Whatever happens on Election Day, the heroic phase of Obama’s presidency is over. It is over not simply because he will spend the rest of his term playing defense rather than conquering new ground for liberalism. It is over because the assumptions that underlay that first phase of his presidency have already been discredited.
Cast your mind back to December 2008. Democrats had just won their second back-to-back blowout election. President Obama had won the highest percentage of the vote of any Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and the highest for a non-incumbent Democrat since 1932. The 2008 election, just like those earlier ones, had produced a Congress firmly controlled by the president’s allies. It was the most liberal configuration of power Washington, D.C., had seen since at least 1965–66.
The trends seemed to be Democrats’ friends. A rising nonwhite population; an increasingly unchurched youth; a growing tendency of college-educated voters to back Democrats: If demography was destiny, the Republicans’ fate looked bleak. To add to conservatives’ misery, the country was in the midst of a financial crisis widely blamed on deregulation.
The new majority was led, finally, by a president with immense popularity and political talent. Obama inspired an enthusiasm not seen for a new president since John F. Kennedy — or maybe even Andrew Jackson. He was smart, cool, a gifted orator and a canny strategist. Republicans counseled one another not to criticize him by name.
The liberal journalist Peter Beinart noted that for decades Democratic leaders had treated the American public’s latent conservatism as a sleeping bear: The chief imperative was to avoid sudden moves that would rouse it. But the Reagan era was now over, and Democrats no longer needed to live in fear. That’s what Obama’s “yes we can” slogan meant to liberals: Yes we can move past both conservatism and Clintonian triangulation. Liberalism was living in its favored political tense: the future perfect.
Democrats could look at the political landscape with confidence, assured of three things. The country had decisively rejected conservatism and moved leftward. The idea of small government had been discredited by the financial crisis. And the president’s persuasive powers could get the Democrats through any remaining difficulties.
Now those assumptions lie in tatters. Republicans are unified and enthusiastic, independents favor government retrenchment, and Democrats have been reduced to scolding their base to stop whining and vote.
It was a misunderstanding of their previous success that brought them to this pass. Democrats couldn’t have had better conditions for electing a president in late 2008 if James Carville and Paul Begala had designed them in a laboratory. A party occupying the White House must above all fear unpopular wars and recessions, and the Republicans were beset with both. On top of the Iraq War and the recession that had officially begun in December 2007 came the financial crisis of September 2008. Bush’s team had once hoped to get his approval rating back up near 50 percent in 2008. A month before the election, it stood at 50 percent of 50 — an astonishing 25 percent in the Gallup poll.
The GOP tide from earlier in the decade had receded so far that it could barely be seen from shore. In mid-November 2004, 50 percent of people (including so-called leaners) identified themselves as Republicans, 43 percent as Democrats. In mid-November 2008, Republicans had only 37 percent to the Democrats’ 55 percent. The GOP’s prior dominance had been reversed, and then some. At the beginning of 2006, Democrats and Republicans were even in terms of their favorability ratings, at just under 50. Then Republicans began a rapid retreat. By November 2008, according to Gallup, only 34 percent of people rated them favorably.
Yet neither the Democratic ascendancy nor the Republican humiliation meant the country had made a fundamental shift to the left. People had fired Tom DeLay’s congressional majority and quit on President Bush, but they had not become latter-day McGovernites. In fact, the opposite. A July 2009 Gallup report noted that by a 2–1 margin, people said their views had become more conservative in recent years.
Republicans, independents, and even Democrats had all moved to the right, although Democrats just barely so (34 percent had become more conservative, 40 percent hadn’t changed, and 23 percent had become more liberal). Gallup noted that “the results are conspicuously incongruous with the results of the 2008 elections.” Incongruous, indeed.
As memories of Bush began to fade and as Obama started to govern against the American grain, the rightward drift in public opinion continued. Gallup detected a snap-back in conservative attitudes across the board within a year of Bush’s leaving office. Fifty-three percent of Americans wanted government to promote traditional values — “a return to the prevailing view from 1993 through 2004.” Half of Americans wanted less immigration — “a return to the attitudes that prevailed in the first few years after 9/11.” Fifty-one percent of Americans called themselves pro-life — “a significant shift from a year ago.”
As of June 2010, Gallup had 42 percent of the public identifying themselves as conservatives, with 35 percent calling themselves moderates and 20 percent liberals. Over the last 18 years, moderates have generally outnumbered conservatives. In 2008, conservatives and moderates were tied at 37 percent. Since then, the number of conservatives has gone up and of moderates and liberals gone down. If the current number holds, the percentage of conservatives will be higher than in any other year since Gallup began asking the question in 1992.
Even the great Baker Street detective himself might have been puzzled at the dog that didn’t bark in American politics: the crisis of confidence in capitalism that was supposed to follow on the heels of the financial crisis. It was reasonable to expect that conservatives would spend a decade trying to explain why an economic explosion that included blatantly reckless behavior on Wall Street didn’t discredit free-market ideas. But they won the debate before it even got started — perhaps because people understood that the housing bubble was a society-wide mania, perhaps because the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in helping stoke the bubble was so obvious, perhaps because Washington, through TARP and other bailouts, took partial ownership of the crisis immediately, perhaps because people are mature enough to understand that no system is perfect.
