The frustrations of minority status can drive a political party batty.
The temptation is to substitute belligerence for thought, insist on a self-destructive purity, lash out at the American public, and question the wisdom and viability of the country’s institutions. Indulging in these tendencies almost always makes a party’s position worse rather than better.
The Obama Democrats may be the first party to engage in this self-defeating behavior — borne of a frustrated desperation — while holding the presidency and both houses of Congress by substantial margins. Through an accident of timing (a national election coinciding with a financial crisis) and the exhaustion of the Bush-DeLay Republicans (who lost power almost by default), liberals took the commanding heights of the federal government while remaining a minority disposition in our national life. In short, they became a rump majority.
Through Pres. Barack Obama’s alchemy, these temporarily enlarged congressional numbers were supposed to be transformed into a permanent realignment. It hasn’t worked out, obviously. In the past 20 months, Democrats have had the power to do almost everything they want, except command the allegiance of the public. That has made them and their allies feel embattled, isolated, and perpetually aggrieved. They act like a forlorn minority at the same time they control every lever of elective power in Washington.
The ultimate source of the Democrats’ discontent is quite simple: They’ve lost independents. In 1994, in taking Congress, Republicans won independents by 14 percentage points. In 2006, in taking it back, Democrats won independents by 18 points. In the latest Gallup survey, Republicans lead among independents by 11 points, a trend that puts at risk Nancy Pelosi’s misbegotten speakership.
Both Republicans and Democrats have bounced around in the mid-30s to 40s in terms of their proportion of the public since 1984, while independents have hovered in the mid-20s. During its recent tailspin, the GOP’s share declined from 40 percent in 2002 to 33 in 2008, with independents picking up from 22 to 28. Whoever gets those independents wins. And as Republican pollster David Winston points out, they reflect the basic center-right contour of American opinion.
Since 1992, according to Gallup, ideological opinion has been roughly constant: Self-described moderates have been 40 percent or a little lower; conservatives in the high 30s (although they’ve spiked to 42 lately); liberals in the high teens to low 20s. Both sides need the center, but especially liberals. It’d be rank foolishness to try to govern on the strength of only one in five people. But such has been the Obama-Pelosi project — with unsurprising results.
The Pollster.com average of Obama’s approval rating among independents is a dismal 37.9 percent. This meltdown should have launched a thousand agonized liberal op-eds, conferences, and strategy papers on how to win back the center. If, that is, liberalism had any realistic sense of its limits. In the midst of a catastrophic loss of the middle, Obama’s supporters exhort him to get more angry, insistent, and ambitiously liberal. Having already pushed for a bridge too far, they want to go farther still. When they can’t, they conclude that it’s a damning indictment of Obama’s failure of nerve and the nation’s ungovernability.
There’s little acknowledgment that the country is in a different place than they are. To the extent there is, so much the worse for the country, which is condemned for its backwardness and intolerance. The majority is not just wrong on immigration enforcement and the Ground Zero mosque, it’s contemptible. Who knew that the American public would get accused of bigotry more often after electing an African-American president than before?
As former Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner writes, liberals “are expressing deepening alienation from our nation and turning on the American people with a vengeance.” They thought they had a mandate from heaven in 2008, and can’t bear the thought that they deluded themselves. They’ve gone from triumphalism to a petulant and uncomprehending tantrum in less than two years. The rump majority looks more exhausted by the day.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.