The lesson of all the recent ‘wave’ elections.
Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Across the hall, centrist Democrats are still more despondent, as they have been through an emotional wringer for the last two years. Thanks to Obama, they have been forced to the wall for things that they didn’t believe in; caught in the crossfire between their party and voters; flayed by remorseless emotional blackmail in being told they would be blamed for destroying their president if they voted their conscience and interests; relieved when they thought that health care was safely disposed of; appalled when they found it had been resurrected; shocked by their leaders’ indifference to their concerns and their voters; and stunned when they were told by their president, leaders, and a passel of liberal bloggers and pundits that it was their obligation and duty to die for their party by throwing themselves under the bus. “We were too deferential to our most zealous supporters,” lamented former senator Evan Bayh in an Election Day op-ed for the New York Times. “Democrats over-interpreted our mandate. Talk of a ‘political realignment’ and a ‘new progressive era’ proved wishful thinking.” This is an acute observation, yet when he was in office, Bayh seems to have made no effort to form a coalition with his fellow centrists to change the course of his party.
Now the centrists are told by the left that their party is better off without them, and by the voters who used to support them that by backing Obamacare they turned out to be useless. Their one ray of light is the proof they were right when they said their party had gone on a suicide mission, but this has to be a small consolation. Their problem is what they do next.
The last time they were faced with a liberal wipeout, in 1994, their president swerved to the center on his own dime and of his own volition. In 1984, when Walter Mondale barely avoided losing all 50 states to President Reagan, they responded by forming the Democratic Leadership Council, which eight years later elected Bill Clinton, but regressed badly in the following decade, when the Iraq war turned their party hard left. Joe Lieberman, who almost became vice president in 2000, lost his primary in 2006 to a pacifist challenger, won with the support of independents and Republicans, and went on to endorse John McCain. He caucuses with his old party, but most of that party detests him. Bayh, after Lieberman the most prominent centrist, left the field in despair and exhaustion. Centrist Democrats have a sizable base in terms of their voters, but a vacuum in terms of political leadership. In 1984, their party was leaderless; but they now face a president who is sure to oppose them and a congressional faction that is even more left-wing after last Tuesday’s vote than before. If they want a revival, they may have to wait until Obama is gone. They are demoralized, but no more so than the Republicans were at this time two years ago. Whether they stay that way will depend on Obama and the Republicans and how they deal with each other. Which brings us to point number three.
♦ The Republicans. The Grand Old Party has just won a great victory, but one freighted with risk. A high-speed merge must now take place, in which the Tea Party lane feeds into the GOP highway. Or, if you prefer more sanguine terms, we’re seeing an emergency transfusion of fluids, in which the new blood may kill the patient, or restore him to radiant health. Democrats hope for an immune reaction that leads to a coma; Republicans, and the Tea Party, hope all goes well.
Since the Tea Party emerged early in 2009, Democrats and the press have been describing its members as bigots and crazed, but results suggest otherwise: It produced clunkers in New York and Delaware, but these were made up for by other and more solid candidates, and some possible national stars. Governors Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie have shown in the past year how well Republican pros, elected with Tea Party help, can perform. And Florida’s senator-elect, Marco Rubio, a Tea Party star who may want to be president, showed broad appeal in easily winning his three-way race. Their examples show that if the transfusion works, the results could be a remarkable fusion. But we won’t really know till they try.
Some claim that a Republican House now gives Obama a useful foil, but the major unknown that we have to contend with is who is the foil to whom. If Obama moves to the right, and the Congress moves to the far right, it will help Obama and Democrats; if Obama stays on the left and the Congress stays center-right, it will help the Republicans; if Obama stays left and the Congress moves to the far right, it will help no one except a third party. If Obama moves right, and Congress stays center-right, it will be good for both and for the country, but that would require Obama to compromise on health care, which looks all but impossible.
Bliss it was to be alive on that morning two years ago, but it led to some pretty bad calls. The 2008 election “brings to its close another conservative era,” George Packer wrote in the New Yorker. “For the first time since the Johnson administration, the idea that government should take bold action . . . doesn’t have to explain itself in a defensive mumble. That idea is ascendant . . . because it answers the times.” “Emphatically, comprehensively, the public has turned against conservatism at home and neoconservatism abroad,” trilled Hendrik Hertzberg. “The faith that unfettered markets and minimal taxes . . . will solve every domestic problem, and that . . . American arms will solve any foreign one, is dead for a generation or more.” Sam Tanenhaus came out with an article (later a book) that celebrated the death of conservatism just as CNBC’s Rick Santelli was shocking the moribund movement back to exuberant life. Peter Beinart (who now says Obama is a lock for his 2012 showdown) ushered in “The New Liberal Order” in an essay for Time: Liberalism was headed for another long run as the great “ruling creed” of the nation. “The coalition that carried Obama to victory” would last as long as that put together by Franklin D. Roosevelt. His agenda “won’t divide his political coalition; it will divide the [Republicans]. . . . Reagan Democrats . . . could become tomorrow’s Obama Republicans—a key component of a new liberal majority.” Issues such as tax cuts would fade into irrelevance and liberals would “hold sway in Washington until Sasha and Malia have kids.”
Of course, in 2006 everyone knew that 2008 was going to be about Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama was barely an asterisk, and outside Alaska Sarah Palin was an unknown. In light of these facts, we make no predictions. All we feel free to say of the future is that it certainly does lie ahead.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.