by Ross Douthat, New York Times, October 9, 2012
Last month, Republicans staring at defeat in November alternated between blaming Mitt Romney and blaming the American people, when they should have been looking harder at the flaws in contemporary conservatism. Now that Romney has surged back into contention, liberals are making a similar mistake. They’re focusing too intently on the particular weaknesses of President Obama’s debate performance, rather than on the weaknesses in Obama-era liberalism that last Wednesday’sDenver showdown left exposed.
Four years ago, the Obama presidency was hailed as the beginning of an extended liberal renaissance – a new New Deal, a resurrected Camelot, a return to the glory days of Lyndon Johnson beforeVietnamwrecked his presidency. Health care reform was the highest priority, but it was only supposed to be the beginning. With the Democrats enjoying huge congressional majorities, everything seemed to be on the table: Immigration reform, a program to combat climate change, card-check legislation, a wave of trust-busting in the banking sector – and at the least, the very least, a return to Clinton-era tax rates.
There is no world in which all of these hopes could have been perfectly realized. But the ways in which they’ve been disappointed have delivered some hard lessons. It isn’t just that Obama failed to live up to the (frankly impossible) standard set by his 2008 campaign, and the media adoration that accompanied it. It’s that the nature of his failures speak to the limits of the liberal project, and the tensions and contradictions within the liberal coalition.
Sometimes Obama-era liberalism has disappointed because it has failed outright. The defeat of cap-and-trade legislation and the stillborn push for immigration reform exposed the deep fissures within the Democratic party, and particularly the divide between the enlightened do-goodism of the party’s upper middle class supporters and the economic interests of its remaining blue-collar constituents.
The steadily worsening deficit picture, meanwhile, has been a reminder that an expanding government balance sheet only makes sense if you can persuade taxpayers to pay more to cover it, which Obama’s party hasn’t done. More importantly, given the limit to how much money can be extracted from the wealthy, it only makes sense if you persuade middle class taxpayers to pay more, which Obama’s party hasn’t even tried to do.
But the Obama administration’s legislative successes have offered hard lessons to liberals as well. Indeed, it’s the failures of the successes, if you will, that have cast the longest shadow across his re-election effort.
First, there was the failure of stimulus bill to deliver anything like the kind of rebound that Obama’s technocrats confidently projected. This failure isn’t necessarily an indictment of the theory behind Keynesian economics. But at the very least it exposes two limitations on Keynesianism in practice: The difficulties that even experts can have assessing the true state of the economy, and the ways in which the push and pull of democratic politics makes it difficult to simply keep throwing money at a problem.
Then came the White House’s failure to sell the public on its health care bill, which exacerbated the stimulus’s underperformance – by leading to months of wrangling when Washingtonshould have been reckoning with the economy instead – and then cost the Democrats dearly at the polls in 2010. This failure of salesmanship doesn’t in and of itself discredit the bill’s provisions. But at the very least it demonstrates that the redistributive policies liberals favor will only be accepted if they’re founded on a secure base of economic growth – growth that Obama’s policies, unlike F.D.R.’s or L.B.J.’s, have conspicuously failed to produce.
More broadly, all of Obama’s signature accomplishments have tended to have the same weakness in common: They have been weighed down by interest-group payoffs and compromised by concessions to powerful insiders, from big pharma (which stands to profit handsomely from the health care bill) to the biggest banks (which were mostly protected by the Dodd-Frank financial reform). It may have been an empty rhetorical gesture, but the fact that Romney could actually out-populist the president on “too big to fail” during the last debate speaks to the Obama-era tendency for liberalism to blur into a kind of corporatism, in which big government intertwines with big business rather than restraining it.
Again, every administration has its share of disappointments, and every ideology has to make concessions to political reality. But what we don’t see in this campaign cycle is much soul-searching from Democrats about the ways in which their agenda hasn’t worked out as planned.
Instead, in a country facing a continued unemployment crisis and a looming deficit crunch, liberals have rallied behind a White House whose only real jobs program is “stay the course” and whose plan to deal with long-term deficits relies on the woefully insufficient promise to tax the 1 percent. When Obama insiders wax optimistic about what a second term might bring, they mostly talk about pursuing legislation on climate change and immigration yet again, without explaining why things will turn out differently this time around.
This lack of a plausible vision, more than his stutters and missed opportunities, is what doomed the president in last week’s debate. His responses to Romney were strikingly backward-looking – alternating between “we’re already doing that” and “we tried that under Republicans, and it didn’t work,” and rarely pivoting effectively to “here’s what we should do next.”
It’s not that Romney offered some detailed, brilliantly persuasive alternative. He didn’t, and couldn’t, because his party has at best a sketch of a policy agenda rather than a blueprint. But Romney isn’t running for re-election, and this was a case where merely seeming forward-looking, energetic and reassuring was enough to remind Americans of all the ways that the Obama era has disappointed them – and in so doing, sent shivers down liberalism’s glass jaw.