by Paul A. Rahe
Posted Jan 16th 2010 at 6:08 am
Wednesday will mark the first anniversary of the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama — who began his Presidency, as nearly all new first-term Presidents do, high in the polls. At that time, Obama’s approval ratings were, in fact, in the stratosphere. In the last twelve months, however, they have fallen further and faster than those of any President since polling began; and, and, as developments in Massachusetts suggest, his party is now in danger of suffering in November an historic defeat — which is likely to rival its fate in 1938, 1966, and 1994 if the Democrats do not, as I believe they may, do even worse. In a poll released on Thursday, the National Journal reports that half of the adults sampled responded that, if new Presidential elections were held right now, they would vote against Barack Obama, and less than a quarter of those questioned indicated that they would vote to re-elect the President. It is an appropriate time in which to pose this question: Why have Obama and his supporters fallen so far and so fast?
We must, I think, begin before the beginning. The Obama campaign was predicated on a fraud. With a skill that was breathtaking, Barack Obama managed during that campaign to signal to the left within the Democratic Party with a wink and a nod that he was their man and that he meant business — that he really intended to “transform” America. To those in the middle and on the right who are ashamed of the nation’s historic sins in matters of race, he offered absolution, and he promised that the penance that they would have to perform after leaving the confessional would not be harsh. He was not, he said, a tax-and-spend liberal.
I was not taken in. Late in 2008, after reviewing the page proofs of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, I persuaded my editor to allow me to add the following to the book:
Once again, as in the 1920s, rational administration has failed us. As on that other occasion, the Federal Reserve Board and the Department of the Treasury pursued over an extended period under more than one administration an easy-money policy bound in the end to give rise to “irrational exuberance” in the markets and to a bubble followed by a catastrophic decline in prices and a collapse of the credit markets. And, to make matters worse, we responded to this set of circumstances precisely as we did on that earlier occasion — by electing a president and choosing a Congress intent on dramatically increasing the scale and scope of the administrative state.
Our new masters have ample room for maneuver. They have it in their power to deepen the economic crisis and worsen our distress in the manner of Hoover and the younger Roosevelt. By instituting a second New Deal, as they would very much like to do — by sharply raising taxes on fossil fuels, dividends, and capital gains; by targeting the earnings of the well-to-do; by confiscating our 401(k)s and IRAs and substituting government retirement accounts at fixed interest; by pursuing protectionism, expanding the regime of programmatic rights, and forcing workers into labor unions — they can discourage investment, curb entrepreneurship, reduce foreign trade, and decisively slow economic growth, or even bring it to a lasting halt, while offering to those consigned to the dole thereby a dependence upon the generosity and good will of an all-encompassing state. Just how ambitious and ruthless they will prove to be on this occasion, just how far in the next few years they intend to hustle us down the path we tread, remains as yet undetermined.
The only thing that is crystal clear is the direction of our drift and the nature of the threat we face. Walter Lippmann’s warning is as apt today as when he issued it in 1937 — for “the premises of authoritarian collectivism” are once again, as they were then, “the working beliefs, the self-evident assumptions, the unquestioned axioms” behind “nearly every effort which lays claim to being enlightened, humane, and progressive,” and hardly anyone today “is taken seriously as a statesman or a theorist who does not come forward with proposals to magnify the power of public officials and to extend and multiply their intervention in human affairs.” Like the younger Roosevelt, our new leader poses as a secular Messiah; his minions believe, as did the progressives of an earlier time, that “there has come into the world” in recent times “some new element which makes it necessary for us to undo the work of emancipation” achieved by our forebears and “to retrace the steps men have taken to limit the power of rulers”; and in the ranks of our compatriots they will find many prepared to sacrifice self-reliance and personal independence for a promise of security no government can keep. The hour is, indeed, late.
Of course, many were fooled — some of them putatively on the right. Christopher Buckley and David Brooks come first to mind, but they were by no means alone. Many of the libertarians whom I have encountered in the last year fell prey to Bush-Derangement-Syndrome and, in their fury, stayed home on election day, voted for a third party, or even supported Obama. Nothing, they thought, could be worse than John McCain.
To be fair, they could have been right. On the domestic front, McCain seemed feckless, and Obama could have governed from the center. He could have put off his radical agenda. He could have concentrated, as Franklin Roosevelt did in his first term, on turning the economy around. He could have pledged to extend the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush. He could have introduced a temporary cut in the portion of the payroll tax paid by employers to make it worth their while to hold onto veteran employees with valuable knowledge and skills through the economic storm.
The Republicans would have played ball. In the early months of the Obama administration, they were in a sorry state, and they were perfectly willing to get on the bandwagon. In early May, Jeb Bush met with Mitt Romney and House Republic Whip Eric Cantor and emerged from the meeting to urge that Republicans put Reagan behind them. “You can’t,” he explained, “beat something with nothing, and the other side has something. I don’t like it, but they have it, and we have to be respectful and mindful of that. So our ideas need to be forward looking and relevant. I felt like there was a lot of nostalgia and the good old days in the [Republican] messaging. I mean, it’s great, but it doesn’t draw people toward your cause.”
