Ross Douthat goes into his David Brooks mode and tries to put some sense into why the country is turning on Barack Obama.
But since Barack Obama took the oath of office, the country’s leftward momentum has reversed itself. In some cases, nearly 20 years of liberal gains have been erased in 20 months. Americans are more likely to self-identify as conservative than at any point since Bill Clinton’s first term. They’ve become more skeptical of government and more anxious about deficits and taxes. They’re more inclined to identify as pro-life and anti-gun control, more doubtful about global warming, more hostile to regulation. And, not surprisingly, they’re more likely to consider voting Republican on Tuesday.
So what happened to the brave new liberal era? Well, a few things. The Wall Street bailout made big government seem like a corrupt racket. The unemployment rate made activist government appear helpless in a crisis. The yawning deficits made a free-spending government look like a luxury the country might not be able to afford.
These were all difficulties that Obama inherited, in one sense or another. But the Democrats swiftly created further problems for themselves. The central premise of the White House’s policy-making, the assumption that an economic crisis is a terrible thing to waste (as Rahm Emanuel famously put it), turned out to be a grave tactical mistake. It drew exactly the wrong lesson from earlier liberal eras, when the most enduring expansions of government — Social Security in the 1930s, Medicare in the 1960s — were achieved amid strong economic growth, rather than at the bottom of a recession.
The Obama Democrats, by contrast, tried to push through health care reform and climate legislation with the unemployment rate stuck at a 28-year high. On health care, they won a costly victory. On cap-and-trade, they forced vulnerable congressmen to cast a controversial vote, and came away with nothing to show for it. In both cases, they reaped a backlash, while defining themselves as ideological and intensely out-of-touch.
In other words, President Obama won the largest electoral win by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and did exactly what he said he would do during the campaign. Horrors!
I’ll make it easy for Mr. Douthat: the biggest mistake President Obama and the Democrats made was underestimating the vitriol and blind rage they would unleash by having the temerity to beat the Republicans. I’m not sure what led them to their naivete, but anyone who has observed American politics for the last fifty years knew that the first black man elected to office, especially after the eight years of the “permanent Republican majority” and the 150 years of the resentment of certain factions of white people at the idea of racial equality beyond allowing the coloreds to drive on the same roads as the Real Muricans, had to see this coming. Add to that the needs of the noise machine that Jon Stewart pointed out, and there was no way that the patriarchs and the entitled class were going to sit by. Release the flying monkeys! And they did. The crop of demented and demeaning players, both running for office and those running the shows that are promoting those running for office, make the rants of Joe The Plumber (remember him?) seem quaint and meek by comparison; after all, it is in Joe’s congressional district that they have a candidate who dressed up like a Nazi on weekends.
Mr. Douthat crosses his fingers and hopes that the Republicans will “seize” the opportunity to reverse the 20-year-tide of progress. With the Republican leadership vowing to make the president a one-termer and taking the idea of compromise off the table, and Michele Bachmann and Darrell Issa planning to investigate and subpoena everybody that passed by the White House in the last two years, the chances of getting much more out of the Congress than a recognition of National Pickle Week are zilch.
And when the unemployment rate hasn’t dropped to 3% by February 1, 2011, the Gulf of Mexico isn’t clean enough to drink out of, Osama bin Laden is still in his cave, Afghanistan doesn’t have McDonald’s and Hobby Lobby, and everyone at the Super Bowl doesn’t find the keys to a new car under their seat, the vast majority of the country that has been afflicted with short-term memory loss and attention-deficit will wonder why they’re not getting the instant results the GOP promised them. Funny how that works.