Nelson Aldrich Obama

…or maybe Barack Rockefeller, if you prefer.

Perhaps one way to explain President Obama’s inability to stake out more strongly progressive positions on — well, just about anything, from tax cuts, to health care reform, to foreign policy (think Afghanistan) — is that he essentially is not a progressive Democrat but rather that extinct breed, the Rockefeller Republican.  It is not quite the same thing as modern-day moderate Republicanism, because it is slightly to the left.  But the more I think about it, the more that I have to conclude that all those who for the last two years have been calling Obama a moderate Republican have some justice on their side.  I don’t know if the foregoing works, but there is a lot there.  Consider:

Rockefeller Republicans (sometimes called “silk stocking Republicans”) basically favored New Deal programs and civil rights, and at the extreme left of their faction actually advocated a stronger social safety net (think Jacob Javits, Clifford Case, Hugh Scott, or Charles Percy).  They were committed environmentalists.  Their appeal was essentially technocratic and “good governmentish”, running against urban machines and corruption (think Thomas Dewey).  They opposed, however, anything far-reaching, and always looked out first for the interests of business; they were loathe ever to use populist rhetoric.

Moreover, they were uncomfortable fighting in the trenches, and rarely pushed major social reform through.  Leverett Saltonstall, according to Robert Caro, had a “patrician aversion to disputes or controversy that made him shrink from quarreling.”  Forty years later, when John Podesta was President Clinton’s chief of staff, he told White House staffers that any political strategy that rested on the support of moderate Republicans was a non-starter: they would always cave.

Now consider that the Affordable Care Act is essentially the same as that proposed in 1993 by Republican John Chaffee of Rhode Island: individual mandate, antidiscrimination provisions, private health insurance, subsidies for those who can’t afford it.  His financial rescue team — led by Tim Geithner, a New Yorker close with Wall Street– adamantly refused to consider Swedish solutions of bank nationalization.  If he was frustrated about Congressional pusillanimity on the size of the stimulus, he never showed it.  And he would never — never — use populism of any kind against the banks.

This might be the most “good government” administration in history: the administration has been remarkably free of any scandal, although Darrell Issa will invent a few.

But the goo-goo-ism seems to reach a higher level with Obama: the Marquess of Queensbury has come to DC.  Obama has rarely if ever used his presidential authority for stop-loss orders to end Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, and his administration appears eager to “play by the rules” and overturn the policy only with the acquiescence of Congressional Republicans.  He is positively allergic to recess appointments.  He never plays hardball: the Wikileaks documents show him trying to stop prosecutions of former Bush officials, a favor that the Bushies would never have returned. 

On foreign policy, his principal intellectual guide appears to be Brent Scowcroft, and unsurprisingly, national security is where the good government bias ends: Obama has taken care to advance the Establishment line on things such as State Secrets and civil liberties.

And now, we see him caving on tax cuts, buying into fiscal conservative myths on federal employee salaries, making concessions without receiving anything on the other side.  And maybe that’s because partially, he doesn’t share the progressive outrage at modern-day Republicanism.  The Rockefeller types certainly had their conviction, but they were never really outraged at anything.

Rockefeller Republicanism is an honorable tradition.  Those associated with it have strong records and look good in history’s light.  But you probably wouldn’t want one in a foxhole with you, at least politically (Chaffee himself was a war hero at Guadalcanal).  And right now, Democrats are on defense.  They — we — need a leader.

Moreover, Rockefeller Republicanism only works if there is some sort of political force to its left.  But for the next two years, in Washington Obama might be the left.  He doesn’t like being there.  He likes reasonableness.  For all the talk about him as a Chicago pol, he is not: he is a Punahou and Harvard Law School pol.

It’s going to be a long two years.