The lesson of all the recent ‘wave’ elections.
Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By NOEMIE EMERY
When Clinton looked back, it was to 1980 and his traumatic loss after one term as governor, at which point he quickly repaired to the center (Hillary even colored her hair and wore dresses) and thereafter won when he worked with Republicans. When Obama looks back, he sees his astonishing rise and remarkable victory, his 53 percent mandate (as opposed to Clinton’s 43 percent plurality in his first run for president), and his amazing “success” in forcing health care through Congress after Scott Brown’s election had left it for dead. He may want to deny and blow off the results of the midterms—as he did the wins of Bob McDonnell, Brown, and Chris Christie—but this time he has lost not merely public opinion but the bloated congressional majorities he used to defy it and to impose his agenda. It may take this some time to sink in.
Obama is now like a fading rock star revisiting scenes of old triumphs, hoping that if he sings the same songs in the same sequence, the magic will come back again. But the midterms signal that his transformational days are over, and he will have to become transactional if he wants to survive. Too bad he looks down on Clinton and Clintonesque methods. He told Diane Sawyer earlier this year that, in effect, he would prefer to go down as himself than survive as Clinton: He would “rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” But he said this in January, when the prospect of losing seemed distant. What if winning like Clinton or losing like Carter is the choice? Obama’s war with himself will be as engrossing as his struggle with the new Congress. And we can’t guess at the outcome.
♦ The Democrats. We can’t guess either what will become of the Democrats, who seem despondent in two different ways. Two years ago at Grant Park, the progressive base came as close to a state of religious ecstasy as it can possibly come in this world. “One felt . . . almost invincible,” wrote Michael Tomasky, “finally justified in our beleaguered beliefs . . . aware in fresh and unprecedented ways of our collective power, like mortals transformed into superheroes in the movies, realizing for the first time that they could fly.” After a 40-year slog in the desert—after Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and two different Bushes oppressed them; after Carter failed them and Clinton betrayed them; after Gore and Kerry became losers and John Edwards left to spend quality time with both of his families—they had finally won the lottery, struck gold, hit the trifecta. Less than two years later it was all “a big disappointment,” said Eric Alterman, who took 17,000 words to express his displeasure. “All over the country, progressives are gripped by gloom,” said Paul Waldman at the American Prospect. “More and more it seems that we are in an age of liberal despair,” Tomasky wrote in the journal Democracy. The stimulus was too small, the health care bill too modest, Club Gitmo too enduring, the wars still too raging.
Most of all, they were stunned by the voters’ ferocious response to what seemed to them Obama’s all too modest agenda: At their moment of maximum power, when the stars seemed aligned, the public took an unforeseen, vehement, swing to the right, rejecting not only the president and all his works and empty promises, but the very idea of an activist state. “The storyline is much larger than merely that the stimulus has failed. It is that government is a failure,” Tomasky wrote July 18 in the Guardian. “The great bottom line hope back in November 2008 was that Obama was going to restore trust in government and prove it could solve problems. That hasn’t happened. . . . That’s not an argument about the midterm elections. It’s about the party of government’s raison d’être.” The New Republic’s John Judis looked up from the Election Day wreckage and concluded that “the United States may have finally lost its ability to adapt politically to the systemic crises that it has periodically faced.” What he may mean is that the left has lost its ability to sustain itself in power, at least for more than five months.