Explaining the Republican LeadAnthony Gregory • Friday September 17, 2010 11:52 AM PDT •
The polls seem to indicate that Americans on the margin are sick of Democratic rule. Obama’s approval rating is at an all-time low. Republican politicians look to have a better shot this November than Democrats.
On the definite bright side, this means that many Americans are unhappy with the status quo. But will it usher in real change this year or with the next presidential election? I am less optimistic on that.
In my short lifetime, I have seen things swing back and forth, supposedly signifying revolution.
After the upset of the 1994 elections, the Republicans recaptured the federal legislature for the first time in 40 years. Their “Contract with America” promised big changes. President Clinton announced, in what was supposedly a major ideological concession, that “the era of big government is over.” Throughout the 1990s, the federal government continued to grow, despite some little changes like welfare reform. In 2000, Bush II won the presidency in a controversial election, and the Republicans soon had everything—the presidency, Congress and, although they would tend to deny it, the Supreme Court.
Eight years of nearly undisturbed Republican rule, with 9/11 as an extra boost to their mandate to govern, these clowns managed to drive the economy off a cliff, bust the budget, entrench the nation in two unwinnable and bloody wars, eviscerate Bill of Rights protections so sacred that even average Americans kind of cared about them, and expand the federal government by about 50%. Even domestic programs tended to increase in size far faster than they did under Clinton—even under Clinton with a Democratic Congress.
Discontent with the obvious failures of the Bush administration, a majority of Americans pulled the lever for a Democrat promising hope and change. American voters were tired of the war and, although they were not unified behind a coherent understanding as to the economic reasons behind the failings, they identified the Republicans’ ineptitude at “managing the economy.”
Fast-forward to today. Unemployment is very high, despite Democratic promises that the stimulus would have kept it from getting this high. This summer was supposed to be, as Vice President Joe Biden called it, the “summer of recovery,” but most economic indicators do not vindicate this flamboyant title. The wars continue. So voters are thinking of returning power to the Republicans.
But how has Obama managed to squander his political capital so quickly? Does stagnation alone explain it? The Republicans were so terrible for eight years, and American moderate voters have tended to trust Democrats more with economic policy anyway.
I believe Obama overplayed his hand. Instead of just focusing on coming off as a more reasonable president than the last one, who was highly disrespected and unpopular by the end of his term, Obama attempted to deliver the Democratic Party programs that he had in fact promised, but were not the main reason he won in 2008. American voters did not elect Obama because he offered a dramatic restructuring of the entire health care industry, or because he was advocating carbon taxes or anything like that. They supported him because, in the midst of the financial collapse that was blamed on Republicans, he had the great advantage of not being a repeat of George W. Bush, whereas John McCain had a lot more trouble distancing himself from the lame duck.
Instead of taking the election as a mandate to govern from the center—maybe even with a few expansions of government intervention here and there—Obama took over, failed to change much of anything about the Bush years that was despised, and instead fastened on top of the already ridiculously large and unwieldy federal government even more mandates, responsibilities and spending programs. In less than two years, he has managed to make the Republicans look fiscally responsible again in the eyes of the median voter. It is astounding that he has accomplished this feat. And moreover on the bright side, he has discredited a certain style of Democratic soft socialism. Back before he was president, moderates wanted more environmentalism and a move toward universal health care. It looks as though he has snatched these positions from the center and made them appear to belong to the peripheral leftwing.
At the same time, Obama has tragically solidified the Bush policies of “preemptive war,” indefinite detention, warrantless surveillance and all the rest. The Republican version of the war on terrorism is now completely bipartisan. In terms of changing political opinion for the worse, this is one of the greatest horrors of the Obama presidency.
But while Obama might lose Congressional allies in November and ultimately be a one-term president, we have little reason to believe that government will be cut back when the Republicans take over again. When was the last time they cut government? The 1920s? Maybe the 1950s? Every time Republicans have taken power since then, they have overseen a dramatic expansion of government. Just as Obama has made Bush war policies bipartisan, the GOP has a tendency of making Democratic welfare policies bipartisan—when is the last time, even at a Tea Party, that a notable conservative has seriously proposed abolishing Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies or federal involvement in public schools—to say nothing of public schools themselves? And surely “defense” spending will continue to be a significant area of waste and, even worse, mass destruction and bloodshed.
So in the short term, the polls are encouraging. In the slightly longer term, I am not as hopeful about what they portend. But in the much longer run, I am much more hopeful. Why is that? Because the discrediting of the Obama revolution of hope and change, just like the discrediting of the Contract with America, serves a long-term purpose of turning Americans away from electoral politics. The Republicans swore they could fix things if they were given power over everything. It took eight years, but Americans realized this was a hoax and a sick one at that. After two years, the most superficially unique and “out of the box” president representing the Democratic Party in a very long time has managed to energize all his natural opponents, disappoint most of his biggest supporters and turn off most independents. If Clinton wasn’t the answer, nor Gingrich—if Bush isn’t the answer, nor Obama—perhaps we are one step closer to Americans withdrawing their consent to the federal government by refusing to participate in the charades of voting and electoral politics.
Maybe Sarah Palin has to win for conservatives to finally give up hope in the false idol of mass democracy, and maybe someone even more cosmetically appealing to the left than Obama has to win and be a disaster for similar long-term lessons to be learned on the left. But I do hold out hope, not for this November or for 2012, but for the future of this country, and certainly humanity. Democracy, or “government by the people,” might just be the last, and best, PR strategy used by governments to trick the people into thinking they are anything other than institutions of corruption, plunder, mayhem and mass murder. If the supposed last best hope for government by the people—the United States—ends up being a parody of its former self, made worse with every national election, then perhaps, on a global scale, government itself will one day reveal itself to everyone as the scam it so obviously is.