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Curb Your Exhilaration

Obama's down, but not out.

Mar 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 24 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” Republicans and conservatives have recently had reason to appreciate the truth of Winston Churchill’s statement. President Obama and the Democratic Congress had a real shot at transforming American politics and public policy into European-style social democracy. When Obama spoke to Congress a year ago, on February 24, 2009, it certainly seemed he would have a chance to succeed. 

Curb Your Exhilaration

Last week—one year later—he was on the defensive at his own health care “summit” thanks to the massive public hostility to his health care proposal. 

What a difference a year makes.

Republicans deserve some credit. From the beginning of this Congress, GOP leaders kept their heads, staked out their positions sensibly, and held their members united in opposition to Obama’s project. Meanwhile, conservative policy analysts and polemicists made the arguments against elements of that project more compellingly than might have been expected. But Republicans and conservatives don’t deserve the bulk of the credit for stopping—or at least significantly slowing down—Obama before he was able to do as much damage as he intended.

Who does? 

(1) President Obama himself. As one wag commented, Obama turned out to be quite an effective community organizer. But the community he organized was a majority of the American people in opposition to his agenda of big-government liberalism. 

(2) Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Republicans, -facing overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, should thank their lucky stars to have squared off against an ideologically blinkered speaker of the House and a short-tempered, incompetent majority leader of the Senate.

(3) Conservative and independent grassroots activists. It’s this simple: No Tea Parties, no defeat of Obamacare. It wasn’t just the practical and political effect of the demonstrations across the nation. It was the example of people not being intimidated by elite opinion, the example of their  willingness to fight what was supposed to be an inevitable new era of liberal big government, and the enterprise that self-generating and self-organizing activists showed in resisting the Obama agenda. A year ago, Republicans were confused and conservatives dispirited. The Tea Parties did more than anyone else to change this. For all that may be problematic about some aspects of this new activism, the fact remains that the Grand Old Party owes Tea Partiers much more than they owe Republicans—which is why the condescension of some GOP elites toward them is not only unseemly but foolish.

(4) The American people. The voters took control of Congress away from Republicans in 2006 and took the White House away in 2008. But despite the financial crisis, they didn’t fall for the siren song of much bigger government. Despite their wish for the new president to succeed, they didn’t succumb to the temptation—or to the urging of liberal elites—to give him a blank check. Rahm Emanuel’s remark just after the election—you never want to let a serious crisis to go to waste—cynically assumed that the American public could be easily manipulated. Instead, Emanuel’s dimestore Machiavellianism may have doomed the Obama presidency. Conservatives should learn the lesson of Emanuel’s failure and reaffirm their faith in the wisdom of the American people.

So we’ve, at least for now, dodged the bullet. It’s exhilarating. But now comes more hard work. In Virginia and New Jersey last year and in Massachusetts in January, Republicans went on the offensive. They need to stay on the offensive, overcoming their natural stolid conservatism. They need to welcome upstart candidates and unorthodox political strategies. They need to be open to new formulations of issues. In the pages of newspapers and magazines, conservatives have begun to lay out sensible and appropriately modest (as befits a congressional-year election) policy proposals that contrast with the Democrats’. This needs to be pushed ahead, steadily and relentlessly, through November 2010.

Then the big task of 2011: framing a post-financial crisis, post-Obama governing vision for the country. And then the task of 2012: finding a candidate, and winning the chance to govern. All of that lies ahead. For now, a little exhilaration is in order. But only a little.

—William Kristol

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