The lesson of all the recent ‘wave’ elections.
Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Photo Credit: Thomas Fluharty
Remember 2008, the liberal era, the “we are all socialists now” frenzy, the realignment brought about by the magic of Barack Obama, that transcendent persuader, that peerless orator, that awesome and all-around brain? Remember 2004, and that realignment? Each of these realignments, touted to stretch at least through the decade, lasted about seven months. The same thing for the two “realignments” before them—in 1992 and 1994—each of which was expected to settle scores for a generation. What they set the course for, instead, was a balance of power and the Perfect Tie of 2000—which set the course for two more wide and widely unlooked-for reversals of fortune, each of which took the wise by surprise. With all this in mind, we shall simply observe that as 1992, 1994, 2004, and 2008 were false dawns for their winners, the 2010 midterms tell us very little about what lies ahead. The White House, the Democrats (progressives and moderates), and the Republicans (establishment and Tea Partiers) will now begin making critical choices. The parties, and choices, are these:
♦ The President. Last Tuesday voters inflicted a “shellacking” on Barack Obama, to use his description. It was a massive rebuke for the one-time messiah, a blow to his psyche as well as his prospects, and thus doubly hard to absorb. Two years ago, he was the global rock star; now Democrats seem to be fleeing his embrace. His words then were magic; now they fall on deaf ears. He achieved, but his achievements were used to clobber his party. The coalition that elected him has unraveled; he draws comparisons to Hoover, not FDR, and to Carter, not Reagan. The party he leads is split and demoralized. He has revived an opposition that not long ago appeared dead. His transformational days are behind him; he will now have to get down in the trenches to survive or break even. In these conditions, he has two options: He can take the Bill Clinton route, dial down and move center, or he can take a long cruise on the River Denial. Which, can we guess, will it be? The verdict on his postelection press conference seems to be that he is choosing denial, but we still have a long time to go.
Clinton, after a similar trouncing (induced by a similar health care debacle), reinvented himself as a man of the “sensible center,” triangulating between his own base and the right. He could do this because he had a centrist past to repair to (he was a Southern governor and a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group formed by the party’s more moderate members after the 1984 Mondale blowout); he was never called a messiah, so his fall from grace was less bruising; and he was not an ideologue but the sort of career politician who has mere ideas as opposed to convictions, and settles for what he can get. He understood and acknowledged that he had veered to the left of the mainstream. And he was lucky in that his health care reform plan had never even come to a vote in the Congress, so he could bury it quietly and start life anew. Obama, however, has none of these things: He has no centrist past to go back to, as what experience he does have is in deep blue America. He is ideological. He shows no sign of realizing he veered much too far from the center, or even of knowing the center’s location. And his health bill is in the middle of everything, less loved than ever, and getting more unpopular the more he defends it. He will have to spend most of his political capital for the rest of his term trying to keep it from being defunded, undermined by state governments, or otherwise torn to shreds.
Unlike Clinton, who realized he blew it, Obama seems quite happy with what he did in his half-term, and shows no inclination to change. “We were going to do the right thing, even if short-term it was unpopular,” he told the New York Times’s Peter Baker, saying he had kept a “checklist” and “we’ve probably accomplished about 70 percent” of it all. Nowhere before or after the voting was there a recognition of the fact that these accomplishments set off a backlash, that people were running against his accomplishments. “We’d be misreading the election if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years,” he said the day after his shellacking. Actually, the vote was in favor of continuing litigation, which will go on until 2012.