For the moment, most Democrats are a lot more united than Republicans on the debt debate. But they are increasingly restive as they balance loyalty to Obama and their commitment to preserving entitlement programs and tax equity, core principles they see as being chucked overboard in the interest of appeasing tea party Republicans.
Even the least painful resolution to the crisis — a plan backed by Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that is a cocktail of deep cuts in discretionary public spending and infrastructure improvements without a whiff of the tax-the-wealthy agenda that has been a staple Democratic demand — is poison to many progressives.
This is not the first time we’ve heard liberals complain about President Obama. They were upset over the health care bill (particularly, the abandonment of the public option), as well as the extension of the Bush tax cuts in December.
This is a difficult frustration for conservatives to understand – because Obama appears so liberal to them. But I think some broader perspective will help clarify why liberals feel so aggrieved.
Between 1968 and 2004 liberals did not win a single presidential election. Republicans won seven of the ten elections held during this period, and Southern, moderate Democrats won the other three. Worse for liberals, both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton regularly governed without much regard for the liberal flank of their own party – as can be seen in Carter’s opposition to a universal health care bill sponsored by Ted Kennedy, and Bill Clinton agreeing to NAFTA, a balanced budget, and welfare reform.
That’s not to say liberals never won the party nomination. They did, plenty of times – Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry were all from one part or another of the liberal wing. And Al Gore, who had been a moderate in Congress, reinvented himself as a “people versus the powerful” populist to head off the Ralph Nader challenge. The problem for the liberals is that in each of these instances, Republicans were more or less able to paint the Democratic nominee as out of the mainstream, particularly on cultural issues.
Then along comes Barack Obama, an extremely appealing candidate for liberals. For starters, his background as a state senator in Hyde Park indicated pretty clearly that he was on the left-hand side of his party. Yet at the same time Obama proved himself extremely adept at avoiding the kind of entanglements that undermined candidates like Dukakis and Kerry. There was no Willie Horton furlough flap. No Kerry moment – “I voted for it before I voted against it.” And, unlike Al Gore, Obama could articulate traditional Democratic themes without sounding like an over-rehearsed imitation of William Jennings Bryan.
Obama had two hugely important assets in this regard. First of all, his rhetorical skills are impressive in many ways. It’'s not just that his stump speeches inspired the left; it is also nearly impossible to pin him down in interviews. He is easily one of the best filibusterers in modern political history, able to dodge tough questions while seeming to answer them. This is a rare talent; I've never seen another politician as naturally skilled at this as Obama.
His second asset was the thinness of his record. Having spent just two years in the Senate prior to declaring for the presidency, Obama really did not have to take the tough votes that Democrats from Illinois have to take to secure reelection. Beyond that, he had spent a decade in the Illinois state senate, which was not a good background for Republican oppo researchers. The record he did compile was one of a behind the scenes dealmaker, looking to get something, anything, signed into law. To appreciate just how little firepower the McCain campaign had on Obama, consider this rather lame attack on his education record. Without going after Jeremiah Wright, that was about the best McCain could do. Compare that to Bush-Quayle’s hard-hitting ad on Willie Horton. (And for liberals who are still angered over that ad, guess who was the first candidate to bring him up in 1988…!)
And whenever somebody attacked him for a lack of experience, Obama would just respond with a smile: "They say I need to be seasoned and stewed, so they can boil all the hope out of me!" Like I said -- he's a natural. Nobody could sell a non seqitur as well as Obama in 2008!
Combine all this with the messianic overtones of the Obama campaign, and it is not hard to understand why so many liberals believed that Obama could lead them out of the political wilderness in which they had been wandering for 40 years. Here was a real liberal who actually could get elected. How exciting!
The problem for the left is that the very qualities that enabled Obama to win in 2008 have kept him from being the savior they have long dreamed of. The advantage of having a great filibusterer is that you can’t pin him down; the disadvantage is that he does not like to push his own plans. The stimulus bill was not his plan. Neither was cap-and-trade or the health care bill. He blasted the very tax deal he agreed to last December. This year he submitted a budget, then walked it back, and didn’t replace it with anything. And most recently in the debt ceiling fight, there is no Obama plan. Why? Because Obama doesn’t do plans.
Instead, Obama likes to “lead from behind,” but that ultimately leaves him at the mercy of his marginal supporters in Congress. So, on each of those aforementioned issues, Obama has agreed to have the initial proposal watered down to win over some crucial bloc -- because above all he prefers to get a deal, any deal, done. From a narrow perspective, this might make for smart politics – but for liberals hoping that Obama would be the successor in the New Deal/Great Society tradition, it is quite disheartening.
Obama’s inexperience has also been a problem now that he is in charge. There is no better example of this than the health care battle. The legislative process was dominated by a wide variety of interest groups – the AFL-CIO, the AMA, NARAL, the NEA, the SEIU, and all the other acronyms permanently encamped around Capitol Hill. And let's not forget the “Cornhusker Kickback,” the “Louisiana Purchase,” and all the other side deals that had to be brokered to secure enough votes. The significance of this cannot be underestimated: the interest groups moved in, and the independent voters who swing elections started to come to the conclusion that their interests were not represented in the finished product.
If Obama had spent more time in Washington, he might have appreciated just how easily special interests can capture the legislative process, and how important it is for a president to keep that from happening. Indeed, that was what made the New Deal and Great Society so powerful: their key reforms were ostensibly designed for the benefit of everybody. And liberals who believe that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is preferable to the status quo no doubt recognize how inferior it is to Social Security and Medicare – and that reflects ultimately on President Obama.
That's not to say the left will primary Obama. No incumbent has ever been successfully primaried in the post-reform era, and Obama is not nearly as disappointing to the left as Carter and Clinton. Still, he actively encouraged them to believe that his tenure would be a new era of progressive governance, and he has failed to live up to his own hype. How could they not be frustrated?