This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow
Last week was wonderful politically. It started off with a Republican winning in deep-blue Massachusetts by running against the health care bill, which in turn probably killed off a bill that was so bad they had to insert special bribes into it just to get Democrats to vote for it. Plus, it foreshadows good things for the Republican party in upcoming elections. Far more significantly, the Supreme Court finally killed the abomination that is McCain-Feingold, concluding that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” really does mean that you’re not allowed to suppress a political documentary. Finally, Air America went under, which wasn’t a major story, but topped the week off nicely.
Brown’s victory is somewhere in the middle of the other two in terms of importance, but it’s the one I’m interested in talking about. One year ago, after their massive victory, Democrats were gleefully declaring that the Republicans were going to spend a generation in the political wilderness. Honestly, while I was not happy about the results, I always found this unlikely for a pair of reasons. The first is that I’ve been spending the past eight years building up a political memory, and could easily recall that not long ago the Republicans were talking about building their own “permanent majority.” This wasn’t without basis either; they expanded their congressional majorities in both the 2002 and 2004 elections, which is not how it usually goes for the president’s party. Things changed, and they would surely change again. The wheel turns.
They get bitter, they cling to antipathy to people who aren’t like them
The other was that now the Democrats would have to lead, and to do that you need ideas. For the past 6 years or so, the left had become quite clear on the fact that they were against Bush, but they didn’t really have anything they were for. I know you want dismiss this idea, but I can prove it. I think we can all agree that the War on Terror was the great point of contention with Bush, fueling the anger against him. The left was horrified by the Iraq War, Guantanamo, indefinite detention of terrorists, the Patriot Act, and all things associated with it. They protested against them and ran against them, and said Bush was Hitler for instituting them. But somehow, in the course of 6 full years of criticism, they were never able to come up with any alternative course of action.
This should be apparent to everybody with eyes to see at this point. Democrats have controlled Congress (which is to say that they’ve had dominant control of the government) for 3 years now. For the past year they have controlled the Presidency, the House, and the Senate with a filibuster-proof margin. And what have they done? Continued the policies they hammered Bush for. Early in his presidency, Obama had declared that Guantanamo would be closed by this past Thursday; you will note that it is still open (when he proposed closing it, his allies in Congress actually shot him down saying he didn’t have a “satisfactory plan.”) This past Friday, the administration backed indefinite detention. The Patriot Act, for all the talk, was passed bipartisanly (but then, so was the authorization for the Iraq War), and has continued under both partisans. And Iraq and Afghanistan continue on basically the same trajectory that Bush put them on.
All of which is to say that by their actions, Democrats have vindicated Bush on the very issues they savaged him so long for. What greater endorsement can there be than to have your opponents, after running against you for so long and with the benefit of an extra half-decade to think of alternatives, adopt your methods wholesale the moment it’s their turn to run things? Nor is this merely a failure of the leadership: Iraq War protests evaporated the moment Obama was inaugurated, even though the war had not.1
Do we participate in the politics of cynicism or the politics of hope?
Running against whatever the other guy is doing can yield great electoral gains, as the last two national elections showed. But it leaves you lost once it’s time to actually govern. By investing so much of their identity in being opposed to Bush, Democrats left themselves vulnerable to being swept off their feet by any messiah who promised little more than to not be Bush. In any other climate, a slogan like “Hope and Change” would have elicited guffaws, or at least a request for more details. But because they had spent so much time thinking about what they were against rather than what they were for, people felt united with Obama against Bush, and his fresh face and blank record provided them with a screen on which they could project their many conflicting hopes. By not getting specific, Obama was able to avoid disillusioning them, and ride the wave of discontent to victory, but this same quality left him rudderless once he had won and vague promises had to become concrete policies.
Democrats, I think, are starting to wake up to the fact that Republicans weren’t just blowing smoke when they talked about experience being important. Last week, I saw commentators of all political stripes2 link approvingly to the Bunker redub where Hitler mourns the loss of the healthcare bill, and declares “Now we know why Obama won’t release his school records. Bush got C’s. Obama probably failed lunch. Should have stuck with Hillary.” After a year of political dominance far greater than Bush and the Republicans ever enjoyed, all the Democrats have to show for it are a giant spending bill they swore would keep unemployment below 8%, unpopular bailouts and union giveaways, and two drafts of a health care bill that are so full of back-room deals and unconscionable bribes that they’ll be getting hammered with it for at least the next two national elections. Obama’s formerly much-touted approval numbers are now among the lowest for any president at this point in his term since they’ve started measuring these things, and the partisan gap in approval is already on par with Bush’s.