Had Obama moved to the center, had he made good on his promises regarding bipartisan government, the Republicans would have provided him with cover. Instead, however, he adopted the strategy forecast in his prospective chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel’s notorious remark in November, 2008 that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
To make matters worse, the new President chose to leave the details to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — who crafted a so-called “stimulus” bill designed to loot the country for the benefit of constituencies associated with the Democratic Party; and, while employees in the private sector were laid off or relegated to part-time work, the federal government hired and hired, gave massive salary increases to those already on the payroll, and even set aside two billion dollars for “community-stabilization” organizations — which is to say, for the criminal conspiracy called ACORN.
No less on point, Pelosi and Reid gave way to resentment and sought revenge on their Republican colleagues. In the “stimulus” bill, there were numerous earmarks for Democrats but few, if any, for Republicans. At the time, it would have been easy to secure a modicum of Republican support. Hopeless and hapless, the Republicans were virtually begging to be bought. In November, 2008, they had seen what they took to be the future, and many of them wanted to be a part of it. But Pelosi and Reid denied them the opportunity, forced them into opposition, and guaranteed that those within their ranks who were inclined to articulate a principled critique of the bill would get a hearing nationwide.
No one anticipated the Tea-Party insurrection. But they should have. It is, after all, one thing to steal and enrich one’s supporters. That is, sad to say, an age-old Congressional practice. It is, however, another thing to do so on so massive a scale and in so transparent a fashion at a time when so many are facing exceedingly hard times. It did not help that President Obama was inclined to appoint tax-evaders to high office and that the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the House and the chairman of the Banking Committee in the Senate were known to be crooks. The American people can be fooled but not by skulduggery as obvious as what we have seen.
Obama’s economic advisors can hardly have encouraged him to believe that shoveling money into the hands of his supporters would actually cause the economy to rebound. Christina Romer and Larry Summers have track records as academic economists that strongly suggest that they understand the defects of Keynesian economics. They may, however, have predicted that there would be a sharp economic rebound in any case (as there usually is in such circumstances), and the President may have calculated that he could use such a rebound as a cover for an attempt to “spread the wealth around.” In fact, however, on the job front, thanks to the uncertainnty that he has created, things have gotten markedly worse, and the “stimulus” bill is widely recognized as what it is: grand larceny.
The Tea-Party insurrection nonetheless caught the Republican Party flat-footed; and, even after the initial eruption, the Republicans were slow to recognize its importance. Thus, when the Obama administration began agitating for what the Democrats call “healthcare reform,” there were Republicans eager to get on board. It took the explosions at the town halls in August to get Charles Grassley, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and the like to recognize that it was not Obama and the Democrats that they had most to fear.
Everything that has happened since then regarding the healthcare bill has reinforced the suspicions directed at the Obama administration. As the polling data makes clear, the American people do not want healthcare rationing; they do not want to gut Medicare; they do not want a middle-class tax increase under any disguise; and they find the special deals — Gatorade, the Cornhusker Kickback, and the like — cut by particular Senators and Congressmen reprehensible. If, as is reported, President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Senator Reid have agreed to exempt union members and others in favored categories from the 40% excise tax on high-priced health insurance while imposing it on those outside constituencies favored by the Democrats and if, at the insistence of the unions, they have also recast the bill as a tool for driving non-unionized construction firms out of business, there will be additional hell to pay.
I could go on and on. Remember the auto-industry bailout and the fashion in which Barack Obama defrauded the bondholders to the advantage of the United Auto Workers? Have you heard about the manner in which Tim Geithner set up an opportunity for insider trading on the part of the fine folks at Goldman Sachs?
The Democrats have played every trick in the book, and they have done it in broad daylight. If Scott Brown is elected to the Senate in Massachusetts on Tuesday, as I think he will be, and if, under these circumstances, the Massachusetts Secretary of State delays certifying the election so that Paul Kirk can once again vote for cloture in the Senate on the healthcare bill, as is apparently the Democrats’ contingency plan, it would be par for the course. After all, the Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature changed the law and put off the special election so that Paul Kirk could be appointed in the first place.
We live in a remarkable time. I cannot think of any moment in American history in which a President and a political party have squandered an opportunity as promising as the one afforded Barack Obama in November, 2008. Had he chosen a more moderate course, had he reined in the radicals in control in the House and the Senate, had he focused on the economy, had he insisted on transparency, had he ruled out corrupt bargains, had he scrupulously kept the promises he made during the campaign, he would have reinforced the sense of those who voted for him that he was a man who could be trusted; and later, relying on their confidence in him, he might have accomplished much of what he wanted.
As things stand, Obama has given the Republicans the opportunity of a lifetime. It is as if he, Pelosi, Reid, and their associates conspired to convince the American people that the Democratic Party is “a small group” of women and men intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.”
These are words that Franklin Delano Roosevelt deployed in 1936 against those whom he called “economic royalists.” When the American people are persuaded that such a claim is true, as they have been on the eve of every electoral realignment in our history, they turn on the putative perpetrators with a vengeance.
Mark my words. In November, we are going to witness an electoral earthquake. What is slated to happen in Massachusetts on Tuesday is merely an anticipatory tremor. I just hope that the Republicans have the wit to capitalize on this opportunity.