One of the great things about American politics is its capacity for punishing hubris.
For the ancient Greeks, hubris didn’t merely describe godlike arrogance. It was a crime, usually defined as taking too much pleasure in the humiliation of your foes. In its modern usage it usually means the pride that comes before the fall.
In the wake of Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, both connotations seem at least a little apt. We are well into our fourth month of epidemic thumb-suckery over the question, “Are the Republicans doomed?” The latest New York Times Magazine asks, “Can the Republicans Be Saved from Obsolescence?” The wished-for answer doesn’t require much reading comprehension.
Since the election, a slew of political reporters and analysts — never mind the self-declared Obama boosters — have argued that Obama will, must, or should crush his enemies (and by enemies, I mean the Republicans). Slate’s John Dickerson wrote that if Obama “wants to transform American politics, he must go for the throat.”
“Obama’s only remaining option,” Dickerson continued, “is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents.”
Many conservative observers agreed. Michael Barone wrote, “Obama begins his second term with a strategy to defeat and humiliate Republicans rather than a strategy to govern.” Rich Lowry, my boss at National Review, wrote that Obama’s approach to the debt-ceiling fight should have been called “Operation Humiliation.”
That strategy worked for Obama, so, he figures, why quit now? His second inaugural address was a frilly campaign stump speech, dividing fools and devils (Republicans) from the wise and the sainted (Democrats).
His State of the Union address, already fading from the mind’s eye like the afterglow of a flashbulb, showed that Obama remains committed to his hammer-and-tongs style. His ludicrous claims that massive new expansions of government won’t add a “single dime” to the deficit — technically true, since they would add trillions of dimes to the deficit — alone made it clear that he’s still in campaign mode.
Obama and many in his chorus remain convinced that, after that momentary hiccup known as the 2010 midterm elections, America is finally on a glide path to the new progressive era they’ve long been promised.
This is where the two meanings of hubris come together. Liberals panting after the transformative Obama presidency are seeing only what they want to see. The GOP suffered from the same sort of wishful thinking when Republicans believed that George W. Bush — and Ronald Reagan before him — signaled a partisan realignment.
Look closely at Obama’s State of the Union address, and you see not a progressive colossus poised to conquer all in his path, but a mostly spent force, desperately trying to figure out how to get anything done at all. His main policy ambition was to keep from getting the blame for his own idea: the sequester.
But the emotional heart of the State of the Union comprised three issues: immigration reform, climate change, and gun control. Well, as Senate Democrats have made clear, the only way immigration reform passes is if Obama stays out of the process entirely.
On gun control, all Obama is asking for is a vote. He’s not even asking for passage of a largely ludicrous assault-weapons ban. Why? Because gun control is a wedge dividing Democrats, not Republicans.
So is climate change. Liberal donors want Obama to kill the Keystone pipeline (which Obama failed to mention) and push a green agenda. The union and blue-collar base want good jobs and cheap gas. Indeed, while climate change and gun control may be imperatives for the editors of the New York Times, they are pretty low priorities for Americans growing increasingly nostalgic for economic growth Obama can’t deliver. How can it be springtime for liberalism when liberalism’s top priorities aren’t the public’s top priorities?
The remainder of Obama’s agenda was fairly pathetic boilerplate. Hike the minimum wage! Redesign America’s schools! Manufacturing hubs! Make-work programs!
This is supposed to be liberalism reborn? Lame ideas cribbed from a playbook with 60 years of dust on it? Slogans hatched by pols who needed a few more nouns to round out Obama’s sentences? Legislative initiatives that will cost Democrats seats in 2014 and beyond?
Obama’s State of the Union had the lowest ratings in 13 years for a reason — and it’s not that America is excited for a new golden age of liberalism. The momentum Obama feels is the pull of gravity, as he starts his fall.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.