We don’t know yet whether he will lose this election for the Democrats, but the Democrats have already lost much in their bet on Barack Obama, and will be paying for it for several years. So far, he has lost them their best chance in a generation to build a center-left coalition, lost them their chance to make government popular, and cost them also their most cherished illusions, which may be the worst blow of all. It is all very far from the 40-year liberal reign forecast by his more fervent admirers barely four years ago, and in this lies an unhappy tale.
He started his term by misreading his mandate — his first and his most crucial flaw. Hope, change, and styrofoam columns notwithstanding, Obama was actually a few points behind the McCain-Palin ticket on September 15, 2008, when the housing market collapsed, the stock market collapsed, and the fiscal system hung on the brink of implosion, tipping the presidency, with no effort on his part, into his lap. It was the move of independents and soft McCain voters to his camp that gave him his landslide, and also his danger and chance. His chance was to craft policies that would bind the independents to his base in a larger center-left coalition; his danger was that their worldview was different from his — independents were unlikely to go for much government spending — and that he and they might quickly be driven apart.
Thinking the crisis too good to waste, and believing that hard times move people toward government, he went for a far-left big-spending agenda, and drive himself and independents apart he soon did. The Tea Party, which held its first rallies early in March 2009, was the first sign of trouble. His stratospheric poll numbers soon began to fall, owing to the stimulus ($800 billion), the controversial buyout of General Motors, and especially the debut of his health-care proposal in April. The summer was marked by contentious town-hall meetings; the off-year elections, by vast swings in states that Obama had carried and that now elected Republican governors in a conscious rebuke to the president, followed by a still greater shock when Ted Kennedy’s seat in blue Massachusetts went to Scott Brown. It took less than a year for Obama to shatter his own coalition and drive his ex-voters into the arms of a resurgent Republican party, which deserves a few notes of its own.
In late 2008 it was on its back, bleeding, barely breathing, and wholly unable to pick itself up off the floor. Terrified by Obama’s advance into red states and his appeal to red voters, Republicans feared that he would preempt the center, pick up the few moderates not yet on board, and reduce the conservative base to a minor rump faction, a fringe of a fringe. Social conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives were at one another’s throats, screaming, facing years of painful rebuilding, uncertain of how and where to gain traction, uncertain that traction could ever be gained. How could they have dreamed that within nine months or so they would be a revived and reenergized party, with a new set of unifying issues and principles, and their differences (at least for the moment) things of the past? How could they have dreamed that Obama would present them with the gift of the Tea Party, a populist surge that would take over while they lay comatose, give them transfusions — of issues, of candidates — and apply paddles and shocks to their hearts? How could they have dreamed that Obama’s stimulus, spending, and health-care proposals would be so egregious that they would not only unite all the disparate factions of the party but drive millions of independents, including disillusioned former Obama supporters, into its welcoming arms?