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Bad Times Columnist, Good Times Columnist

I've been railing at the establishment's insistence on acting as if voters are driven purely by ideological preference -- as if 10% unemployment has nothing to do with the current voter mood. Offering his rebuttal is David Brooks:

Many Democrats, as always, are caught in their insular liberal information loop. They think the polls are bad simply because the economy is bad. They tell each other health care is unpopular because the people aren’t sophisticated enough to understand it. Some believe they can still pass health care even if their candidate, Martha Coakley, loses the Senate race in Massachusetts on Tuesday.

That, of course, would be political suicide. It would be the act of a party so arrogant, elitist and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern. Marie Antoinette would applaud, but voters would rage.

That's the entirety of his argument. On my side, there's evidence. Political scientists have demonstrated clearly that things like a president facing a midterm election, and high unemployment, exert a huge pull on voter behavior. Do I think voters would like health care reform more if they were better versed with its contents? Well, yes, polls have shown this to be true.

Brooks does not deign to produce, or even allude to, any evidence for his view. He believes that his assertion, coupled with insults for his opponent, is sufficient to be persuasive. Of course, Brooks' belief comports so closely with that of the establishment he probably feels it's unnecessary to support it with anything beyond his say-so.

Ross Douthat, by contrast, does deign to engage with me and other liberals. While conceding that economic conditions have played a significant role in shaping public opinion, Douthat suggests that Obama's agenda may have contributed in two ways. First, it energized his opponents:

What’s really killing the Democrats, and what’s likely to hurt them the most come next November, is the growing enthusiasm gap ... I find it hard to believe that you’d be seeing this level of right-of-center enthusiasm if Obama had postponed cap-and-trade, avoided taking over GM, compromised more significantly on the stimulus, and taken the incremental route to health insurance expansion that Reihan Salam discusses here.

Opponents are certainly energized. But would a $400 billion stimulus consisting of 50% tax cuts really be different than an $800 billion stimulus consisting of 40% tax cuts? The stimulus, remember, is a centrist policy, reflecting an economic consensus, and drawing sharp liberal criticism for its insifficient size. Obama's health care plan is the outline of a notion that had significant GOP support before the party successfully whipped its members into withdrawing cooperation. The result is still Romneycare plus cost controls.

Moreover, there are two sides to the enthusiasm gap. A big part of the problem is that liberals have been seeing policies wrung through the Congressional sausage-maker and falling far short of their desires. I don't think Obama could have done much to change this, but the fact remains that liberal demoralization would not be solved by compromising Obama's agenda even more.

Douthat's second point is more interesting:

Independent voters haven’t just turned on Obama as unemployment has climbed higher; they’ve turned on progressive ideas in general. On issues ranging from gay marriage to global warming to the size of government, America had been gradually trending leftward since the 1990s. After just a year of liberal governance, that trend has reversed itself. As the Pew Research Center’s Andrew Kohut pointed out recently, “what’s really exceptional at this stage of Obama’s presidency is the extent to which the public has moved in a conservative direction on a range of issues,” from the economy and taxes to abortion, gun control and the environment.

This rightward turn could all just be a response to bad economic times. (There’s some evidence, frequently touted by The New Republic’s John Judis, that Americans become more socially conservative at moments of crisis.) But I think it would behoove liberals to give serious consideration to the more direct explanation — namely, that some of the anti-Obama backlash has to do with Americans discovering, after an enormous Democratic sweep, that they preferred liberalism much more in theory than in practice.

I think voters probably do have some problem with liberalism in practice. I think they have a bigger problem with conservatism in practice. Voters want to keep or expand all the major programs in the federal budget, they want the budget balanced, and they want lower taxes for everybody but the rich. George W. Bush came closer to giving the public want they want -- here's a tax cut plus a Medicare prescription drug benefit plus a couple wars, all paid for by debt -- but that combination ultimately proved less than wildly popular as well. Any responsible governance in a situation where the opposition party is committed to your failure is going to be hard.

But I don't think even this factor can be considered in isolation from the economy. In times like this, cynicism of government tends to spike. I see little reason to think that any alternative course by Obama and the Democrats could have brought about anything but a marginally better political situation.