I hope readers aren’t annoyed by my relative lack of blogging on the ups-and-downs of the campaign. Ever since 2008 I have found it increasingly hard to pay close attention to the political minutiae of gaffes, attacks, counterattacks, and polls, partly because I think it’s dramatically over-covered, partly just general preference, and partly because a large fraction of the people who are paid for that kind of coverage are lousy at it.
However, there is a space for quality political analysis, especially for those can capture the grand sweep of things in an interesting way. One of Josh Marshall’s readers has a very good sample of that today, making the point that if Republicans seem to be winning now, Democrats are actively losing just as much:
You know enough political history to recall that Roosevelt generation of Democrats hung the name of Herbert Hoover around the necks of their political opponents for a generation after 1932. Reagan-era Republicans did the same, for a shorter period of time and less dramatically, with the name of Jimmy Carter after 1980. It’s not the Republicans’ fault — or the product of any Republican “strategy” — that the President who was more unpopular for longer than any President since the invention of modern opinion polling was allowed to vanish without a trace by January 22, 2009.
George W. Bush’s invisibility, and the profoundly Bush-like Mitt Romney’s lack of any public identity as a “Bush Republican,” were the product of Democratic choices. So was the inadequate stimulus package at the beginning of 2009 that ensured a crushing recession that began under a Republican administration would not draw an effective government response under a Democratic administration. So was the disappearance from memory of the politicized, demoralized Justice Department of Alberto Gonzales, and the inept, crony-laden FEMA leadership that had let New Orleans drown.
The ill repute George W. Bush had earned for the Republicans was what made Barack Obama President: not his “story,” not the “hope and change” schtick, not that community organizer business, and not his army of self-consciously self-admiring campaign consultants. That’s the political asset Obama and the Democrats cast away, by choice, right from the beginning.
Though the political efficacy of this kind of messaging is unclear, it is still astonishing that the Democrats have allowed George W. Bush to be erased from the national discourse. I really hope they’re got something planned to address this.
Substantively, the response I would expect is that the Democrats did all they could. They only had 60 votes in the Senate for a short time, and Republicans filibustered and dragged down everything they could.
But this just speaks to the Democrats’ larger lack of vision and commitment. Anyone with a lick of sense could have seen the consequence of failing to go huge on stimulus—namely, discrediting the whole idea, and getting crushed in 2010 for failing to fix the economy. Furthermore anyone who had been awake for the last generation would have known that Republicans weren’t going to compromise, they were going to obstruct.
In Master of the Senate, Robert Caro talks about how Lyndon Johnson, through a lot of deft maneuvers and force of personality, upended the rules of the Senate to give more power to the party leadership (i.e., himself), which allowed the Senate to work for the first time basically in a century. If the Democrats in 2009 had any guts, they would have realized the implication of their situation and taken that lesson to heart. Right at the start of the congressional session they could have killed the filibuster, streamlined the Senate rules, especially removing a lot of the horrible anonymous “holds” and so forth, and then rammed through their agenda on a party-line vote, especially including a stimulus appropriate to the situation.
The Republicans would have howled bloody murder, and the DC press would have taken to the fainting couches, but by November 2010 no voter would have remembered and the Democrats would still be in power. That’s the key point out there, for future political movements. Policy has real consequences, and the way to win (during a recession, at least) is to actually fix things and make government work for people. If your stimulus is limited by having to get Olympia Snowe’s approval, then you write her out of the equation.
Ryan Cooper is the Monthly handyman. Follow him on Twitter @RyanLouisCooper.