Wednesday, September 29, 2010

More on Conservative Triumphalism

In my last post, I discussed wishful thinking about the ideological conservatism of the American electorate coming from Dick Morris. I didn’t realize when I wrote it, that his wish-fulfillment was displayed more prominently in a piece he’d written with Eileen McGann posted today on National Review Online. Get a load of this (my emphasis):
Barack Obama is destroying the Democratic party. It may not recover for a long time. In this, he most closely resembles a synthesis of the failed candidacy of George McGovern and the catastrophic presidency of Herbert Hoover. The damage he is doing to his party’s image and prospects closely resembles the harm Hoover did to the Republican Party, from which it did not recover for 20 years after he left office. And the extent to which Obama is discrediting the Left parallels the damage George McGovern did to his ideological confreres in 1972, when he went down to flaming defeat. . . .

“This is likely not the legacy Obama had in mind when, with his massive ego, limited competence, and paltry experience, he took over the White House. Americans, in a fit of national delusion, made what they now realize was one of their biggest mistakes.”
Maybe Morris and McGann should retire to a quiet room until they stop hyper-ventilating. They’re asking you to believe that Obama and the Democratic Party owe their decisive victory in the 2008 election to a momentary lapse of ideological self-consciousness on the part of the electorate. On their view, American voters needed to elect Obama to remind themselves just how much they abhor doctrinaire liberalism. So I guess this is a center-right country that undergoes temporary bouts of ideological amnesia.

Morris and McGann have presented us with a testable proposition. Time will tell whether the mid-term elections inaugurate a durable electoral realignment of the kind that followed FDR’s 1932 victory of Hoover. You’ll notice, however, that this is at least the third time we’ve been sold this bill of goods in the last sixteen years.  Newt Gingrich sold it in 1994, Karl Rove sold it in 2004 and all those liberal post-mortems about movement conservatism sold it after Obama’s election. I’m at a loss as to why we should now find Morris and McGann’s predictions any more credible than those earlier predictions look in hindsight.

It’s a little hard to believe that the ideological fickleness of the electorate explains every reversal of political fortune. I find institutional explanations centered on the increasingly decentralized structure of the political parties and the proliferation of information technologies that deprive them and other organizations like unions and trade associations of their traditional monopoly over the means of political organization a lot more plausible on their face. By the time Rove thought that Bush’s reelection heralded a durable Republican majority, Democratic insurgents like Howard Dean were already mobilizing previously unorganized constituencies around an agenda that attracted independents and exploited fissures in the Bush coalition. The process the Dean campaign started culminated in Obama’s prying the Democratic Party out of the hands of its establishment by persuading rank-and-file Democrats that he was a better antidote to Bush-fatigue than Hillary Clinton. Now the Tea Partiers are returning the favor and carrying what's left of the Republican establishment along for the ride. 

Get used to it.


Anonymous said...

Ron, I take your point and your criticism of Morris and McGann. But at least they're offering an explanation. I've seen in some of your previous posts that you ask the same question all the time. What gives with the American people? How could they elect this guy and then less than 2 years later, he's less popular than George Bush at Bush's most unpopularist (not a word, but you get my point).
You may not like Morris/McGann's explanation -- the part about the delusional electorate -- but I don't see you commenting on their conclusion that "Barack Obama is destroying the Democratic party. It may not recover for a long time" I'll bet you, and many of us who are wondering about what the tea party movement means, feel the same.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, Anon, Obama is not nearly as unpopular as Bush was (I'm not saying that he can't get there). Bush had an approval rating at the end of his term of 27% -- Obama's is about 47%, about 80% higher.

Not to dismiss anyone's reservations about Obama, he remains the most popular national political figure in America. And his current standing exceed that of GW Bush, Reagan, and Clinton at a similar point in their terms (before Bush got his 9/11 "bump").

Just as left-wing commentators see the end of the Republican party in the Tea Party movement, Morris is positing that Obama will be the end of the Democrats. Both are wrong.

An AP poll, release this morning (and mentioned by Kevin Drum) had the following question:

If you had to choose, do you lean more toward approving or disapproving of the way Barack
Obama is handling his job as president?

Lean toward approving 57
Lean toward disapproving 38
Refused 5

We're in a crappy economic and political situation right now. The Republicans have a one-shot opportunity to increase their electoral standing in November, but this is not a decisive long-term tilt towards the Republicans or away from the Democrats. Depending upon how they behave once in office, the Republicans have an opportunity to increase their standing, but nothing's determined.

May you live in interesting times...

Dave said...

Well, y'know... Dick Morris. What can you say.

It wasn't that long ago that there were similar reports about how Bush had destroyed the Republican party for a generation to come. And to be honest, I thought there was merit in that argument. If a voter thinks "Republican = Bush", and "I hate Bush", then, well, the conclusion is obvious. Even if that voter has conservative tendencies, they may still have an emotional rejection to the idea of allying themselves with a hated figure.

But although this phenomenon seems quite likely to me (at the margin anyway), apparently this emotional rejection has little staying power, or we wouldn't find ourselves where we are today. (Note surveys showing that Bush now enjoys a decent approval rating.)

Anonymous said...

(Note surveys showing that Bush now enjoys a decent approval rating.)

Bush has had the great wisdom to keep out of the public eye for the last two years. When he hits the road to promote his book, after the election, I expect people will remember why they disliked him...

Anonymous said...

To Anon at 10:41: We'll see what happens when Bush hits the road to promote his book. The opposite may occur. We're in interesting times, with the public perception of politicians swaying in the wind. I agree with the owner of this blog - it is unlikely that anything will have a "20 year effect." With the internet where anyone can launch a movement and get out information that no one can control, public opinion is going to sway back and forth approximately every two years.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 11:01 am...

Oh, god, I hope you're wrong.

I think our central problem is that Reagan achieved a not-quite political realignment. I believe (and hope) that the achievement of a new "mainstream consensus" is possible (even likely), because decent, achieving societies pretty much require it.

We've been stuck as a 50-50 country pretty much since Nixon was elected, as most dramatically illustrated by the Bush-Gore Florida drama. Reagan was a powerful figure, but I--idiosyncratically--believe that Reagan was not a revolutionary, but a reformist: accepting the central premises of an activist state, but trimming the hems of its breadth and scope of activity.

Since 1994, political fighting has been more polarized and nihilistic. The web does make it easier to promote and organize a movement, but peoples' receptivity to such things are dramatically heightened during a period of economic crisis and when the political system is manifestly failing to address long-standing structural issues (budget deficit, trade deficit, immigration, educational decline, entitlement growth, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, absolute dependence on the declining resource of oil, etc.).

Anonymous said...

Suppose Anon.11:01 is right. What will the next Democratic wave look like? Will Obama stand at the head of it?

Anonymous said...

To the last question, I offer this answer. Obama is the best campaigner and public speaker I've ever seen. I think he's more adept at running a campaign and getting elected than he is at governing. The reelection campaign starts soon so he may well stand at the end of the next wave.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Anon. 1:20, but to do that Obama would have to be as adaptable to changing political circumstances as Clinton was. I haven't seen any evidence of that (and I don't think badly of Obama for not seeing it).