The night that President Obama won the presidency, I was distracted by a looming deadline for New Republic piece I was already writing warning the left not to misinterpret the election results. Democratic Congressional victories were primarily the result of voters continuing to grow sour on the way Republicans ran the House and Senate. Obama’s victory owed its magnitude to the financial crisis and McCain’s response to it. Essentially, I warned that the 50-50 Nation was alive and well and that moving too aggressively could backfire.
The piece was largely ignored at the time, but it is looking pretty good today. Democrats successfully enacted landmark health care legislation, shepherded the financial system through a harrowing period when fears of another depression were widespread, passed an enormous stimulus package, and pushed through financial reform. In the process, the deficit soared to worrying levels, unemployment continued to rise, the government became the owner of FannieMae and FreddieMac and part owners of the automobile companies, the economy limped along, and public opinion turned against them.
In a sure sign that in its own way, the left is as out of touch as the conservative tea party activists, liberals lamented the supposed timidity and corporate-coziness of the Administration, and the base grew depressed. This despite the unprecedented scale of federal spending and intervention into the workings of the economy, the near death of health care reform (the biggest progressive victory since Medicare’s enactment), and loss of support among independents and moderates. Progressives thought they had a mandate for aggressive change. Apparently they still don’t realize that they didn’t.
Ironically, one of the left’s leading pundits, E. J. Dionne, argued in a sharp book in the 1990s called They Only Look Dead that the way to understand the 1992, 1994, and 1996 elections was to view the first two years as a period of liberal overreach and the second two years as a mirror image on the right. Despite all the evidence that the country is even more closely divided today, liberals such as Dionne cannot see the same dynamic of partisan overreach playing out over the past decade. But it was there during the Bush years on the right, and it has been there over the past two momentous years on the left.
Yes, the economy is surely the driving force behind voter dissatisfaction with Democrats, and Obama was damned if he did (spend hundreds of billions to avoid a depression) and damned if he didn’t. But health care was supposed to be a game changer—if voters were so keen on a massive disruption of the health care sector, as progressives have argued for twenty years now, why hasn’t this trumped the economy? The electorate is fundamentally moderate and as poorly served by liberals who want to circumvent that moderation as by tea-party conservatives who are convinced Obama is a socialist Muslim foreigner. It will be interesting to see which party—if either—gets it between now and 2012.
This article is cross-posted at No Labels.