The 2008 election was widely touted as a watershed election that would change the balance of American politics for decades to come. Democratic presidential candidate Barack H. Obama led the Republican candidate John McCain by over 7% in the popular vote (a seemingly huge margin after the virtually tied popular votes in 2000 and 2004) and claimed over two-thirds of the electoral college.
Obama's coattails carried in their wake large majorities of Democrats in both Houses of Congress. He took office with a 257 to 178 majority in the House and a 59 to 41 majority in the Senate. That Senate advantage increased to 60 to 40 with the defection of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter to the Democrats. Now the Democrats had the troops to vote cloture on any attempted Republican filibusters in the Senate.
The almost flawless campaign run by Obama roused the spirits of traditionally apathetic younger voters and brought large numbers of Blacks and Hispanics to the polls for the first time. His message of hope and change, carried aloft on soaring oratory not heard in American politics since John F. Kennedy, and the promise to bring a less confrontational and fractious politics to America enabled the Democrats to penetrate even formerly Red (Republican) states. Obama's campaign promise to effect a "fundamental transformation" did not seem at all far-fetched.
Even Americans who voted for McCain took pride in the fact that America had elected its first black president. Obama entered office with sky-high approval ratings.
TWO YEARS IS A LONG TIME IN POLITICS, as the whupping the Democrats suffered on Nov. 2 makes clear. For an explanation of the dramatic reversal in the Democratic Party's fortunes, one need not go beyond the unpopularity of their major legislative successes: Obamacare, the $787 billion stimulus bill, the government takeover of GM. But Americans are also bitterly disappointed in the President's inability to deliver on the greatest promise of his presidential run: a new form of politics rising about partisan rancor.
Obama first came to national prominence with his nomination speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Addressing "the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of 'anything goes,' he proclaimed, "I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal American and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there's the United States of America."
In that speech, he enunciated what would be the signature theme of his presidential campaign: the choice of a politics of hope or the politics of cynicism. "Probably the biggest single promissory note he handed out during his campaign was the promise of trying to overcome Red America and Blue America into one America," says Bill Galston, a former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton.
Matters have not exactly worked out that way. The partisan divide has if anything sharpened. Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that the failure began at a meeting with congressional leaders three days after President Obama took office to discuss the stimulus bill. In response to a number of Republican proposals for the bill presented by Rep. Eric Cantor, the President responded, "elections have consequences . . . I won." Thiessen believes that had Obama showed more inclination to work with Republicans, who were shell-shocked by the magnitude of their defeat, he could have enacted a stimulus bill with much Republican support. Today he probably wishes he had, as it would have deprived Republicans of one of their most potent issues.
In an October 30 op-ed in the Washington Post, Pat Caddell, Jimmy Carter's leading political advisor, and Douglas Schoen, a leading Democratic pollster, label Obama "our divisive president." They lay squarely on his doorstep the blame for the replacement of the post-partisan America promised during his campaign by "the politics of polarization, resentment and division." They can think of no president other than Richard Nixon who has displayed such indifference to the "majesty of his office" or who has been "so persistently personal in his attacks."
Caddell and Schoen cite a recent speech aimed at Hispanics as an example of the President's efforts to turn groups of voters against one another and to foster a politics of resentment. The President promised Hispanic voters: "We're gonna punish our enemies and we're gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us."
THE UNITED STATES HAS ENTERED a period of rare voter volatility, with pendular swings from one election to the other becoming the new norm. This year's vote has far more to do with anger at the Democrats than with any great confidence in the Republican Party.
So if the economy continues to stagnate two years from now, and the budget deficit remains unchecked, should we expect to see a similar rejection of the Republicans? Are citizens just having a temper tantrum, without any idea of what they want, as many Democrats have suggested?
I don't think so. John Kerry to the contrary notwithstanding, the problem for the Democrats this year is not that "we have an electorate that doesn't always pay that much attention to what is going on," but rather that the electorate has been paying very close attention and does not like what it sees. To the extent that this election is about Obamacare, or the budgetary hole created by the $787 billion stimulus bill, voters know that the results are largely irreversible as long as Mr. Obama is president.
The stimulus money is up and gone. Obamacare will not be reversed – at least so long as Obama is in the White House to wield the veto. And far from the Republicans being able to slow down the expansion of regulatory power, Obama will increasingly use administrative rulemaking as the preferred tool of government, as he has already down with the EPA regulation of carbon emissions.
Those opposed to the vast new entitlements of Obamacare know that the first step to stopping government expansion is to deny Obama any further legislative victories. Republicans will have the votes in the next Congress to block any new major legislation, such as cap-and-trade. First, you put on the brakes; then you can put the car in reverse. For now, only the first is possible. And the voters know that.
But this election is not only about economics. It is about a vision of America, and the proper role of government. If the supreme value is equality, then the government will have an ever larger role to play in the redistribution of wealth. But if the supreme value is the preservation of individual liberty, then the role of government is limited.
Shelby Steele, writing in the Wall Street Journal, offers a characteristically brilliant insight. "There is an 'otherness' about Mr. Obama, the sense that his is somehow not truly American," writes Steele. (Before anyone rushes to label Steele a racist, we should mention that he, like Mr. Obama, is black.) But what others sense as 'otherness,' is not so much un-American as it is a reflection of the post-60's counterculture. Obama is our first post-60's president.
That counter-culture identity, writes Steele, is based on "bad faith in American as virtue itself; bad faith in the classic American identity of constitutional freedom and capitalism as the way to a better America. . . . When [Obama] bows to foreign leaders, he is not displaying 'otherness' but the countercultural Americanism of honorable self-effacement in which America acknowledges its own capacity for evil as prelude to engagement."
That countercultural vision does not hearken back to older American ideals – neither to that of Jefferson nor Jackson, who celebrated the independence and self-reliance of the agrarian landholder. Rather it views European social democracy, with its top down management by an elite civil service, as the most highly evolved form of government.
The 2010 election, then, is one of American self-definition. The Tea Party movement, with its deliberate choice of symbols from America's past, explicitly rejects the counter-cultural vision of America. That movement has best captured the current American mood – a reassertion of the belief, in Professor Angelo Codevilla's words, that "America's ways are superior to the rest of the world," which is "less free, less prosperous, and less virtuous."
With their votes in this election, Americans made a loud statement about the essential nature of their country. And in that statement of "Who we are," there is primarily pride and the excitement that goes with any act of self-definition, especially if one discovers millions of others on the same path. The Glen Beck rally at the Lincoln Memorial was not a surly affair, but rather an assertion of pride together with so many of one's fellow citizens.
The beauty of this election, writes Charles Krauthamemer, is it "actually has a point." It is a referendum on President Obama's attempt to bring about a "new burst of expansive liberal governance." Sure, there is anger among those who do not share the President's vision. But there was also catharsis in being able to vote no on November 2, and affirm a vastly different vision of American exceptionalism.
I, for one, do not expect to see American citizens to retreat so fast from that basic statement of American identity two years from now.