Regardless, the mood that everyone expected would be favorable to 1930s-style activism turned out to be more favorable to government retrenchment. According to Gallup, as early as the fall of 2009, 57 percent of Americans said government was trying to do too many things best left to the private sector. More Americans said there is too much business regulation (45 percent) than too little (24 percent), the worst showing for regulation ever in a Gallup survey. Obama would have to build his new New Deal on the foundation of a quasi-Reaganite public.
This national disposition belied the self-deluding premises of Obama’s boosters, who mixed the Kool-Aid and threw it back in big sugary gulps. Some observers suggested that the Republicans were dwindling into a conservative southern rump party with no appeal beyond their partisan and geographic base. In a book titled 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation, James Carville predicted, well, you can probably guess. It was a poor man’s version of Arthur Schlesinger’s cyclical theory of American politics, ridiculously extrapolating from 2008 to the next four decades of our political life. Oddly enough, one of the few threats to Democratic generational dominance that Carville identified was hubris. He apparently never considered that his own fulsome projection might contribute to this very vice.
Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times wrote a more sophisticated version of Carville’s triumphalism, first in an essay in The New Republic and then in a short book, respectively titled “Conservatism Is Dead” and The Death of Conservatism. Tanenhaus violated a first principle of the undertaker’s art, which is to make sure one’s subject really is good and dead. (George Washington, who had a morbid fear of being prematurely pronounced dead and buried alive, would have given Tanenhaus a wide berth.)
At bottom, Tanenhaus was making a high-toned case for his favored version of conservatism, an idiosyncratic Burkeanism that celebrates Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton as true conservatives. If he had left it at that, he wouldn’t have risked almost-instant obsolescence. Instead, he made grand pronouncements based on a passing political mood one month after Obama had been inaugurated.
Tanenhaus perfectly reflected the conventional wisdom — and all the assumptions of liberal grandiosity — as of the February 2009 publication date of his article. Obama was “push[ing] boldly ahead, apparently with public support.” There was “almost universal agreement” that a new New Deal or Great Society was advisable. Thus, conservative “movement doctrine [had] not only been defeated but discredited.” After Clinton was elected, Republicans successfully opposed his stimulus program because they then “held the ideological advantage.” No more. “Today,” Tanenhaus wrote, “such a stratagem seems unthinkable.”
The book, published in the fall of 2009, went further. Conservatives were “clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology,” oblivious to the new realities “even as free-market gurus conceded the federal government must seize command of a ravaged economy.” They were left with only two choices: “shine in [the] reflected radiance” of ascendant liberalism, “or spin futilely on their unlit fringe orb.”
In the book, Tanenhaus penned a long passage on the importance of political consensus and deference to public opinion, which liberals supposedly understand in a way conservatives, consumed by ideological orthodoxy, don’t. He rapped Republicans for opposing Obama’s stimulus — the precise stratagem he had deemed “unthinkable” a few months earlier in his article.
He scolded Charles Krauthammer and Newt Gingrich for their early opposition to Obama’s agenda. “The politics of consensus,” Tanenhaus wrote, “would have required Krauthammer and Gingrich to acknowledge an inescapable fact: the public favored Obama’s proposals.” (Before too long, that fact was eminently escapable.) According to Tanenhaus, Burkean modesty now decisively belonged to the party of Pelosi, Reid, and Obama, famous for its ideological temperance and fine-tuned sense of the contours of American public opinion. “Liberals, after a long period in the wilderness,” he wrote, “now seem to understand that American politics is a replenishing exercise in adjustment and accommodation.” Uh-huh.
Perhaps Tanenhaus shouldn’t be judged too harshly for imbibing the liberal presumption that characterized the aftermath of 2008. He and many others mistook goodwill toward a new president taking office during a crisis for the public’s assent to Obama liberalism. But what Obama was really being granted two years ago was an opportunity, an opportunity to be reasonable and effective. He hasn’t excelled at either.
It has become clear over the last two years that — whatever the struggles of its main electoral vehicle, the Republican party — demography has not yet buried American conservatism, which still has a great reservoir of strength in the attitudes of the public. That doesn’t guarantee it victory, and neither does it relieve it of the responsibility to persuade people and constantly refresh itself — to think and act anew, in Lincoln’s phrase. But for American conservatism to die would require a spectacular act of political suicide, especially during a period of liberal overreaching born of arrogance, misapprehension, and wishful thinking.
Again and again during the Obama presidency, liberals have assumed that the public either sided with them or could be persuaded to do so — and again and again their hopes have been dashed. Congressional Democrats expected the stimulus to become more popular as grateful communities received federal money and as the economy improved. Instead it became so unpopular that Democrats in 2010 avoided the word “stimulus” as much as possible.
