A 20-Year Tug-of-War

It's months before the November elections, and Republicans have practically broken out the champagne to celebrate their coming victories, while many liberals are chalking up prospective losses to the failure of the president and congressional Democrats to be ambitious enough. Excuse me if I don't join in the "precriminations." The elections may turn out badly, but the achievements of the administration's first year and a half have been more than respectable, and I doubt that more progressive policies could have borne fruit quickly enough to alter the results in November. Nor do I believe that Democrats have overreached, only to suffer the predictable reaction from a "center right" society. If the economy were growing smartly, the conservative complaints about too much government would have little resonance.

But the facts are what they are. Most Americans have felt the impact of the recession only since Barack Obama took office, and though they can't hold him responsible for the original meltdown, they also haven't seen the economy come roaring back. "It could have been worse" isn't much of a campaign slogan.

The demographic makeup of the midterm electorate will probably exacerbate the problem. Because of the disproportionate fall in turnout among young and minority voters typically seen in midterm elections, congressional Democrats are especially vulnerable to the losses a president's party normally suffers at this point. Seniors will likely be overrepresented among the voters, and according to surveys, they are the one age group that remains unhappy about the Democrats' greatest achievement -- health-care reform.

There is still time for the president to recover by 2012 and win a second term with another congressional majority. But whatever happens, we need a longer view of the political challenges and an appreciation of the deeper forces at work. No party owns this age; every liberal advance is a struggle. Still, if liberals are right about the fundamental realities and what ought to be done about them -- and I believe we are -- there is every reason to be confident that we will prevail.

The America that went to the polls in 2008 wanted an escape from recent history. George W. Bush's public-approval ratings had plunged to Nixonian lows, and in the primaries, even Democrats said, in effect, they were tired of the Clintons. The rejection of John McCain in the general election extended the repudiation of the past more broadly. Give us a fresh start, the voters were saying, and what better way to make that point than to elect Obama.

Besides symbolizing a historic break in his very person, Obama promised two things in particular: first, not just an end to the Iraq War but a transformed American image and chance for a new beginning in the very parts of the world that have come to seem most threatening; and second, the possibility of transcending the bitter partisan divisions in domestic politics. In short, a rational and constructive new era, abroad and at home.

But, of course, no president could do all these things, certainly not in two years. We cannot escape from recent history as if it were merely a bad dream. During the campaign, when he wasn't being morphed into Abraham Lincoln, Obama was compared to John F. Kennedy, and as the economic crisis deepened, the analogies were to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even as Americans hoped to put recent history behind them, they conjured up impossible historical standards for Obama to meet.

If this pattern were peculiar to the past two years, we could ascribe it entirely to the Obama phenomenon. But extreme swings in sentiments about their leaders have become so common among Americans that the pattern invites, if not a clinical diagnosis, then a historical one. Conservatives have had their share of disappointments; George W. Bush, like his father, is now denounced for having enlarged government. And it has been a long time since a Democratic leader lived up to progressives' hopes. But the problem may be the expectations.

Both conservatives and liberals have been looking for a decisive victory in the great political contest of our times. Periodically, one side advances its cause and dares to believe that it has achieved a definitive political realignment, but its advances turn out to mobilize the opposition more than its own supporters. In the great tug-of-war of the past 20 years, there has been no conclusive move in either direction. For all their unhappiness with the state of the nation, many Americans are nervous about change, entrenched interests buttress the status quo, and there is a dearth of popular movements with any staying power. Rising liberalism among the young and the increasing diversity of society, particularly the growth of the Hispanic population, have worked to the advantage of Democrats. But other developments in both international and domestic politics have offset those advantages, at least for a time. As a result, the last two decades present a clear picture, though it is not the picture some of us wanted or expected.

***

Twenty years ago -- that happens to be when we started The American Prospect -- there were legitimate grounds for believing that the United States was on the cusp of a new liberal era. The collapse of Soviet communism opened a new chapter in world history. Domestically, it seemed, the end of the Cold War would relax the fears that fed right-wing politics and free up revenue and resources previously devoted to defense.

