If a revolution takes root throughout the country and no one in Washington hears it, does the revolution exist? In our representative system, the answer is yes – and members of both parties ought to start paying attention if they hope to survive the 2010 midterm elections intact.
We’ve heard a lot about political sea changes in the past decade. Only five years ago, the reelection of George W. Bush and the increase of Republican ranks in the Congress led GOP strategists to predict a generational realignment in favor of the party of Lincoln. But as the war in Iraq grew increasingly divisive and conservatives blanched at the GOP’s flagging commitment to small government, the Republican Party began to look like it was imploding.
With Democrats returned to majorities in both houses of Congress in 2006, and Barack Obama subsequently elected to the White House by a more commanding margin than any member of his party in a generation, it seemed as if the tide was turning. Note the past tense.
Six months into the Obama Administration, opposition to cap and trade has jammed Congressional phone lines, resistance to a government takeover of health care has turned town hall meetings into mini-Dodge Cities, and the president has experienced the sort of plunge in popularity usually reserved for reality show contestants. Apparently the Obama revolution eats its own.
How could this have happened? Less than a year ago, the beltway consensus was that conservatism was dead and that future Republican national conventions would be held at a Denny’s off the interstate. The answer is surprisingly direct. The simple elegance of the Obama campaign destroyed the president’s ability to govern.
When it became clear last summer that Obama had defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, the then-junior senator from Illinois was faced with a daunting prospect that few men have ever known: he had to illuminate a vision of America’s future worthy of earning the trust that accompanies the presidency. That moment sowed the seeds of his current travails. For Obama chose the easy way out.
In a hour when the nation teetered on the edge of economic collapse, when we were fighting two wars abroad and an endless rearguard mission to protect the homeland, and when America’s sense of self-assuredness was at its lowest ebb in decades, the Democratic candidate chose a message of sweet nothings. To his credit, it worked – despite being patently absurd. So low was his predecessor’s public esteem and his opponent’s capacity for rebuttal, that he managed to get elected on a two-word message: “Hope” and “Change.” But it was fundamentally unsustainable.
What Obama failed to realize is that a Rorschach test no longer works when you give the painting a name. During the 2008 campaign, the concavity of his message allowed Americans of irreconcilable bearings to invest their common aspirations in him. But as the first act of his presidency has played out, he has shown himself to be anything but transcendent. Instead, he is an utterly predictable creature – a conventional liberal who mixes the weakness of Jimmy Carter with the ideological rigidity of George McGovern. And he is thus engaged in a conversation that the rest of the country concluded decades ago.
Since the liberal movement became ascendant in the Democratic Party 40 years ago, no president has successfully governed from the left. Jimmy Carter ran as a moderate, governed as a feckless liberal, and boarded a plane back to Georgia four years later. Bill Clinton ran as a moderate, governed as a liberal for two years, then – chastened by the Republican Revolution – made the last term and a half of his presidency an extended genuflection to his conservative opposition. Unabashed liberalism has homes in cosmopolitan pockets throughout the nation. But left-wing presidents don’t rest their head in the White House for long. Either they change or their housing arrangement does.
Perhaps because Obama seems to take more pride in his liberalism than any president of recent vintage, the public backlash has been swift and furious. Take a listen to the angry town hall participants or talk radio callers and you’ll notice a common trend: regardless of which party they belong to, they sound more conservative than the GOP has for years.
While many Republicans don’t invoke “limited government” as anything more than a slogan, the man on the street talks about adherence to the Constitution or the sanctity of states’ rights. Americans seem to be relearning the skepticism towards power that the nation was founded on. In one recent town hall meeting in Missouri, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill – apparently mistaking the U.S. Senate for the College of Cardinals – incredulously asked her audience, “You don’t trust me?” The uproarious response of “No!” was deafening.
One of McCaskill’s senate colleagues, Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina, recently said of the president’s healthcare plan, “If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." Obama – who is apparently no longer capable of saying anything without sounding like a mediocre screenwriter’s version of an American president – responded, with “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses, and breaking America’s economy. And we can’t afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care, not this time, not now.”
DeMint is right to note that this is a determinative moment. But Obama is correct to note that it isn’t about him – at least not solely. Obama is a handmaiden for the grand liberal project, and he has made its intentions clearer than any of his predecessors. The left has finally dared to speak its name – and the country is reacting as if they have unleashed a swarm of locusts.
There’s a lesson here for both parties. Healthcare isn’t failing because of Obama’s weaknesses or his opponents’ strength. It is failing because the proposal misapprehends the American character. On a moral level, there are sacrifices of both liberty and responsibility that the American people aren’t willing to make. And on a practical level, citizens who enjoy a world of instant convenience in everything from their music downloads to their airplane tickets aren’t willing to entertain a debate about whether it’s better to ration health care on a Soviet model or a Canadian model.
A revolt is afoot in the nation. The media and the political class might not understand the appeal of the Ron Pauls and Glenn Becks of the world. But even many of those who disagree with Paul and Beck on the specifics understand the draw. Something is resurfacing. Americans are increasingly unafraid to say the word “liberty.” Politicians who don’t share that trait may want to start updating their résumés.