This is a season of liberal disappointment. Or, rather, another season of liberal disappointment. Liberal disappointment follows liberal triumph as night follows day. It is a multitudinous thing, its varieties including, but not limited to, despair, recrimination, impotent rage, potent rage, and existential angst.
The genus currently in full bloom is precrimination, a subspecies of recrimination that occurs before the fact. In this case, the liberal argument is that President Obama has blown the 2010 elections by moving too far to the center. My colleague John B. Judis made this case in last issue’s cover story (“The Unnecessary Fall,” September 2), and a similar argument is being advanced by Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh, as well as in other quarters.
Generally, these precriminations place too much emphasis on political tactics and too little on the basic reality that midterm elections, huge congressional majorities stretched deep into hostile territory, and a presidency that began at the outset of a financial crisis is a recipe for a wipeout.
Now, structural factors don’t explain all of the Democrats’ woes. If the party loses, say, 80 seats, it’s fair to say the result was worse than it had to be. The question is what extra factor made it worse. Most liberals say it’s the administration’s insufficient boldness or populism. I say the problem is liberals.
Let’s first review the indictments. The most common flaw of the various expressions of liberal disappointment is a tendency to attribute to Obama power over forces beyond his control. Liberals bemoaning the failure of cap-and-trade or the public option regularly descend into magical thinking when it comes time to explain where Obama could have conjured nonexistent votes in the Senate.
The most persuasive critiques of Obama center on presidential appointments, which do lie within his command. As The New Republic’s Bradford Plumer has documented, Obama neglected to undertake deep reforms of the Minerals Management Service that might have prevented the Gulf oil disaster. He has also left vacant crucial judicial seats and Federal Reserve Board positions. But those failures have had little political impact.
If the Democrats’ dire outlook owes itself primarily to the economy, then shouldn’t they have passed a larger stimulus? Alas, the assumption that Obama could have gotten more money out of the Senate is questionable. GOP moderates, who held the bill’s fate in their hands, whittled down even the $800 billion version. Perhaps, if Obama had proposed something larger, the moderates—who tend to position themselves in the middle of any debate—would have simply started the bidding from a higher point.
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that, at the time, even $800 billion was considered “enormous,” one of the adjectives constantly bandied about in press reports, along with “giant” and “massive.” Reporters focused obsessively on the stimulus’s impact on the deficit and ignored objections from the left, even though mainstream economists shared them. Of 59 network-news segments covering the stimulus debate in the three weeks before its passage, only three even mentioned the critique that the stimulus was too small. In the context of that debate, Obama may well have risked total abandonment by GOP moderates, the failure of any stimulus, and the neutering of his presidency. Perhaps he should have run the risk, but the case is hardly open and shut—especially given the record of achievement that followed.
But one of the Democrats’ election-year problems is certainly avoidable: The party’s base is morbidly depressed, despite having a president with the most effective progressive record in more than four decades. Indeed, at some point you have to wonder if it is possible to satisfy liberals at all. Let’s tally up the postwar record. Obama—liberal disappointment. Bill Clinton? Even worse. (Disillusionment with the Clinton years sparked Ralph Nader’s decisive third-party challenge in 2000.) Jimmy Carter? Also a liberal disappointment, inspiring both a liberal primary challenge from Ted Kennedy and a general-election challenge by liberal John Anderson, whom TNR endorsed.
Remember LBJ? Liberals would rather not. They ran multiple candidates against him in 1968 and drove him from the race in defeat. John F. Kennedy was assassinated before liberal disappointment could fully blossom. Liberals hated Harry Truman, too. This magazine called on him to resign—“Franklin Roosevelt kept our interests in proper relation to our values,” bemoaned an editorial. “In President Truman there is no single concept and no superior will”—and Henry Wallace, a former TNR editor, waged a third-party protest candidacy in 1948. (Place your Franklin Foer ’12 Intrade bets today.)
The cycle of disappointment suggests that perhaps the problem here is not the Democratic presidents, flawed though they may be, but their delicate supporters. Liberals tend to imagine progress occurring in a blaze of populist glory, but almost inevitably it requires grubby compromises with powerful and unseemly interests. Medicare, Social Security—they were all half-measures that involved a devil’s bargain. In 1949, Arthur Schlesinger identified the “doughface” progressive tendency as a discomfort with the realities and compromises of governing. “Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done,” he wrote, “but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations.”
I don’t think this trait describes all of Obama’s (or Clinton’s) liberal critics, and certainly not Judis. But it does reflect a persistent liberal uneasiness with power. The liberal psyche may tend toward opposition—an individualistic style that makes the maintenance of governing coalitions impossible. Conservatives are hardly loath to decry betrayals, real or imagined, by Republican presidents. Yet they generally have the sense to wait until an opportune moment. While right-wingers now disdain George W. Bush as a big-government sellout, they remained in cult-of-personality mode all the way through Bush’s reelection, tossing him overboard only after he had outlived his usefulness to the movement.
The surprising thing may not be that liberals soured on Obama, but that they soured on him during what’s certain to be the most liberal period of his presidency. I can’t even imagine how they’ll react when his governing majorities disappear, and he’s ground down in trench warfare. But I do have a good intuition whom they’ll blame for it.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic. This article ran in the September 23, 2010 issue of the magazine.