Where Have All the Liberals Gone?

Victor Davis Hanson

4/10/2008 12:01:00 AM - Victor Davis Hanson

These days Democrats are not sounding very liberal. Classic liberals, after all, would support free markets, internationalism and the universal desire for constitutional government, while downplaying racial affinity. But the following examples highlight how far from these ideals today’s liberals are.

Campaigning earlier this year in recession-prone Ohio, both Democratic candidates trashed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Sen. Barack Obama advocated renegotiation of the treaty. And Sen. Hillary Clinton assured voters she had always opposed NAFTA, an agreement that was concluded under her husband’s administration.

But then a funny thing happened. A top economic adviser to Obama, Austan Goolsbee, reportedly made back-channel assurances to Canadian officials that such talk of protectionism was merely campaign rhetoric.

Then an even funnier thing transpired. Clinton's chief campaign strategist (who has since been “reassigned”), Mark Penn, reportedly advised Colombian officials of how to court votes in Congress to assure passage of a new free-trade agreement — just the opposite of Clinton’s position.

Despite such illiberal pandering, both Clinton and Obama know that a traditional liberal position would be to defend free trade that lowers prices and increases choices for poorer American consumers -- while helping foreign economies catch up with the United States.

Free trade isn't the only example in which liberal Democrats advocate positions that sound parochial and blinkered. Let's take an environmental issue. It may seem environmentally correct for liberals to oppose oil drilling in a small part of Alaska. But how is this prohibition in any way liberal?

Unless Americans are willing to accept a drastic reduction in their standard of living or can discover novel methods of conserving or creating energy, in the short-term transportation fuel will have to come from somewhere. And given our present prohibitions, that somewhere apparently means foreign oil.

In an interconnected global petroleum market, our energy appetites mean that drilling goes on at a breakneck pace throughout South America, Africa the Middle East and Russia. Yet do we really think that the Russians can protect their Arctic tundra better than we could in Alaska, or that there will be less pollution from oil platforms off the Nigerian coast than off California or Florida?

Homegrown, clean-burning biofuels sound great as a partial replacement for polluting foreign petroleum. But at present, to supply grain-based ethanol, we are diverting a large percentage of American farm acreage away from food production. The result — apart from the net energy loss needed to grow and refine ethanol — is that the price of basic food staples is soaring.

It is politically incorrect to say so, but an oil well in Alaska might cause less damage to the world environment, less strain on our own food supply and more savings to poorer American consumers than most of the present alternatives.

What also is the real liberal position on Iraq? Not long ago Clinton and Obama slugged it out, trying to establish who was more anti-war — and who would bring the troops home the most rapidly. But then one of Obama’s chief campaign advisers, the now-dismissed Samantha Power, suggested that an Obama administration would assess withdrawal on the basis of conditions on the ground in Iraq, not according to once-promised timetables.

Power is no conservative. But it sounds like she grasps that the humane -- indeed liberal -- position now on Iraq is to continue to support the democratically elected government of Nouri al-Maliki.

“No blood for oil” and “American imperialism” may be catchy slogans, but no serious observer believes that the United States is stealing Iraq’s oil or trying to colonize the country. The Iraqis themselves are selling oil on their own terms, and they are no longer so eager for Americans to pack up and leave their fragile democracy before it’s stabilized.

Finally, what is the liberal position on race? It is not to offer relative contexts and mitigating circumstances for hate speech, as did Sen. Obama regarding the words of his former pastor. Nor, in contrast, is it Bill and Hillary Clinton’s racial polarizing and scapegoating to defend — and then restore — a poorly run campaign. And it is surely not a Democratic race that has devolved into the candidates counting on their constituents to vote along racial lines.

In short, with all this demagoguing, backtracking and firing of aides, we don’t always know exactly what the Democratic position is on trade, energy, Iraq or race — only that it is seems to be far from what we once thought was liberal.