By David Paul Kuhn
The media establishment that hyped this Democratic president but refused to be humbled with him. Pundits’ premises so fundamentally disproved. The conservative collapse that was not. The so-told emerging liberal era that was not. The Democratic leaders who bought the hype, acting on the masochistic premise that if big liberal things were done, the American mind’s apprehension to big liberal things could be undone. The Republican generals saved by conservative foot soldiers. A liberal opposition that, all over again, undid itself in Pyrrhic victory.
It was a year of conventional irony.
But there was a particular irony to the chasm between the excessive rhetoric that greeted this president and the electoral rebuke that closed the year. These were, nearly, the best of liberal times. The most progressive legislation passed since at least the Beatles broke up. But it was also the worst of liberal times. Liberalism’s most historic midterm defeat since the radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ adaptation of “War of the Worlds.”
This year in politics witnessed the center-right nation righting itself. And with it came the left’s recurring reality check: American liberalism’s success is often its undoing.
So we relived the narrative arc of the New Deal and the Great Society, only more rapidly, with a lower apex and a swifter fall. One more liberal foundation sundered.
We can best understand this collapse in the context of 2008, and the humility it should have brought to our political class. Recall those heady liberal days. Politico’s post-election analysis: “The Obama Revolution.” Time magazine headlined an article soon after, “The New Liberal Order,” declaring “Obama’s majority is at least as cohesive as Reagan’s or F.D.R.’s.” The New Republic headline one week later: “America the Liberal. The Democratic majority: It emerged!”
By March 2009, liberals’ premiere demographer–premiere partly because his analysis is so dependably pleasing to liberals–authored a lengthy report on the “New Progressive America.” The liberal affirmations continued into September. The New York Times book review editor published his own title, “The Death of Conservatism.”
How quickly conservatism rose from its rumored demise. It was entirely foreseeable. The president was said to have changed the electoral map, though it was clear even then that he visibly had not. Demographic math was said to sum to Democratic destiny, despite history’s warnings. It was forgotten that political coalitions are held together by more than the sum of their parts.
The “professional left” blames its undoing on the bad economy. This is a convenient culprit. If the environment is at fault then liberals’ bear none. But awful economies do not dictate midterm collapses. Franklin Roosevelt proved that in 1934, when Democrats retained power despite failing, by that point, to lower the unemployment rate.
Some reporters still struggle to get their head around the public’s refusal to get behind Democrats’ major legislation. Politics Daily’s “Top 12 Political Surprises of 2010” included this telling thread: “The biggest mystery of 2010 may be Democrats’ failure to explain and sell their landmark health law, and the public’s sustained resistance to it despite the popularity of many of its components.”
The mystery is why it’s still such a mystery. About 85 percent of Americans had healthcare. Polls showed Americans were largely pleased with the status of that care. The one consensus complaint was cost. But Democrats sought to address everything but cost.
Democrats’ top priority was healthcare when the nation’s top priority was the economic crisis. And, oh yes, there was also the nation’s enduring and foreseeable tension with big government and the mommy-daddy party divide that explains it. It’s no accident that the real dark horse of the coming 2012 election is the straight-shooting New Jersey governor, who exudes tough love (or to critics, no love).
That Chris Christie is the talk of conservative circles. That Indiana’s wonkish governor Mitch Daniels, like Christie, is a more viable presidential candidate than establishment men like Newt Gingrich or Haley Barbour, also reminds us that the Grand Old Party owes its new life to those that have not made a livelihood by attempting to manage it.
The media went from underestimating the tea party movement in 2009 to obsessing over it in 2010. Yet the establishment press still undervalued this movement’s appeal. A New York Times-CBS poll reported last spring that one-fifth of Americans identify themselves as tea party supporters. But Election Day exit polls found that two-fifths of voters considered themselves “supporters” of the movement.
The Republican establishment rode that tiger to the ballot box. Tea party activists rallied around deficit issues. And Republicans found religion because of it. The GOP offered a two-year sermon to Democrats on spending. But most Republicans quickly dispensed with those concerns by December, backing a tax-deal that added more to the debt than the stimulus bill. How the sanctimonious thrive in politics.
Several tea party favorites, Republican Senators Tom Coburn and Jim Demint, did oppose the deal. The GOP establishment has already learned that this tiger will not tame so easily. The tea party’s bite, among allies, will likely be worse next year.
So we are left with a liberal establishment that rode its hubris right out of town, a conservative establishment that rode back into town despite itself and a media establishment that was wrong about both directions. This is one story of our year in politics. And the moral matches the moral of our time. The political establishment often does not know best. Neither do the pundits that analyze it. And the smartest guy in the room might just be you.
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