A First-Draft Historical Sketch
On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama took the office of president with, it seemed, the wind of history at his back. Winning a higher percentage of the popular vote than any Democrat had in over forty years, he brought with him huge majorities in the Senate and the House. He seemed to come as a standard bearer for a new generation in politics. Analysts far and wide spoke of a new era of Democratic dominance; a political sea change had occurred.
Not even two years later, whispers and proclamations of a failed presidency abound. A new age of hope sank into a swamp of acrimony, alienation, and anger. Hyperbole has swung the other way, as some now talk of a doomed Democratic agenda and new era of Republican dominance. A movement has semi-spontaneously sprung to life in radical opposition to the current “progressive” agenda and in considerable suspicion of the purportedly "moderate" Republican establishment. The end of 2008, with the economy teetering on the precipice, seemed a tidal wave of public frustration, but the wrath of the present time makes that wave seem like the tiniest ripple.
How did this happen? How have we come to the third "wave" election in a row? Democrats argue that the glum economic situation has brought Obama and his Congressional allies to this point; Republicans aver that Americans have decisively rejected the Democratic party and the big government consensus. Both views are probably too glib. The Democratic argument is too reductive, and the Republican argument glosses over the very mixed feelings many Americans have about numerous Republican (and conservative) small-government policies.
In what follows, I hope to explore the road to 2010. This road goes back farther than January 2009. Many of the dynamics felt in this electoral cycle have being nourished for years. Economics, political rivalries, and cultural antagonisms have all come together in this road. The observations that follow are tentative: they make no claim to exclusivity or theoretical absolutism. But they do offer one sketch of the path to November 2.The Resurgent Right
By 2009, the wrath of many years of suffocation had grown on the right. Though many conservatives supported the President Bush’s record in foreign affairs, they had numerous misgivings about his domestic record. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was never calculated to appeal to members of the small-government right. This faction was willing to go along with the president for electoral purposes (feeling that Bush would have been far preferable to either Gore or Kerry), but they never felt a deep devotion to Bush’s domestic agenda.
It seems that, for many members of the right, the two most celebrated positive domestic accomplishments of the Bush administration were his tax cuts and his nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. That’s relatively thin gruel for fans of small government when the president is radically expanding the federal government’s intervention in the education system, shooting the deficit through the roof, and otherwise putting forward a case for an activist, "compassionate" federal government. The gruel is thinned even more by the fact that Bush nominated Alito to the Supreme Court only after a grassroots revolt over his first choice for that seat, Harriet Miers.
Electoral politics placed a gag about certain topics on this faction of the right, which seemed to devote more energy to mocking John Kerry in 2004 than defending the total domestic record of President Bush. This gag was partially removed in the wake of 2006, when Congressional losses allowed these members of the right to excoriate the Republican party for its failings. And Bush’s attempt to push through some kind of immigration “reform” in 2007 offered one outlet for conservatives to express their dissatisfaction with an increasingly unpopular president.
2008, however, led to a reimposition of this gag. John McCain may have pivoted to the right, but he wasn’t exactly a leading proponent of a small-government message. For reasons of personal temperament and political policy, McCain was unable to offer a significantly contrasting vision to Barack Obama’s conjuring of an active, redemptive federal government. McCain may have had one-liners and certain facts on his side, but he was unable to find a message that galvanized the right (or the rest of the country). Other than a few partisans on the left, most agreed that he was an honorable man, but personal honor is not always enough to guarantee an electoral victory, let alone a philosophical one.
Again, the small-government right went along, defending a man who was no great ally of its cause against a man who seemed an outright opponent of it. Many right-leaning pundits seemed far more to fear an Obama victory than to desire a McCain win. This mood not only was a sign that McCain’s role in the 2008 campaign was primarily a reactive one; it also led to the outpouring of conservative anger in 2009.
At last, with Barack Obama inaugurated, the small-government right no longer needed to defend any incumbent federal power structure. The resentments that had been simmering for years and years could finally break into a boil.
This anger was helped by the fact that the man coming into office in January 2009 was the proponent of a more radically expansive government than had been seen in decades.
Tomorrow: A Radical Gamble