Now Republicans are the ones reaping the benefits of running against the guy in charge. Scott Brown won in liberal Massachusetts by running as the 41st vote against the health care bill. My liberal home state of New Jersey chose Republican Chris Christie over the incumbent Democrat for governor.3 Virginia, which had been trended Democrat lately, trended back and chose a Republican for their governorship as well. The upcoming congressional elections are looking very promising: if Massachusetts isn’t safe, then it’s hard to come up with any seat that is.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for
My concern is that we don’t become what we replace. It’s no secret that the Republican party lost its fiscal bearings after a while (one need only look at the CBO’s deficit chart to see that). It is not enough that the Democrats are worse (and they are much, much worse; see the preceding chart again); the Republicans need to be not merely better, they need to be good in their own right. As the next congressional election nears, they are going to need to commit to and rally around an agenda of their own, one that goes beyond simply not being Obama. Running against his failures and broken promises will be a powerful weapon, and should certainly be used, so long as it is not the only weapon.
I’m cautiously optimistic at this point. The Tea Party movement4 seems like a push in the right direction, with its large popular upswells in favor of smaller government. Moreover, it has shown remarkable willingness to embrace the possible. In the conservative NY-23 congressional district’s special election, they ran a third-party conservative against both the Democrat and the very liberal Republican (the Democrat at least promised to vote against the health care bill. He broke that promise days after being seating, but at least he pretended). The conservative barely lost, by a margin smaller than the portion of the vote the Republican pealed off, and the Republican party learned to be more careful in fielding liberals under their name. Massachusetts, on the other hand, is not going to elect a full conservative, so there people rallied behind Brown, who is fairly liberal, but would provide a crushing blow to the health care bill, as well as that filibuster-proof margin.
This is smart politics: move the party right, but be willing to field less pure candidates where necessary, because caucusing matters too. They’re clearly willing to meet the Republican leadership halfway, and the field is ripe for that leadership to show that they’ll do better this time. Work towards smaller government; lower taxes and also spending. No more bailouts, and disperse the shares from the companies that have recently been nationalized to the taxpayers, cutting off the temptation for congressman to meddle further with them. Clean up government in at least some simple ways; not more tax cheat running the IRS or writing tax laws for the little people. You can even steal some of Obama’s transparency ideas wholesale; he hasn’t been using them. Above all, have some concrete ways to implement the preceding. It’s almost time for a new Contract With America.
Why can’t I just eat my waffle?
Almost, but not yet. Never interrupt your opponent while he’s making a mistake, and right now the Democrats are making plenty of those. Putting forth something at this stage would merely give them something to unite against, and running against things is still what they’re best at. Most proposals would just be ignored anyway (how much have you actually heard about the Republican Health Care Reform Bill?). Getting the timing right will be tricky, but I’m hoping something will coalesce as the Congressional races ramp up.
Political winds are fickle, of course, and a lot could still change. Obama could take the hint, move to the center and start reaching across the aisle to salvage things, but I feel safe predicting that he won’t.
1 The cynics among us concluded from this that they had in fact achieved their true purpose.
2 Amusingly, (to me), the video seems to have been put together by some Ron Paul follower.
3 While driving through Trenton to attend Christmas celebrations, I had the privilege of seeing an old billboard for Corzine. He was quite literally running against Bush rather than Christie. Turns out running against Bush stops working when it’s a governorship you’re running for, and Bush isn’t even in office anymore.
4 Fun fact: The Tea Party currently out-polls both Republicans and Democrats. Of course, this is another example of how easy it is to just run against the other guy. I suspect this is also a large part of the appeal of libertarianism. Not only do they get to oppose everyone else, they can rest secure in the knowledge that their ideas will never be put into practice, and thus run no risk of being proven wrong.