Another early sign that the Democrats had miscalculated came in the form of the first election results of the Obama years. In Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, Republicans won elections with overwhelming support among those voters not tied to either party. All three were states that Obama had carried in 2008. The South, to which so many Democrats and media sages had consigned the Republicans, had evidently expanded.
Democrats thought that health care would be a winning issue for them — and at the start of the Obama presidency not a few Republicans agreed. As public opposition began to mount in the summer of 2009, liberals were not fazed. They blamed the commotion on an extremist fringe and claimed that as the debate progressed the public would come to like what they styled “reform.” That didn’t happen either.
Throughout the debate liberals insisted (as they continue to insist) that the individual elements of the health-care bill are popular. Some of them are, and so is the goal of expanding coverage. But raising taxes, cutting Medicare Advantage, raising premiums, forcing people out of their health-insurance arrangements, requiring everyone to buy an insurance policy to Washington’s liking: None of this is popular, and the public was not willing to pay these costs for the elements of the plan that sounded nice.
So the Democrats’ fallback position became that the public would like the legislation once it was enacted and the ugly process that led to it was forgotten. The legislation included early “deliverables” — benefits that would come into effect quickly and, they hoped, defuse opposition, such as checks to the elderly and protections for people with preexisting conditions.
The dominant health-care stories of the summer and fall have been very different. Premiums are up, insurers are dropping coverage for Medicare Advantage recipients, companies are abandoning their workers’ coverage — and the voters, particularly the elderly, are unmollified. Pollster.com’s average of polls shows opposition to the health-care law to be rising still.
The president’s oratorical powers have proved unavailing to the Democrats. He talked, and talked, and talked about health care, but the public did not come around. In September 2009, he made a heavily publicized address to a joint session of Congress making the case for his bill. Look at a graph of public attitudes about the issue and you won’t be able to tell when he spoke. Indeed, there is no topic on which Obama has moved public opinion in his favor during his presidency. He has chiefly persuaded Americans that he talks too much.
Democrats assumed that Republicans would pay a political price for attempting to obstruct their agenda. For a year and a half they devoted much of their communications apparatus to purveying the message that Republicans were “the party of no” — a label some Republicans feared would stick to them. Republican prospects have improved as that accusation has been spread, which is why the slogan has been heard less and less as the election has neared.
Many journalists have noted, with puzzlement, that Democrats have rarely demonstrated so much legislative productivity and yet have rarely stood lower in public esteem. Yet there is no paradox here: The public dislikes their legislative output and wishes there had been less of it. Voters may disdain partisanship, but that does not mean they wanted the parties to cooperate on Obama’s terms — which is to say, on liberal legislation.
The latest Democratic message — as of press time anyway; desperation is breeding rapid change in this department — is that Republicans are planning either to bring back Bush’s policies or to impose something more extreme. The anti-Bush message does not appear to be taking. (Neither does the anti-extremist message, except in a few races.) Democrats hoped that bad memories of Bush would help them for at least as long as bad memories of Jimmy Carter had helped the Republicans. The parallel was mistaken. The public in the late 1970s had turned on liberalism. Today’s public had merely turned on Bush.
The president, never shy about praising himself, told a group of Democratic congressmen that they would avoid the fate of their predecessors in the 1994 elections because this time they had him on their side. One of those congressmen, Marion Berry of Arkansas, promptly announced he would not seek reelection. In the summer of 2010 Obama warned Republicans that they had forgotten that he was “pretty good at politicking.” As the election draws near, polls suggest that a connection with Obama hurts rather than helps Democrats in tight races, and so those Democrats are for the most part avoiding him.
The president’s political talents have increasingly been called into question. Even his liberal admirers have begun to worry that his cool expresses detachment. Mark Halperin of Time, a reliable barometer of conventional wisdom, says, “Most politically engaged elites have reached the same conclusions: the White House is in over its head, isolated, insular, arrogant and clueless about how to get along with or persuade members of Congress, the media, the business community or working-class voters.”
We do not yet know whether Republicans will win statewide races in such heretofore blue states as California, Washington, Illinois, and Wisconsin. We do know that they have mounted competitive races, and this fact alone must come as a shock to anyone who still adheres to the conventional wisdom of December 2008.
Even now some liberals cannot accept that their dream palace is moving into foreclosure. They insist that the Democrats would be faring better if they had governed in an even more liberal manner. The polls, meanwhile, show that the percentage of Americans who consider Obama too liberal has steadily climbed during his presidency — and now constitutes a near-majority.
The key mistake that Obama and his allies made in 2008 was one that political movements find hard to avoid: making too much of favorable election results. It seems clear enough with hindsight that the elections of 2006 and 2008 were rejections of a group of Republicans and their approach to governance. Elections almost always produce negative mandates: The electorate’s instructions rarely consist of more than the admonition not to be like the losing party. That’s a lesson that Republicans should take to heart, lest they repeat the errors of the Democrats they seem poised to vanquish.
— Rich Lowry is editor-in-chief and Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2010, print issue.