Monday, December 27, 2010

Before Normalcy

I've been annoyed about today's Ross Douthat's column all day, so I suppose I should write something about it. 

Here's the paragraph that annoyed me:
The fantasy was the idea that Barack Obama, a one-term senator with an appealing biography and a silver tongue, would turn out to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi all rolled into one. This fantasy inspired a wave of 1960s-style enthusiasm, an unsettling personality cult (that “Yes We Can” video full of harmonizing celebrities only gets creepier in hindsight) and a lot of over-the-top promises from Obama himself. It persuaded Democrats that the laws of politics had been suspended, and that every legislative goal they’d ever dreamed about was now within reach.
I'm almost completely certain that this gets 2008 entirely wrong.

Yes, it's probably true that some Obama supporters, especially those who are young or otherwise new to politics, mistakenly believed that winning an election automatically means enacting every campaign promise.  More seasoned observers know that, for better or worse, that's not how the Madisonian system works.

Was that more the case in 2008 than in any other election year?  To the extent that there were more young and new voters, perhaps; otherwise, it's just a regular feature of American politics. 

As is the idea that the candidate is something special.  In this, Obama is no different than any other nominee I can remember.  This is all utterly normal, boring, and predictable.  Activists get enchanted by candidate?  C'mon, that's the oldest story in the book.  Happened with George W. Bush, happened with Bill Clinton, happened with Ronald Reagan, happened, sad to say, with Jimmy Carter...happened, too, with most of the losers, at least for a brief moment when they looked as if they might be winners.  (Did Democrats once think that Michael Dukakis was all that and a bag of chips?  They did.  Did Republicans think it of Bob Dole?  Yeah, in a way; they thought, at least briefly, that he was the grown-up in the room, the guy who could return America to sensible governing).  I'm not going to go back and find supporting quotations, but every party's nominee is popular within the party by convention time -- first of all, that's how they become the nominee, and besides that once they're de facto nominated the party machinery starts pitching their virtues to the rank and file, and every politician has sufficient virtues that the rank and file can be convinced. 

But some particular fetish for Obama?  Nah, that was just a GOP campaign talking point.  Douthat should know better than to believe it.

What actually dominated American politics wasn't a fantasy; it was the reality of successive landslides, yielding very large Democratic and liberal majorities in the House and Senate along with a liberal Democrat in the White House. 

Those landslides made long-time liberal goals (some popular, like DADT repeal; some less so) entirely realistic.  It was no fantasy that health care reform, the top agenda item of the Democratic Party for over a generation, was now a realistic possibility; it was reality.  It wasn't fantasy, either, that the things that didn't get done, whether it was card check or climate/energy or detention policy, were realistic possibilities.  Getting it all done was highly unlikely (and probably impossible after the economy went from recession to disaster in fall '08), but exactly which ones would pass and which would be left behind was anyone's guess, and depended, in part, on activism by various party factions. 

Douthat's tribute to the lame duck session is that:
In this brave new postelection world, lawmakers on both sides stopped behaving like players in some Beltway version of the battle at Armageddon and started behaving like, well, lawmakers. They cut deals, traded horses, preened (and sometimes whined) for the cameras, and cast their votes on a mix of principle, pique and political self-interest, rather than just falling into line for or against the Obama agenda. 
That's just nonsense.  Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the rest of them --Waxman, Dodd, Frank, Baucus, and more -- were of course acting as legislators throughout the 111th.  They hardly needed Barack Obama to tell them they were for a large stimulus, for health care, for banking reform, for DADT repeal.   

And, well, so were Republicans; they were mostly opposing things because, well, they (and the coalitions who voted them in) opposed those things.  Of course, there was also some political gamesmanship on both sides, although I'd say relatively little; most of the fighting was over real, substantive legislation.  Here's my bet: in the new Congress, with a whole lot less at stake, we'll have more, not less, simple partisan maneuvering.

