Was 2009 the dawn of a new liberal era? Or was it, rather, the apogee of Democratic power (for now)? In November 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, liberals weren't content to say his sweeping victory was due to public disapproval of President Bush and the deepening recession. They insisted the electorate had been transformed. The country had changed, in a fundamental way.
Gone were the angry white folks who had let the GOP run things, off and on, for a generation. A rainbow coalition of progressive, technologically savvy Millennial voters had arrived on the scene. America, we were told, was salivating at the prospect of a "new era of liberal reform." Obama was Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy all rolled into one. He was, moreover, the liberal Reagan. His ascendance signaled not only the end of conservative power but a decisive lurch to the left.
The events of the last year have exposed this argument as false. The United States remains a closely divided nation that trends center-right. Self-identified conservatives outnumber liberals two-to-one. In December, 76 percent of respondents told Rasmussen Reports that they prefer a free-market economy to one managed by government. While Obama remains personally popular, his job approval has steadily declined to less than 50 percent in the Pew, USA Today/Gallup, and Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls.
And though the national Republican party remains unpopular, the GOP has nevertheless pulled within striking distance of the Democrats in the generic congressional ballot. In 2009, pro-life conservative Republicans won gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey--two Obama states. An energetic right-wing protest movement has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to give voice to Americans upset at the political class.
Obama's domestic program is exceedingly unpopular. The public disapproves of the president's bailouts, stimulus, health care reform, and cap and trade policies, not to mention his decision to close the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay. Such disapproval, however, has led to a paradox. Because Democrats know they likely will suffer an electoral rebuke in 2010, they have moved even more quickly to enact their unwelcome agenda.
In their view, after all, 2009 could be the high-water mark of the New New Deal; better seize the moment. Democrats in Congress, therefore, have passed major pieces of complex legislation, with significant effects on the American economy, against public opinion and on party-line votes. They might as well be lemmings, marching to the cliff.
The backlash against Obama's partisan liberal agenda has led to some surprising numbers. The December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found the Tea Party movement has a higher approval rating than either the Democrats or the GOP. A recent Fox News poll found a majority of respondents preferred "doing nothing" to signing the Democratic health care bills into law. In another December survey, Public Policy Polling found that--this is not a joke--voters prefer Obama to George W. Bush by only a six-point margin.
Liberals have dismissed these polls, of course. Obama's sagging popularity, they say, has nothing to do with his liberalism. Unemployment is the sole factor. Granted, high unemployment is a factor. But it is not the only one. It cannot be a coincidence, for example, that Obama's job approval began to really slide at the very moment Congress took up the health care debate.
Meanwhile, liberals ascribe the unpopularity of their policies solely to right-wing "smears" and "lies." The idea that the opposition might be arguing in good faith, that it might hold legitimate criticisms, cannot be countenanced. Some ulterior motive--greed, nuttery, racism, etc.--is always at work. These are excuses, however. Saying there is something wrong with your opponent's character is a convenient way to escape from dealing with his reasoning. It is also a good way to escape from reality.
The truth is that the liberal great awakening was always a fantasy. "What's really exceptional at this stage of Obama's presidency," writes Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, "is the extent to which the public has moved in a conservative direction on a range of issues." That movement, Kohut observes, is coming not only from "wingers" but from independents and the center, as well. "Pew Research surveys throughout the year have found a downward slope in support both for an activist government generally and for a strong safety net for the needy, in particular."
Nor is the rightward shift limited to issues related to the size of government. Public support for labor unions, for instance, is at an all-time low. Support for gun control is declining. So is support for abortion rights. The share of the public that believes there is "solid evidence" of climate change has fallen from 70 percent to 57 percent. In an earlier survey, released in May, Pew found that only 49 percent of Americans are willing to "pay higher prices in order to protect the environment." No wonder those who support putting a price on carbon are downplaying the environmental angle and emphasizing "energy independence" instead.
Conservative strength is also apparent when you look at the parties. The talk about a divided GOP is exaggerated. True, some Republican strategists and bloggers, mainly based in Washington, are uncomfortable with the party's populist turn. But they are in the minority. In their unified opposition to the Obama agenda, the Republicans have drawn a clear ideological distinction with the Democrats. The GOP's chief strategic problem is finding a way to convince the Tea Party movement and anti-Obama independents that it's okay to vote for Republicans again. The GOP, in other words, has to incorporate new voters and regain the confidence of some old ones.
The Democrats, by contrast, have to prevent their coalition from dissolving. Conservative House Democrats are beginning to retire. And one of them, Alabama congressman Parker Griffith, defected to the GOP last week. At the same time, Obama faces an incipient revolt on his left. The man who drew so much support from the Netroots during the Democratic primary fight has rebuffed the left on three major issues. He has ignored populist calls to break up the banks and reject the Too Big To Fail regulatory model. He has committed additional American troops to the war in Afghanistan. He has agreed to jettison the public option and Medicare buy-in in order to secure the votes of moderate Democratic senators for the health bills.
So far, the left's disappointment hasn't persuaded Democrats in Congress to break with the president. If the malaise persists, however, the activists and enthusiasts who turned out to vote in 2008 may decide to stay home in 2010. Which would make Republicans extremely happy.
You won't find it in the "year in review" features in the papers and newsweeklies, but the story of 2009 was that a young, attractive, postpartisan presidential candidate decided to govern as a partisan liberal. The results have been declining public support, bad legislation, demoralized lefties, and a resurgent conservative movement. The gap between the American people and those who govern them from Washington, D.C., is widening.
It turns out John Edwards had a point: There really are two Americas. There's the America of the "expert" schemers, planners, and centralizers inside the Beltway, who think they know what's good for the people, whether the people like it or not. And there's the America of just about everyone else. They are no doubt the ones Irving Kristol had in mind when he wrote, "The common people in such a democracy are not uncommonly wise, but their experience tends to make them uncommonly sensible."
Matthew Continetti is associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD and author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin (Penguin/Sentinel).