There may be no more deadly force in politics than hubris. It sneaks up on politicians at their weakest moments — the height of their success — and destroys them, sometimes slowly, sometimes spectacularly.
Pres. Barack Obama is suffering from a case of hubris so far-reaching and debilitating, it will fascinate political epidemiologists for decades. His intellectual boosters egged him on. They greeted his election as the advent of, as Peter Beinart put it in Time magazine, “The New Liberal Order.” Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times rushed to print a book called “The Death of Conservatism.”
It was all settled, then — except of course it wasn’t. “Public opinion is the lord of the universe,” Thomas Jefferson said. The Obama Democrats governed in blatant defiance of it and didn’t care to notice the trends that should have been a flashing red light on their ambitions.
Just as Obama was taking office, public opinion was shifting to the right. In July of 2009, Gallup found that by a two-to-one margin people said they’d become more conservative in recent years. Gallup noted that “the results are conspicuously incongruous with the results of the 2008 elections.” It is this disparity that created the conditions for the Tea Party movement, and eventually Obama’s “shellacking.”
“The party of no” was rewarded in “the election of no.” The voters went to the polls in the spirit of the Woody Allen remark, “I wish I had some kind of affirmative message to leave you with. Would you take two negative messages?” In 2010, they were “no” and “stop.”
Those words must always be spoken in a frequency too high for Democrats to hear. In his post-defeat press conference, Obama said people are frustrated by the pace of the economic recovery. True enough. But Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics notes that the unemployment rate in many electoral models would have only accounted for a Democratic loss of 20-30 seats. In 1982, when the unemployment rate was higher than it is today, Ronald Reagan lost 26 House seats.
That means Democrats “overperformed” in their midterm debacle by 20-40 seats. Not to mention the down-ballot wipeout that saw Republicans pick up 680 seats in state legislatures, 200 more than in their historic victory in 1994.
According to exit polls, only 23 percent of voters blamed Obama for the state of the economy, fewer than blamed Wall Street bankers (35 percent) or George W. Bush (29 percent). But 74 percent are angry or dissatisfied with the federal government. Seventy-three percent disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. Fifty-two percent think Obama’s policies will hurt the country, and 56 percent want the federal government to do less.
Was the electorate skewed by Tea Party–fueled turnout? William Galston of The New Republic points out that the electorate was 38 percent Democratic, 36 percent Republican and 28 percent independent in the Democratic wave of 2006. This year that partisan breakdown was almost exactly the same. The difference is that independents broke strongly for Republicans, reflecting how they — in keeping with the overall electorate — have become more conservative in recent years.
Whereas Obama thought he had a license to rush to transform America after 2008, he really had a tentative endorsement from a refractory public, much of which is inherently skeptical of his goals. He was like an ice fisherman tromping around on what he thought was a lake frozen six inches thick when it was barely frozen at all.
Adjusting to the discomfiting reality of a center-right electorate is his challenge now. It will require the humility first to realize how fundamentally he misread the American people, and then to adopt a more cautious and defensive style of politics. If you are given to congratulating yourself on your world-historical importance — and contrasting yourself with Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president who shrewdly survived a midterm drubbing — none of this will come easily.
But it’s the only cure for the shellacking that hubris wrought.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.