The original sin of President Obama and Democrats was their belief in the theory that smashing victories by their party in the 2006 and 2008 elections represented a political realignment that would leave them in power in Washington for decades to come.
As even they should know by now, that theory wasn’t close to being true. A true realignment – and there have been only a handful of them in our history – requires a dramatic shift in the political and ideological leanings of Americans. That hasn’t happened.
The exit polls in the 2008 election and extensive polls since then found that America remains a country with twice as many self-identified conservatives as liberals, while about one-third of Americans consider themselves to be moderates. This breakdown has been the case for years.
So the election of Obama and huge Democratic majorities in the Senate and House didn’t signal the advent of a center-left orientation in American politics. Rather, the old center-right leaning nation – that is, moderate to conservative – has persisted.
The notion that realignment (to the left) had arrived was one of five mistaken theories that Obama and Democrats have pursued over the past two years. Together, these theories have contributed to the perilous condition that Democrats find themselves in on the eve of tomorrow’s midterm election.
The second theory is loosely related to the supposed realignment. It holds that during a serious economic downturn, like the one we experienced beginning in 2008, the public is eager for drastic action by Washington, significantly enlarging the federal government’s role in the economy and in the lives of average Americans. As Michael Barone has noted, Obama and Democrats “acted on this theory,” only to discover that if it was ever operative, it isn’t anymore.
The third theory is also connected to the idea of a center-left nation with faith in the power of government to solve the most difficult problems – a deep recession, for instance. Government spending, widely distributed, would spur demand, cause economic growth, and create jobs. That’s how the theory said things would work.
Thus we got the $1 trillion stimulus (with interest payments included). It hasn’t been a success, especially compared to the earlier economic revivals prompted by tax cuts authored by Presidents Reagan and Kennedy. The stimulus has become a drag on Democratic candidates in the election.
Theory number four grew out of the presidential experience of Bill Clinton. In 1993 and 1994 – his first two years in office – Clinton and his wife Hillary put together a comprehensive health care bill. It never came to a vote. After Democrats were crushed in the midterm election in 1994, the theory arose that the failure to enact the health care measure had caused the defeat, but passage of a health care bill would spare Democrats a similar thrashing this year.
This was always a dubious theory, since crime, a tax hike, gun control, and several other issues played major roles in the Republican landslide in 1994. But Obama and Democratic leaders believed it to be true – Clinton insisted it was – and moved heaven and earth to pass an unpopular health care bill last March. It backfired. The bill stirred passionate opposition and is one reason Democrats are expected to suffer massive losses.
Finally, there’s the theory that the president can use the bully pulpit to sell his program to the public. President Obama was regarded as uniquely gifted as a speaker and therefore perfectly suited to using the presidential megaphone to persuade the public. Wrong.
On health care, Obama gave speech after speech and his bill got less and less popular. This disappointing performance wasn’t entirely his fault. The bully pulpit simply doesn’t work the way it once did for presidents such as Reagan and FDR. Yet when all else fails, the White House still falls back on the notion that presidential speeches can turn things around. They can’t.
Five theories, wrongly believed but aggressively pursued. Obama and Democrats, who think of themselves as the smart ones, should have known better. That they didn’t is likely to translate into disastrous results tomorrow.