Walter Russell Mead:
The Obama administration may represent “Peak Left” in American politics. As a result, what we are getting from the left these days is a mix of bewilderment and anger as it realizes that this is as good as it gets.
As the United States staggers toward the seventh year of Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, a growing disquiet permeates the ranks of the American left. After six years of the most liberal president since Jimmy Carter, the nation doesn’t seem to be asking for a second helping. Even though the multiyear rollout of Obamacare was carefully crafted to put all the popular features up front, delaying less popular changes into the far future, the program remains unpopular. Trust in the fairness and competence of government is pushing toward new lows in the polls, even though the government is now in the hands of forward-looking, progressive Democrats rather than antediluvian Gopers.
These are not the only issues in which, from a left Democratic point of view, the country is overrun with zombies and vampires – policy ideas that Democrats thought had been killed, now restlessly roaming the earth. The finale of the George W. Bush presidency was, for many Democrats, conclusive evidence that conservative ideas just don’t work. The post 9/11 Bush foreign policy led to two long and unhappy wars. America had lost the trust of its allies without defeating its enemies. At home, the Bush tax cuts led to an exploding deficit and the orgy of deregulation (admittedly, much of it dating from the Clinton years) led to the greatest financial crash since World War Two and the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Could a set of political ideas be more discredited, liberals ask. The foreign policy failures of the Bush years, they believe, should have killed conservative ideology about America’s role in the world and the financial crisis, they are certain, should have driven a stake through the heart of conservative economic doctrine. Yet here we are, six years into the Age of Obama and the Tea Party is alive and Occupy is deadYet here we are, six years into the Age of Obama and the Tea Party is alive and Occupy is dead.
The liberal rout at the level of state and local politics is even more alarming. A wave of Republican governors in blue Midwestern states (Walker in Wisconsin, Snyder in Michigan, plus the Dem-crushing Kasich in purple Ohio) and large GOP gains in state legislatures across the country point to a widespread reaction against liberal ideas, and lend credence to the idea that, even discounting for the GOP-skewed electorate in off-year elections, the country as a whole is drifting to the right.
For some, the response is to turn on Obama. He’s not a real liberal at all, some disillusioned liberals say: he’s a technocrat, a trimmer, an elitist and an inept politician. Some of that is true; President Obama is a limousine liberal, not a lunch-bucket populist. And, despite all those comparisons to Lincoln that swooning liberals made back in 2008, he’s neither a particularly persuasive speaker nor an effective political operative. He is more professor than politician, and more of a natural legislator than a gifted executive.
But to blame Obama for the crisis of the liberal left is unpersuasive. It was the liberal left who fell hardest for him, who praised him to the skies and who stuck with him longer than anybody else. Even today, Obama’s strongest backing comes from two of the most liberal ingredients in the American melting pot: blacks and Jews. And, from a practical point of view, it is almost inconceivable, despite the cries of “Run, Elizabeth, Run!” emanating from the gentry left, that someone more liberal than President Obama will be sent to the Oval Office anytime soon. It took the unique circumstances of two wars and a financial crash to open a path to the White House for Barack Obama; absent similar circumstances, successful candidates are likely to come from his right to the foreseeable future.
In that sense the Obama administration may represent “Peak Left” in American politics, and what we are getting from the left these days is a mix of bewilderment and anger as it realizes that this is as good as it gets. America is unlikely to go farther to the left than it went in the wake of the Iraq War and the financial crash, and while that wasn’t anywhere near enough of a shift for left leaning Democrats, the country has already moved on.
I don’t recall how old I was when I first noticed that American politics swings to the left for a while, then swings back to the right. Not that long ago the Republicans were talking about a permanent GOP majority when they held the White House and both houses of Congress. A few years later they had lost all three and the Democrats were talking about permanent control. Now the GOP holds Congress and the White House is about to be up for grabs.
Even FDR’s New Deal Democrats only lasted 20 years before surrendering the White House back to the Republicans.
But this is something different. Since the aforementioned New Deal, the changes made during each period of Democratic dominance survived subsequent GOP resurgences. We still have Social Security, Medicare and Welfare. They have been “reformed” but never repealed.
But will we still have Obamacare in 20 years? Will power continue to accrete in Washington DC? Will Big Government continue to get bigger?
When it comes to ideas the Left is bankrupt. When it comes to finances, so is Big Government. Each year we fall deeper and deeper into the hole. It doesn’t take a genius to realize the only options are ruinous taxation and/or massive cuts in spending.
Hold onto your hats, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.