Friday, November 05, 2010

Returning to the center

Charles Krauthammer makes the perceptive point that the election's results don't mean that the country has suddenly become conservative. No, what happened was that independents rejected the far-left agenda of the Democrats under Obama, Pelosi, and Reid. The country is returning to the center.
Our two most recent swing cycles were triggered by unusually jarring historical events. The 2006 Republican "thumpin'" (to quote George W. Bush) was largely a reflection of the disillusionment and near-despair of a wearying war that appeared to be lost. And 2008 occurred just weeks after the worst financial collapse in eight decades.

Similarly, the massive Republican swing of 2010 was a reaction to another rather unprecedented development - a ruling party spectacularly misjudging its mandate and taking an unwilling country through a two-year experiment in hyper-liberalism.

A massive government restructuring of the health-care system. An $800 billion-plus stimulus that did not halt the rise in unemployment. And a cap-and-trade regime reviled outside the bicoastal liberal enclaves that luxuriate in environmental righteousness - so reviled that the Democratic senatorial candidate in West Virginia literally put a bullet through the bill in his own TV ad. He won. Handily.

Opposition to the policies was compounded by the breathtaking arrogance with which they were imposed. Ignored was the unmistakable message from the 2009-10 off-year elections culminating in Scott Brown's anti-Obamacare victory in bluer-than-blue Massachusetts. Moreover, Obamacare and the stimulus were passed on near-total party-line votes - legal, of course, but deeply offensive to the people's sense of democratic legitimacy. Never before had anything of this size and scope been passed on a purely partisan basis. (Social Security commanded 81 House Republicans; the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 136; Medicare, 70.)

Tuesday was the electorate's first opportunity to render a national verdict on this manner of governance. The rejection was stunning. As a result, President Obama's agenda is dead. And not just now. No future Democratic president will try to revive it - and if he does, no Congress will follow him, in view of the carnage visited upon Democrats on Tuesday.

This is not, however, a rejection of Democrats as a party. The center-left party as represented by Bill Clinton remains competitive in every cycle. (Which is why he was the most popular, sought-after Democrat in the current cycle.) The lesson of Tuesday is that the American game is played between the 40-yard lines. So long as Democrats don't repeat Obama's drive for the red zone, Democrats will cyclically prevail, just as Republicans do.

Nor should Republicans overinterpret their Tuesday mandate. They received none. They were merely rewarded for acting as the people's proxy in saying no to Obama's overreaching liberalism. As one wag [P.J. O'Rourke - why not give him credit?] put it, this wasn't an election so much as a restraining order.

The Republicans won by default. And their prize is nothing more than a two-year lease on the House. The building was available because the previous occupant had been evicted for arrogant misbehavior and, by rule, alas, the House cannot be left vacant.

The president, however, remains clueless. In his next-day news conference, he had the right demeanor - subdued, his closest approximation of humility - but was uncomprehending about what just happened. The "folks" are apparently just "frustrated" that "progress" is just too slow. Asked three times whether popular rejection of his policy agenda might have had something to do with the shellacking he took, he looked as if he'd been asked whether the sun had risen in the West. Why, no, he said.
Conservatives might not like the pull to the center, but that is where national elections are won. Persuasion may be able to pull the center a bit to the right - but it takes talented politicians who can explain the policies and why they are improvements. And it takes the right policy choices.