Somehow the summer of 2010 has become the winter of liberals’ discontent. The blogosphere and MSNBC are rife with handwringing liberals wondering, “Is Barack Obama becoming a new Jimmy Carter”? Though President Obama’s sliding approval ratings and high unemployment should concern all Democrats it is, nevertheless, time for liberals to park the Volvo, put down their collective lattes, turn off NPR and repeat after me: Barack Obama is not Jimmy Carter.
FOX, RedState, and the New York Post are truly worthy of this lame and totally unimaginative analogy. Recently, however, the HuffingtonPost, Guardian, and even Zbigniew Brzezinski have parroted this metaphor. Historical analogies might make someone appear knowledgeable but they are too often used as a substitute for actual thinking. Repeat after me: Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are NOT like peas & carrots.
Unlike Obama, Jimmy Carter governed at the end of a durable liberal political paradigm: the New Deal era. Since the onset of the Great Depression liberals had so ruled the political landscape that even Dwight Eisenhower accepted and even expanded upon the New Deals welfare state. Indeed, when Barry Goldwater ran upon an anti-New Deal platform in 1964, he garnered less than 40 percent of the vote.
By the late 1970s, New Deal-style solutions of deficit spending and government programs had not only grown stale, they simply no longer addressed the problems confronting the nation. Reagan was hardly right on all issues, but targeted tax cuts combined with defense spending did help spark real and lasting economic growth. Similar to the seventies, today Reagan’s pragmatic conservatism has morphed into a rigid and inflexible ideology demanding reflexive and obsequious political kowtows regardless of circumstance.
While Reagan deserves much credit and liberals sowed the seeds of their own demise, significant demographic forces enabled conservatives to oversee a political realignment. It was the offspring of New Deal Democrats who elected Reagan. In moving from the industrial Midwest and Northeast to the Sunbelt, they shaped and formed Reagan’s base. From Southern California, Arizona, and Texas to Florida, millions of Americans left regions dominated by unions and white ethnic Democratic political machines for the decidedly libertarian West and socially conservative South. Thus, when Carter assumed the presidency the nation had literally undergone a seismic demographic shift, which gave Reagan an opportunity for political realignment.
Adding to the altered political geography was the legacy of 1968. In that terrible year Americans not only witnessed the assassination of MLK & RFK, it was the time during which a generation of liberals and leftists fell out of love with America. Soured by the Vietnam War, assassinations, and a white political backlash, liberals were alienated and distrustful of Middle Americans.
Unlike the 1970s, the political zeitgeist and demography are on progressives’ side. Whether it is Hispanic population growth in the Southwest and Upper South or a generation of young Obama Democrats, 2010 America ain’t 1980, 1994, or even 1936 America.
Demography, ideas, and political metrics hardly assure victory. The Republicans could take the House and even engineer a long-shot defeat of Obama in 2012. But that political success, like Democratic victories in 1970, 1974, and 1976, are short-term hiccups delaying an inevitable political realignment.
It is time, however, for progressives to move beyond the past. Indeed, with all due respect to Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson, liberals last enjoyed real and durable presidential leadership and success when Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was at the top of the charts, “Meet Me in St. Louis” was a box office smash, and the St. Louis Browns sent the one-armed Pete Grey to patrol centerfield.
Truman, JFK, LBJ and Clinton provided an occasional oasis and even some substantial victories but today’s liberal distress only reveals we don’t know how unfamiliar we are with success. President Obama’s passage of a stimulus package, national healthcare, Wall Street reform, and a muscular and revised Afghanistan policy are the very definition of achievement. Liberal achievement has always prompted a conservative pushback. Similar to Obama’s agenda, Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Medicare were not universally embraced upon their enactment.
Like the New Deal or any liberal era, hard work and political organization are a must if Democrats hope to safeguard and build upon their achievements. It is time for liberals, however, to stop the self-doubt and dare I say malaise (yes, I used that word—as a reverse jinx). We have an eloquent and inspiring leader in Barack Obama who heads up an extraordinarily savvy political operation. Though only Bing Crosby might recognize it liberalism is back. Repeat after me: progressives get shit done.
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