Before Normalcy

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JONATHAN COHN DECEMBER 27, 2010

Before Normalcy

I've been annoyed about today's Ross Douthat's column all day, so I suppose I should write something about it.

Here's the paragraph that annoyed me:

The fantasy was the idea that Barack Obama, a one-term senator with an appealing biography and a silver tongue, would turn out to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi all rolled into one. This fantasy inspired a wave of 1960s-style enthusiasm, an unsettling personality cult (that “Yes We Can” video full of harmonizing celebrities only gets creepier in hindsight) and a lot of over-the-top promises from Obama himself. It persuaded Democrats that the laws of politics had been suspended, and that every legislative goal they’d ever dreamed about was now within reach.

I'm almost completely certain that this gets 2008 entirely wrong.

Yes, it's probably true that some Obama supporters, especially those who are young or otherwise new to politics, mistakenly believed that winning an election automatically means enacting every campaign promise. More seasoned observers know that, for better or worse, that's not how the Madisonian system works.

Was that more the case in 2008 than in any other election year? To the extent that there were more young and new voters, perhaps; otherwise, it's just a regular feature of American politics.

As is the idea that the candidate is something special. In this, Obama is no different than any other nominee I can remember. This is all utterly normal, boring, and predictable. Activists get enchanted by candidate? C'mon, that's the oldest story in the book. Happened with George W. Bush, happened with Bill Clinton, happened with Ronald Reagan, happened, sad to say, with Jimmy Carter...happened, too, with most of the losers, at least for a brief moment when they looked as if they might be winners. (Did Democrats once think that Michael Dukakis was all that and a bag of chips? They did. Did Republicans think it of Bob Dole? Yeah, in a way; they thought, at least briefly, that he was the grown-up in the room, the guy who could return America to sensible governing). I'm not going to go back and find supporting quotations, but every party's nominee is popular within the party by convention time -- first of all, that's how they become the nominee, and besides that once they're de facto nominated the party machinery starts pitching their virtues to the rank and file, and every politician has sufficient virtues that the rank and file can be convinced.

But some particular fetish for Obama? Nah, that was just a GOP campaign talking point. Douthat should know better than to believe it.

What actually dominated American politics wasn't a fantasy; it was the reality of successive landslides, yielding very large Democratic and liberal majorities in the House and Senate along with a liberal Democrat in the White House.

Those landslides made long-time liberal goals (some popular, like DADT repeal; some less so) entirely realistic. It was no fantasy that health care reform, the top agenda item of the Democratic Party for over a generation, was now a realistic possibility; it was reality. It wasn't fantasy, either, that the things that didn't get done, whether it was card check or climate/energy or detention policy, were realistic possibilities. Getting it all done was highly unlikely (and probably impossible after the economy went from recession to disaster in fall '08), but exactly which ones would pass and which would be left behind was anyone's guess, and depended, in part, on activism by various party factions.

Douthat's tribute to the lame duck session is that:

In this brave new postelection world, lawmakers on both sides stopped behaving like players in some Beltway version of the battle at Armageddon and started behaving like, well, lawmakers. They cut deals, traded horses, preened (and sometimes whined) for the cameras, and cast their votes on a mix of principle, pique and political self-interest, rather than just falling into line for or against the Obama agenda.
That's just nonsense. Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the rest of them --Waxman, Dodd, Frank, Baucus, and more -- were of course acting as legislators throughout the 111th. They hardly needed Barack Obama to tell them they were for a large stimulus, for health care, for banking reform, for DADT repeal.

And, well, so were Republicans; they were mostly opposing things because, well, they (and the coalitions who voted them in) opposed those things. Of course, there was also some political gamesmanship on both sides, although I'd say relatively little; most of the fighting was over real, substantive legislation. Here's my bet: in the new Congress, with a whole lot less at stake, we'll have more, not less, simple partisan maneuvering.

Douthat is, indeed, right that with the midterm election we're returning to normalcy; in most years since the late 1930s, neither liberals nor conservatives have had the votes to enact their core agendas, or even very large portions of those agendas. But the idea that the occasional extraordinary periods in which those majorities exist are about hero-worship (or, for that matter, villain-hating) gets things totally wrong.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, barack obama, bill clinton, franklin delano roosevelt, george w. bush, jimmy carter, mahatma gandhi, michael dukakis, robert f. kennedy, ronald reagan, ross douthat

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