JONATHAN CHAIT NOVEMBER 10, 2010
One of the defining beliefs of sensible-center Washington establishment types is that elected officials need to make Tough Decisions, including unpopular decisions, rather than just try to skate through to the next election. However, a second set of beliefs held by this group is that, if you do lose an election, this proves that all your ideas were not just politically unwise but substantively wrong. Here, for instance, is Washington Post editorial writer Ruth Marcus:
The day after his shellacking, the bruised president offered a sober, tripartite analysis of voters' message. First, he said, voters are fed up with Washington partisanship and special-interest politics. Second, they feel insecure and uncertain, about their economic circumstances above all.
Sounds familiar so far, right? Except here's the next part, "The third thing they were saying . . . is, 'There are things we expect government to do, but we don't think government can solve all the problems. And we don't want the Democrats telling us from Washington that they know what is right about everything.' "
That last pivot is what distinguishes - you guessed it - Bill Clinton 1994 from Barack Obama 2010. It's what worries me about the response of the shellackee in chief to the election results - and, even more, the response of the soon-to-be-former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Their instincts have tended more toward blaming the dogs for not understanding how good the food is for them, not accepting that it's time to tweak the recipe.
Needless to say, Marcus's column ignores the fact that structural forces, including the economic crisis, all but guaranteed that Democrats would lose the House. Here's how Marcus rebuts the argument that mass unemployment is going to cause a reaction against the party in power regardless of its agenda:
I have less confidence in Pelosi's adaptability. "No regrets," Pelosi told ABC's Diane Sawyer. "Should we have been talking about it more, and working on it less - that's a question." But, she said, "Nine-and-a-half percent unemployment is a very eclipsing event." Hoo boy. Losing 60-plus seats is a very eclipsing event too.
But that's par for the course. Somebody reared in newspaper political writing is always going to dismiss the political science. What's fascinating to me is that Marcus believes not only that elections are completely ideological judgments, but that those judgments ought to be adopted by the party in power. Here President Obama was doing all kinds of unpopular things -- bailing out banks, bailing out the auto industry, cutting hundreds of billions from Medicare -- because he felt those courses of action were responsible. And then he loses seats, in part because of those hard decisions, and now he's supposed to admit that his policies were bad?