Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Radical Gamble

The second part in a series

Perhaps the centerpiece of Barack Obama’s electoral strategy was the casting of Obama as a kind of political savior. He would come forth and wash away some of the stains of the nation’s history. He would offer a transcendence of the petty cultural antagonisms that had riven America for the past few decades. He would offer a new way of hope that would reconcile the disparate parts of this fractured nation. Perhaps even more than his early opposition to the US’s military involvement in Iraq, this cultural message was his biggest advantage in the Democratic primary. Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention allowed him to seize the mantle of political redeemer, and he clutched that garb to him throughout the 2008 campaign.

2009 was the moment when the nation would come to see a stark difference between Obama’s political narrative and the reality of Obama’s governance. Obama’s record prior to 2009 gave evidence of the fact that he was not, by many measures, a political moderate: throughout his career, he voted like a left-wing Democrat, and his race against Hillary Clinton became saturated with polarizing invective claiming that the Clintons were arch-racists (or something). So his approaches to government and campaigning often revealed a willingness to polarize and not to moderate. But 2009 turned a spotlight on his governance style.

Obama made no secret of his desire to be a kind of revolutionary president, one who would not merely massage the edges of political discourse but who would completely recenter it decisively to the left. So, with big majorities in the House and the Senate, Obama and the Democrats made a huge gamble: push as much through as big and as fast as possible. A flurry of “progressive” legislation could totally expand and reshape the federal government’s power.

The stimulus, which would fall woefully short of the administration’s guarantees, would shackle the US to a mountain of debt, one which would, at some point, require the raising of taxes. This stimulus would also allow the federal government to funnel billions of dollars to various groups and, in return for that, put the yoke of expectations on these groups. Health-care “reform” as originally envisioned by the administration would allow bureaucrats in Washington to run the whole of the nation’s health system, 17% of the national economy. Cap-and-trade would become a vehicle for federal intervention in every aspect of people’s private lives and commercial transactions. Education “reform” would allow Washington and its bureaucratic corps more and more to shape the minds of later generations.

From the standpoint of “progressive” centralizers, this gamble was not misaimed. Had all of these passed, it would have been truly revolutionary. And many of these did pass: the stimulus, health-care “reform,” and many education policies. If history is any guide, these changes might be very hard to turn back. Though many on the right celebrate Goldwater’s loss to Johnson as a moment for the renewal of the conservative movement, it should not be forgotten that the many of Johnson’s signature programs have not yet been repealed. It took nearly thirty years of constant political fighting for the right, center, and dissident left to reform Johnsonian welfare, long an unpopular program. Looking back at the example of the post-Johnsonian welfare state, Obama might have thought that, even if the Democrats lost Congress two years after his election, and even if he was denied a second term, he could retire in electoral defeat knowing that he had a won a major “progressive” victory.

And Obama may ultimately prove successful in that revolutionary move. The GOP might find it more appealing to talk about repealing health-care “reform” than to engage in the hard legislative work of actually repealing that bill and/or putting more effective policies in its place. Republicans have pulled similar moves with "big government," after all; continually inveighing against it, they usually have expanded government. Sure, Reagan campaigned on eliminating the Department of Education, but this department (and many others) was bigger at the end of his presidency than it was at the beginning.

However, in the short term, at least, Obama's policies have ignited a groundswell of opposition on the right and center. Obama’s image as a transcendent political redeemer was soon scratched and then smashed by the first few months of his presidency. With the right finding a new enchantment in small government, many Republicans in Congress were unwilling to go along with massive expansions of the government. Under the (surprisingly to some) effective party discipline of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, Congressional Republicans stood united against many radical policy proposals.

This resistance gave the president a choice: compromise, or use his large majorities to ride roughshod over these resistors. The president chose the latter.

The debate over health-care reform was not Obama's Waterloo, but it may yet prove his Borodino. Napoleon's victory against Russian forces at Borodino allowed him to claim the field temporarily and to drive off his opponents. But this battle also depleted his force's numbers, supplies, and energy. While Napoleon was able to claim Moscow, his dwindling supplies and men forced him to abandon the city and rendered his Russian campaign a disaster.

So too has the battle over health-care inflicted a significant blow to Democrats' political prospects and besmirched Obama's political brand. Democrats had the numbers to (just barely) pull this victory off, but this victory also solidified a new political narrative that has so far been utterly detrimental to the Democrats.

Instead of Obama as the grand conciliator, able to summon the vital 60%, he became the polarizer and white-knuckle arm-twister. Many "progressives" complain that the president has been too soft in advancing his cause. For many Americans, the view is quite different. They see a president who was able to ram through a massive governmental reform over massive popular opposition. They viewed many Democratic representatives as utterly indifferent to their complaints and utterly unwilling to engage in an authentic political conversation. Legitimate concerns about the effects of Obama's health-care "reform" (raised in town halls and district offices across the country) were often met with the tactics of distortion, distraction, and indifference.

The public came to view Obama's Washington, DC as a city in a bubble. So much for the new politics of transparency and conversation.

Also so much for the new politics of hope. Soon sensing that the Republicans would not capitulate in the early months of 2009, the Obama White House and its Democratic and "progressive" allies began to indulge in discounting Republican opposition (and, indirectly, public skepticism) as somehow illegitimate. Republicans were racists or fascists or nihilists, and opposition to the Obama agenda was not the sign of a mere difference of opinion but of unworthy psychological motivations.

Perhaps this tactic might have delivered some short-term gains when the president's approval ratings were in the 60s, but these attacks also polarized the electorate and caused Obama's disapproval ratings to spike. This rhetoric also undermined the image of Obama as the mediator and builder of consensus. Whatever some pundits might have said about Obama as bringing an end to the culture war, it soon seemed as though Obama was just making the war more ferocious. His administration and its allies were not lowering the temperature of public policy debates but selectively inflaming conflicts.

Obama's temporary political power allowed him to advance a revolutionary agenda, but this very political success may also have fueled a counter-revolution.

Faced with an entrenched political elite that seemed more interested in fighting its partisan battles and courting power above all else, many Americans began to cry, No more!

Next: The Stupid Economy
Previously: The Resurgent Right

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