It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The Obama administration came into power with the political winds at its back, the media at its feet, and Americans open to major change. The White House even had a slogan: A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
The logic behind the axiom is unassailable. As Robert Higgs documented in his libertarian classic, Crisis and Leviathan, it’s crisis — not merely war — that is the health of the state. Crises melt frozen politics. They create opportunities. They give the government room to maneuver and grow.
And for a while, it worked that way. Democrats steamrolled the most ambitiously liberal agenda in at least a generation. Yet liberals are miserable. Their lamentations over what they see as President Obama’s lack of audacity punctuate the din, like ululating matrons at an Arab politician’s funeral.
This misplaced griping stems not from Obama’s failure to “think big” but from a misreading of the political climate: Liberals thought they’d be popular.
The American people supported the New Deal and pro-FDR politicians for years. This time around, Americans aren’t turning to government. Rather, they’ve grown only more disgusted with the public sector. Trust in government is near a historic low. Obama’s support among self-identified independents is at an all-time low and doesn’t appear to have hit bottom yet, while the “intensity” among Republican voters continues to surge.
Indeed, conservatives outnumber liberals by more than 2 to 1 (42 percent to 20 percent), according to Gallup. If that trend continues just a bit more, an absolute majority of Americans may soon call themselves conservatives.
All those liberal pundits who prophesized an Obama-led “new New Deal” must feel foolish as they don their life preservers and head to higher ground in anticipation of the electoral tsunami heading their way in November.
In a futile effort to build the morale of the sandbag brigades preparing for the tide, the White House and Democrats have interrupted their “recovery summer” cheerleading and started making the case that the coming election is a “choice,” not a “referendum.” It’s “a choice between the policies that led us into this mess or the policies that are leading us out of this mess,” Obama thundered in Missouri last week.
Obviously, such arguments hinge on the hope that the people will agree. That seems doubtful. Indeed, if that reasoning were persuasive, Obamacare would be popular — or at least it would have become popular since its passage, as the White House predicted.
Perhaps voters don’t remember the Bush years as a time of “market fundamentalism” so much as a time when “big government” conservatism in the White House and cronyism in Congress set the kindling for the bonfire ignited by Obama.
However much blame they deserve for the economic crisis, Obama and congressional Democrats deserve the political crisis they’ve created for themselves. And the GOP should exploit it.
For a year or so, Republicans have been the so-called party of no. Contrary to the expectations of its critics, that tactic has been good for the GOP. It seems that the tea parties, America’s natural antibodies to Obamaism, have provided some vital stem-cell therapy, helping to regrow the Republican spine.
But that spine is only valuable if you use it for something. Much of the GOP leadership has been content saying “no” for two reasons — one good, one bad. When Obama was tall in the saddle and determined to exploit the economic crisis on his terms, there was no point in offering real alternatives. And it’s just a lot easier to criticize than it is to lead.
Now is the time for the GOP to call Obama’s bluff and offer a real choice. My personal preference would be for the leadership to embrace Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s “road map,” a sweeping, bold, and humane assault on the welfare state and our debt crisis. Doing so might come at the cost of trimming the GOP’s victory margins in November, but it would provide Republicans with a real mandate to be something more than “not-Obama.”
Don’t let Obama’s crisis go to waste.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.