Douthat is, indeed, right that with the midterm election we're returning to normalcy; in most years since the late 1930s, neither liberals nor conservatives have had the votes to enact their core agendas, or even very large portions of those agendas.  But the idea that the occasional extraordinary periods in which those majorities exist are about hero-worship (or, for that matter, villain-hating) gets things totally wrong. 


  1. There has never been a person on the face of the Earth that hates hyperbole more than me.

    Did Douthat miss every previous Presidential election, including the 2004 race? I remember a Stars-and-Stripes Kerry campaign that idolized his military service. He was the perfect liberal candidate that would defeat the evil Bush administration. He was the anti-Bush in every way--debate team champ, military hero, smart as a whip. I remember the talking points well.

    Heck, remember that disturbing scene from Jesus Camp where school children literally worshiped a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush? I'd call that a real "unsettling personality cult" that "only gets creepier in hindsight."

  2. It would be nice if Douthat could be a little more specific about the "over-the-top promises" Obama made. It is my recollection that the candidate tried very hard to be inspiring, and tried equally hard not to be specific.

  3. Jonathan, I, too found that graf offensive. But I walked away with another take on Douthat's column:

    Republicans obstructed just about everything until the top earners got their tax cut extended, and then rolled their sleeves up and got to work. And Ross calls this a 'return to normal.'

    That's his view of normal; redistributing income upward.

  4. Douthat is a paradigm of our corrupted media. He is a partisan intellectual mediocrity given a national platform due to a craven editorial board's feckless quest for "balance."

  5. I think the most annoying thing is that Douthat's point with all of this seems to be, "See, OF COURSE Obama couldn't get much done, you were all just fooled by a good campaign." But the problem is, Obama HAS gotten a lot done. God knows we don't need to go over the list again, and god knows he had a lot of help, but the proof is in the pudding, right? Plenty of the things Obama's supporters wanted got done, and plenty more really could've been if not for a few mistakes.

  6. Good comments all. I will disagree about Douthat: I think he's a smart guy, and was/is an excellent blogger, but either he's not very good at the column format, or there's something wrong with the format. I think it might be the latter; the job of "conservative op-ed columnist for the NYT" really doesn't work well in an era in which conservatives are embracing the crazy all the time. If he spends his time attacking that stuff, then he's not really the conservative columnist; if he either embraces it or, as he did in this one, goes for "all sides are at fault," then he's going to sound stupid much of the time.

  7. In further support of the point of this post, there were anti-Obama people who also saw the 2008 election as aligning things for big liberal victories -- Fred Barnes, for instance, who fretted all through the Fox election-night coverage in '08 about card check, which he apparently thought had just become inevitable.

    And I also disagree a bit with "Anonymous" about Douthat. My view of him, as of David Brooks, is that these are guys who for whatever sociological reasons found themselves aligned (and/or in more natural fellowship) with "conservatives" when they were young, so they defined themselves accordingly and it paid off for them with high-profile journalistic gigs. They're not willing to pull a David Brock and just switch sides, but they know that most current movement conservatism is nonsense. So they end up writing a lot of intellectually dishonest stuff aimed at nit-picking liberalism or balancing the ledger by asserting false equivalences. Basically they need to run their lives over again and not fall in with the cons to begin with, but instead become the moderate-liberal, badly underpaid and totally obscure college professors they were meant to be -- like I did.

  8. I agree with you on the Douthat issue. His argument regarding Obama and liberal support for him is such a pervasive right-wing talking point that a felt obligation or sheer familiarity are much better explanations than animus. Hippie-punching is one of the favorite pastime of the Capitol Hill set, after all.

    As to the substance, setting up the liberals as soft-headed foils to the "pragmatic" lame duck session is a clever and subtle way to share the claim for those successes while white-washing conservative opposition to the more popular successes of the session, and perhaps making those successes more palatable to the die-hards in the process.

  9. This is a bit late but I'm going to give a semi-defense of Douthat's column, there are disgruntled liberals out there who think that this Congress did squat in advancing the liberal agenda and couldn't care less about whether we have a Madisonian system or not. Not all of them are young and many of them should know a lot better but they exist. We've talked about them a lot on this blog and even had posts about them.


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