1977 ALL OVER AGAIN?….Matt Yglesias is in a bad mood this morning, so he’s thinking grim thoughts about the last time the conservative movement seemed down for the count:
One wonders if it didn’t feel this way in 1976 — or even more so in January of 1977. Conservatism triumphant, yet unmoored from principle in the figure of Richard Nixon, then brought into a disgrace from which the more moderate Gerald Ford couldn’t solve it. A new president from the outside promising change, and a new bumper crop of “watergate class” members of congress ready to shake things up. But it all went to shit. I am, personally, an apologist for the Carter administration which I think was doing good things and got torpedoed by an unfortunate combination of objective reality (oil shocks, the need to curb inflation) and blinkered behavior by congressional leaders.
….So I dunno. Maybe none of that will happen. Certainly it would be bizarre for history to repeat itself precisely, so doubtless some of it won’t happen. But I’ll be ready to write the conservative movement’s epitaph when (a) Barack Obama is inaugurated, and (b) Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid enact some stuff with more lasting impact than the meager results of 1977-80 or 1993-4.
Shorter Matt: Is Barack Obama another Jimmy Carter or is he the Democratic Ronald Reagan? I wonder that a lot too.
But I guess I’m in a good mood this morning, so I’ll offer a more cheerful take. First, as Matt says, today’s Democratic caucus is much less dependent on conservative southerners than the 1977 version. Even with the malign influence of the Blue Dogs casting its usual pall, next year’s congressional class is likely to be the most genuinely liberal in decades. That makes a big difference.
Second, Democrats show every sign of being way more united than they were in 1977. Senators are still senators (i.e., famously arrogant and prodigiously jealous of their fiefdoms), but overall, Dems seem to be almost panting for a bit of unity and genuine progress. They’ve been out of power for a long time now, and that changes people.
Third, and most important, the zeitgeit is exactly the opposite of 1977. Back then, it was liberalism that was tired and increasingly out of touch with the mood of the country. The Watergate blip aside, Carter was fighting an ascendant conservative tide during his entire term, and after the Iranian revolution and the ensuing oil shock/recession/hostage crisis it engulfed him. This year, though, the roles are exactly reversed. Obama will be taking office on a rising tide of genuine revulsion against conservatism, and this gives him the best chance to restore the liberal brand of any president since LBJ.
Can he do it? My crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s on that score, and Obama continues to be (in my eyes) an infuriatingly difficult politician to read: sometimes bold and willing to assert himself in ways that I haven’t seen much of from Democratic pols recently, sometimes a cautious technocrat who seems unwilling to upset the applecart much. I guess there’s nothing really wrong with that as long as he has good instincts for when to fight and when to compromise, and we won’t know that until he takes office and fights a few fights. Overall, though, unless Obama turns out to be a uniquely empty suit — and I don’t think he is — I don’t see a repeat of 1977 on the radar. The mood of the country is just too different.