Postmodern Conservative

Thumpin’ Studies

I just heard on NPR that studies show that Americans don’t care about the upcoming midterm election, despite the record amount of money that’s been spent to psych them up. That, of course, might be dismissed as liberal spin. Any time I’m about to lose some big game, I explain that I don’t even care — and no one else does — anyway. 

I heard on NBC that voters don’t care because they’re disgusted with gridlock. They don’t think voting can give them change they can believe in. Polls really do show that voters are disgusted with the two elected branches of government. But a truthful analysis would have to add: Outrage is focused especially on the person who is president. The genius of our system is that, typically, blame for the country’s not going in the right direction is focused on the branch where all the power is held by one person. 

Still, it’s unclear whether this election is going to be a Republican “wave” when it comes to the Senate. The odds are the Republicans will end up with control of that chamber. But the particular races have a lot of quirks and uncertainties, and nobody really knows what’s going to happen. At the top of that fuzzy list is Georgia, where Nate Silver (whose analyses do deploy sensibly the data that are really available) thinks the most likely outcome is a January 6 runoff. I’m not as sure, thinking that Michelle Nunn is closing pretty strong. (She has saved her best positive commercial — featuring her statesman dad — for last.) If this is a wave year, however, the polls wouldn’t be picking up completely the anti-Obama surge. Not only that, you might add, but the last couple of polls actually do seem to show a modest Perdue surge. In most wave years, there is an element of good luck; the party that rides the wave happens to win just about all the close ones.

Perhaps the most telling early sign of the big Republican wave, Silver reminds us, would be a Scott Brown victory in New Hampshire. The polls show the race pretty much a dead heat. But few really believe, at this point, that that’s a close one the Republicans should believe in.

President Bush the younger candidly described his 2006 repudiation as a “thumpin’.” President Clinton described his 1994 experience in equally candid, if less folksy, terms. As Peggy Noonan reminds us this week, the first step in a twelve-step presidential self-help program is acknowledging not only that the voters think you have some big problems but that you really are pretty bleepin’ clueless. Certainly Clinton and Bush both became much better or less clueless presidents in response to a wake-up thumpin’. 

President Obama didn’t derive an equivalent therapeutic benefit from his 2010 thumpin’, thinking it was necessary collateral damage for the great progress in social justice that was the ACA. Just as the Federalist expected, he took refuge in his fixed term, expecting that the positive benefits of his reforms would kick in by 2012. Arguably, they didn’t, but he got away both with asking for more time and with blaming his predecessor for things remaining somewhat screwed up. Maybe most precisely, he could plausibly claim that things were somewhat better than they were in 2009; the economy wasn’t bad enough on election day that Romney could get away with “The economy, ’nuff said” as his ticket for ousting the incumbent.

As I’ve said before, maybe the most self-evident reason for not reelecting any president these days is that second terms have been pretty uniformly disappointing in recent decades, partly due to the 22nd Amendment. Obama’s drop-off in popularity and competence has been combined with a startling upgrade of aggressively rogue executive action. A lot of that behavior can be explained by the inability to run for reelection; the Constitution, in a way, becomes the president’s enemy if his second is undeniably his final term.

Even the president’s friends are worrying big-time about his cluelessness, his fecklessness in the face of change he didn’t anticipate and is really slow to believe in. (President Bush’s friends were doing the same in 2006.) Maybe nothing could help Obama’s performance more than a thumpin’  (or, to use his word, ”shellacking”) he’s stuck with acknowledging. That goes for everything from thinking realistically as commander-in-chief to backing off on obviously unconstitutional executive orders, such as the projected amnesty one. 

The new Republican slogan (one that might be reluctantly affirmed by some Democrats): What the president needs, for his own good, is the tough love of a good thumpin’. Surely the therapy will be more effective than it was in 2010. The president can’t run for reelection as an antidote this time. Honk if you love the president and want him thumped! I’m not being ironic at all when I say I wish him well and hope things get better for him and our country.

The situation might actually be pretty perfect for Obama and the Republican leaders in Congress to start to work with each other. I hope the Republicans don’t get caught up in the illusions (again) that they can govern from Congress or that they can put the country on hold until they recapture the White House in 2016. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t  be developing a cogent 2016 plan, beginning with coming up with a candidate who can both win and govern. But they shouldn’t count on that plan’s working out. Studies show, for example, that Romney would easily beat Obama now, but he would still lose big to the Clinton who hasn’t been president yet. The same goes, more or less, for the Bush who hasn’t been president yet.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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