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.
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.
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.