In the Time magazine issue published after the 2008 election—whose cover depicted Barack Obama as Franklin Roosevelt—Peter Beinart anticipated a new “era of liberal hegemony” that would last until “Sasha and Malia have kids.”
President Obama is not yet a grandfather, but his era of liberal hegemony only appears to have lasted months, not decades. Photoshopping gave Obama the pince-nez and cigarette holder that were FDR’s trademarks but could not conjure the startling congressional majorities of the 1930s. The Depression and New Deal left Republicans discredited, irrelevant, and shattered. GOP House and Senate majorities of 62 percent and 58 percent, respectively, after the 1928 election shrank to caucuses of 20 percent and 17 percent after 1936. Under Obama the trajectory has been the opposite: Republicans have gone from 41 percent of the House seats after the 2008 election to 57 percent after 2014 and from 40 senators to 54.
Inevitably, Democrats are trying to figure out why the present that dismays them is so much less congenial than the future they recently anticipated. Some have begun to disparage Obamacare, the incumbent’s most FDR-like achievement. Half of the 60 Democratic senators who voted for the Affordable Care Act in December 2009—the exact number needed to prevent its being filibustered to death, since all Republicans opposed it—are no longer in the Senate. These ex-senators include eight who were defeated by Republicans, and eight more who chose not to run again and were succeeded by Republicans.
One of the latter, Tom Harkin of Iowa, recently told a reporter, “I look back and say we should have either done [health care reform] the correct way or not done anything at all.” Charles Schumer of New York, in the remnant of Democrats whose Senate careers have survived Obamacare, voiced similar sentiments in a National Press Club speech three weeks after the 2014 elections. “Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them” in 2008, Schumer said. “We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem—health care reform.” Arguing that 85 percent of Americans had health insurance they were satisfied with when Democrats took power in 2009, and few of the uninsured voted at all, much less on the basis of health policy, Schumer contended, “To aim a huge change in mandate at such a small percentage of the electorate made no political sense.”
Despite these recent recriminations, Harkin and Schumer had been like most Democrats in believing that Obamacare was good policy that would quickly prove to be good politics. In 2012 Harkin praised the Affordable Care Act for bringing us closer to the day when “every person has affordable, quality health care.” Months before Democrats were routed in the 2010 midterms, Schumer predicted that Obamacare would be an asset to politicians who had supported it and a liability for its opponents.
Not just health care policy but the value and political feasibility of modern liberalism’s raison d’être is at stake. The main point of Schumer’s recent speech was “Democrats must embrace government” as “what we believe in,” “what unites our party,” and as “the only thing that’s going to get the middle class going again.” He thought that Obamacare was regrettable to the extent it had complicated rather than furthered that fundamental purpose.
The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky strongly endorsed Schumer’s argument: Since “Democrats are the party of government,” the “one principle they all subscribe to is a belief that the federal government can and must intervene in the economic and social spheres to even things out.” The party will never create political openings for new government interventions, however, until it solves the public relations problem that afflicts existing ones. Democrats, he wrote, have done a “pathetic job” of getting people to appreciate “the dozens of ways in which the federal government already helps them and their communities.” The resulting “hatred of government we see in this country is sickeningly childish and hypocritical.” Instead of acknowledging and appreciating government successes against water pollution, for example, most people “just think that lake cleaned itself somehow over the years.”