Published on National Review Online on September 29, 2010
Comparisons of Barack Obama’s presidency to Jimmy Carter’s miss the point. Carter’s presidency did little to change the basic party construct of the nation or to influence its ideology. Reagan’s presidency accomplished both.
But 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 parallelsthe damage George McGovern did to his ideological confreres in 1972, when he went down to flaming defeat.
In a sense, America met its first conservative in 1981 and fell in love. We met our first liberal in 2009 and are running away screaming. FDR was too long ago to count, Lyndon Johnson too distracted by Vietnam to make an impact. So Obama is the first full-throated liberal to be president in our lifetimes. And we won’t soon forget him and the lessons his failure is teaching us.
Strangely, the Democrats don’t yet get it. They whistle a happy tune as they march off the cliff. There is no voice of dissent against Obama’s policies, no mumbled animosity, no suppressed discontent. The party is solid as a phalanx behind its leader even as he sends it to political death. It is the Charge of the Light Brigade, and none of them know that “someone has blundered.”
For decades, the liberal alternative glittered attractively on the sidelines. As income inequality increased and Wall Street bonuses excited class animosity, the possibility of an economic-populist response had become more interesting to voters by the time Obama came along. The hyperactive Bush foreign and military policy made the yearning for peace and isolation stronger. And as conservatives increased our national wealth, the glaring omission of the health-care system loomed larger. Finally, when the depression hit, voters called in the liberals from stage left and asked them to take a shot at turning the country around.
And did they ever! They kept their promises and then some. They tripled the deficit and sent the debt soaring. From the moment George Washington took the oath of office until Obama did, America had borrowed $9 trillion. Under Obama, it has borrowed $3.2 trillion more, in less than two years. Our health-care system was deformed, manufacturing was terrified by the prospect of cap-and-tax, GM was absorbed by the government and conquered by the unions, and federalism was buried in an avalanche of subsidies that turned state governments into branch offices of Washington.
Americans have learned their lesson, just as they learned from Hoover the evils of Republican laissez-faire economics. His legacy cast a shadow over politics until Eisenhower vanquished it with his personal popularity in 1952. But it was not until Nixon and Reagan that anti-Hooverism stopped structuringnational elections.
In George McGovern, we all saw the incompetence of liberalism, its disorganization, its extremism, and its ultimate impotence. The best testament to his failure as a candidate is his own discovery of the virtues of private-sector capitalism in his old age. This gentleman — who was never anything less than that — clearly paved the way for Ronald Reagan and the conservative ascendancy.
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 ofnational delusion, made what they now realize was one of their biggest mistakes.
The magnitude of our error — or at least of our understanding of it — will become apparent on November 2, when the GOP will win both houses of Congress, the House by a considerable margin. The 2010 landslide will likely set the record for the largest transfer of House seats in an off- year election. The prior mark of 74 seats in 1922 (a Democratic gain in the wake of Harding’s scandals and the Teapot Dome investigation) will probably be eclipsed. But the true measure ofthe damage Obama has done to his ideology and his party will not be evident for some time.