At the beginning of the Obama administration, Rahm Emanuel famously cautioned Democrats not to let “a serious crisis go to waste.” He was speaking less as an ideologue than as a cold-blooded political strategist. That was his way of reminding his political comrades that economic calamities can generate rare political opportunities to effectuate longstanding ideological aspirations.
By the same token, an ideologue should never let a stinging electoral defeat go to waste. He’s never going to find a better time for re-examining old assumptions about how best to promote his core values under the constraints imposed by the political economy. That gives a self-conscious liberal every reason to ask whether there are any lessons to be drawn from this month’s election, not only about what’s politically possible, but about what’s desirable.
Obama and Nancy Pelosi have been doing their level best to discourage any reflection along these lines, understandably since any ideological recalibration will be an acknowledgment of failure on their part. In their view, the policies that are most often cited in explanations of Democratic electoral losses, ObamaCare and Cap-and-Trade, are the sort of things that Democratic politicians were put on this earth to enact. If pressed, they might concede that they could have done a better job of selling them to an electorate traumatized by economic uncertainty. And maybe they made a strategic mistake by not waiting until the economy was in better shape to put them at the top of their policy agenda. But what’s the point of having a Democratic Party if it isn’t willing to take its best shot at addressing scandalous inequality in the delivery of health care or the prospect of catastrophic environmental degradation when it has control of the White House and both houses of Congress?
Like most liberals, I find it hard not to sympathize with this view. But no one needs reminding that we were in substantially this position after the 1994 election handed Republicans control of both houses of Congress and a stunning rebuke to Bill Clinton. Liberals who switched their allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Obama during the 2008 presidential primaries got in the habit of thinking of the triangulating ways of the Clinton presidency as an uninspiring example of grubby politicking under challenging political circumstances. They still tend to forget that Clinton had come to Washington at the head of a New Democratic cohort that had thought long and hard about the self-defeating features of traditional liberal social policy.
Granted, when he said that “the age of big government is over” Clinton was trying to soften the ideological edges of his image so as to win back the non-liberal voters who’d punished him in the 1994 mid-terms. But he was also telling his liberal comrades that they wouldn’t get back into the game politically until they reconciled themselves ideologically to an agenda that addressed the social pathologies of the welfare state and the growth-inhibiting consequences of traditional liberal economic regulation. Clinton wasn’t, like today’s Blue Dog Democrats, just advising Democrats to water down their egalitarian commitments to win back independent voters. He was telling them that, if they were really serious about promoting equality, they’d have to figure out more effective ways of doing it in a modern political economy.
I’m not saying that the ideological lessons of the Clinton presidency are lost on the Obama/Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. Compare its agenda over the last two years to, say, the liberalism of a Ted Kennedy. ObamaCare wasn’t ever envisaged as the single payer bureaucracy that he’d been dreaming about his whole political career. And Cap-and-Trade was expressly designed to minimize the cost of regulating CO2 emissions through a reliance on relatively unfettered market mechanisms rather than the wisdom of EPA bureaucrats.
But it’s one thing to design enlightened social policy on the drafting board of a think tank, and another thing entirely to enact it into law through legislative sausage-making. There’s no getting around the fact that any version of Cap-and-Trade that would have done appreciable environmental good was dead on arrival in the Senate even when the Democrats had a veto-proof majority. And although liberal health care proposals might have done a world of good as originally designed, no liberal really has the foggiest idea of how the 2000 page monstrosity that we now call ObamaCare will work. Democrats are now paying the political price for delivering, or trying to deliver, on liberal promises.
The big story of the last two years, then, has been the yawning disparity between pious liberal intentions and the actual legislative outcomes that emerged under the most favorable political conditions liberals have seen for over forty years. Liberals need to think long and hard about either adapting their ideological aspirations to the realities of the modern political process or reforming the political process to make it more adaptable to their ideological aspirations.