bush presidency fell apart I kind of hoped Condi Rice would do this. But she proved to be less competent than I hoped and of course has the stain of Bush.

    The second positive thing an Obama win might do is finally shake up the Republican leadership. I’m not sure it will. (After there was effectively no change after the Democratic wins and loss of leadership in Congress two years ago) It’s sad to say, but Republicans often make a better opposition in some ways.

    Ultimately though I think divided government is good for America. So perhaps an Obama win after which he, like Clinton before, tries to implement a wider liberal set of policies and faces a blowback. That would strengthen the conservative movement. But it would also show liberals that they are a part of government but that the American populace just doesn’t agree with them.

  31. He opposes gay marriage in name only, as his definition of civil union will extend all of the rights of marriage to homosexual couples, including full adoption privileges and access to reproductive technologies.

    That’s hardly a far left position though. Lots of people who vehemently oppose gay marriage favor strongly giving legal rights for homosexuals to have many benefits now tied to marriage. (As is well known I dislike a lot of laws tying benefits to marriage period and wish they’d stop it)

  32. Bill C.,

    That’s nothin’.

    Have you ever considered the possibility that Ronald Reagan had the mark of the beast? It’s true!

    Ronald Wilson Reagan. Count the letters. 6-6-6. Yikes!

  33. Clark,

    I agree about civil unions. I’m opposed to gay marriage, only if there is an alternative that prevents outright discrimination, such as civil unions.

    At this point, for me, the war in Iraq has run it’s course as far as eliminating Saddam Hussein. As for spreading democracy in the middle east, good luck. I don’t see it happening any time soon, and we now have a resurgent Taliban to be concerned with in Afghanistan, huge political instability in Pakistan, and the war in Iraq is diverting time and resources from more important issues in the middle east and south Asia. McCain promises more of the same in the war on terror, which means all Iraq, all the time. Obama may favor a precipitous drawdown of troops, but the Pentagon and Congress almost certainly will slow that down. However, any reduction in our presence there is another message to the Iraqi government to put together a truly pluralistic society, or no one can save them, including us.

    A divided electorate and a divided, partisan congress only hurts everybody’s agenda. I don’t think Obama would site his congressional liaison office in a partisan congressional office, like the Bush Presidency putting their’s in Tom DeLay’s suite. Pretty fair guess that no Democrats were very comfortable about dropping in there. I see continued growth for Obama in the primaries, and today’s Texas primary will tell us a lot. Obama is the least divisive of any of the viable candidates left, especially as evangelical conservatives will likely run from McCain at the allegations the NY Times made this morning about his relations with a female lobbyist 8 years ago.

  34. California Condor says:

    Mark Brown,

    I think you missed the point of this National Review article. Let me summarize it for you:

    1. Barack Obama is black.

    2. So if he became president, it would end affirmative action.

    3. The end of affirmative action would be good for conservatives, so it might be okay for conservatives if Obama became president.

    I am a conservative who supports affirmative action. I don’t support Barack Obama but I think his election would be good for black people. I think too many blacks are raised in a culture that accepts failure so I think it would be good for them to have an example in a black president. But I do not think that Obama’s election would (or should) end affirmative action. I also don’t think that Conservatism needs affirmative action to be abolished.

  35. CC,

    No, I don’t think that is the point of the article. I just looked at it again, and it didn’t even mention affirmative action. To the extent you think it is about aa, I think you are missing the point.

    But the larger point if the post is this: NR is the closest thing to a Republican party house organ there is, and the editor-at-large just made a case for Obama’s election. That really is significant, in my opinion.

  36. California Condor says:

    Mark, here’s the thesis of the article:

    What does the conservative interest indicate on this occasion? It seems possible and even likely that a victory by Barack Obama would be the climax of this long policy of fully integrating black and minority America into the nation and putting the querulous politics of race behind us.

  37. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    (In a more practical vein)…
    I believe that an adequately funded ‘universal health’ plan will help american industry (especially exporters) more competitive…
    The noose of the 25% of health care costs that are now wasted are a tightening noose around everyone’s neck.

    A successful implementation of that, IMHO, would transcend most other arguments/ideologies

  38. Mark- So Reagan is the devil, who knew? I guess Romney’s the only politician I can hero worship now.

    Reagan also used to live at a 666 address in California if I remember right.

  39. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    RE: #’s 27 & 31

    In Russian the word for hammer is ‘molot’ and the word for sickle is ‘serp’. As is universally known, this was the pre-eminent symbol of the CPSU, Communist Party of the Soviet Union. If you join those two words and reverse the letters you get “prestolom” which means ‘back to the throne’. Now are we to conclude from this that Putin or Medvedev will declare themselves “Tsar & Autocrat of all the Russias”?!?

    Brethren and sisters, Ladies and Gentlemen, please do not waste your time or ours on these word games!

  40. California Condor says:

    Guy Noir, Private Eye (36):

    RE Health Care

    Democrats lean towards a socialist solution while Republicans lean towards a free market solution. So it’s not an issue that unites.

  41. 38, Velikiye Kniaz,

    But surely you must know that word games and time-wasting are so much fun! By the way, what do you have against Eisenhower? I can unscramble the letters in your name and come up with Nazi Ike.


    I see now where our difference lies. While I agree that affirmative action is a necessary part of “fully integrating black and minority America into the nation”, I think it is a relatively small part. I think the kind of integfration O’Sullivan envisions entails a lot more than just aa.

  42. Aaron Brown says:

    O’Sullivan is hardly the first conservative to make a case for Obama. Lots of arguments have been put forth by various folks (Goldberg’s argument re: the War on Terror, Clark’s point on divided government, others). But I do think Obama may be in for a bit more opposition, once his record becomes more well-known. And I do think fears about judges will prevent many conservatives from supporting him.

  43. In other words, Conservatives will do all in their power to ruin the country just so they can get power back.

    That sounds oddly familiar.

  44. Guy Noir, Private Eye says:

    Cal Condor (39):

    are Repubs actually claiming that ‘free enterprise’ is a solution for the problems with health care?

    Free Enterprise… is the PROBLEM!

  45. Not to mention that an Obama presidency could be very helpful for the Church in pressing forward in its worldwide mission.

    See my post at to see more on why moderate and moderate-conservative Mormons should consider Obama for their vote.

  46. Rich Haskins says:

    Anybody who thinks that the Democratic Congress ran the place exceptionaly well during the 70’s -90’s is practicing revisionary history. The Democrats in that time period were more corrupt then the Delay Congress ever was which is saying a lot.

    I will keep an open mind for this election, but the one thing I am not looking for are Democrats from the 70’s- 90’s.