After a decade in power, furthermore, conservatism in 1990 appeared to be exhausted. The Prospect's first issue that spring included an article by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., "The Liberal Opportunity," arguing that the history of the 20th century had shown "a fairly regular alternation in American politics between private gain and public good as the dominating motives of national policy." Progressivism took off in 1901 when Theodore Roosevelt became president, the New Deal arrived with FDR in 1933, and the New Frontier emerged with JFK in 1961. After each liberal era came a more conservative one: the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover 1920s, the Eisenhower 1950s, the Reaganite 1980s. If the rhythm held, Schlesinger argued, the 1992 election could begin another era of liberal advances -- that is, if liberals could seize the opportunity that the times presented.

The Democrats did return to power with a young and energetic president, and for a while it looked as if Schlesinger's cycle was playing out as anticipated. Bill Clinton's first budget sharply altered federal priorities, raising the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers and increasing taxes on the top income bracket. But even though Republican predictions of economic disaster never materialized, and the ensuing prosperity would help re-elect Clinton, his early moves united and energized Republicans, enabling them to win control of Congress in 1994 and prevent Democrats in the '90s from achieving anything comparable to the earlier progressive periods.

To be sure, the prosperity of the Clinton years looks pretty good now. And if things had turned out differently in Florida in 2000, and Al Gore had been able to build on Clinton's accomplishments, we might see Clinton as having initiated a more substantial progressive era. Instead, the 20 years since 1990 have been an even split: two years of the first Bush followed by eight years of Clinton; eight years of the second Bush followed by two years of Obama.

Despite George W. Bush's failure to win the popular vote in 2000, his election enabled Republicans to entrench themselves in power in three ways. They used the budget surplus they inherited from Clinton for a tax cut for the rich, creating long-term fiscal problems that continue to constrict liberal initiatives. Bush's two Supreme Court appointments solidified the conservative majority among the justices. And when the United States was attacked on September 11, Bush was able to define the response, to capitalize on the ensuing national unity, and to take the country to war in Iraq under the blanket rubric of the "war on terror." Going to war while cutting taxes was something new in history. Gore's leadership could have used the 9/11 moment for different ends.

Because of the way the Republicans were able to frame it, the war on terrorism has served as the functional equivalent of the Cold War. Islamism is not comparable to communism; it doesn't represent a general ideological rival to liberal democracy in the United States, Europe, or Latin America. Nonetheless, as the United States has been drawn into wars in distant and unfamiliar places, the war on terrorism has created a domestic political dynamic not unlike that of the Cold War, strengthening the right at the expense of a divided left.

Wars cannot be wished away. After saying that Bush was wrong to go into Iraq without finishing off al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Obama could not have ended the Afghan War without severe repercussions. Obama may yet succeed; we must hope he does. But America finds itself attempting to do what may simply not be in its power -- to deny havens to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Af-Pak border region that neither Kabul nor Islamabad have been able to govern.

***

Twenty years ago, the struggle between liberals and conservatives didn't map as well onto the division between Democrats and Republicans as it does today. Congress included more than a few Republicans who were willing to work with Democrats, as well as Democrats who more than occasionally sided with Republicans. Today the Republicans are far more likely to find partners among the Democrats than the Democrats are to find partners among the Republicans. The polarization of the parties has been asymmetric. While the Democrats include influential moderates (particularly on fiscal issues), the GOP has shifted sharply to the right. Yesterday's conservatives, like Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, who lost his seat in his own party's caucuses this year, are no longer conservative enough for the party base.

With the far right holding the dwindling number of GOP moderates in check, Obama never had a chance of transcending partisan divisions. It wasn't unwise of him to express that aim, which corresponded to a widely felt hope. During the post-World War II period when Republicans accepted much of the New Deal, and the ideological differences between the parties narrowed, Americans became accustomed to bipartisanship, and liberalism occupied the center. But the Republicans aren't interested in continuing that tradition of cooperation, and America's political institutions afford plenty of opportunity for obstruction. Not only do the constitutional checks and balances make change difficult; the status-quo bias in our institutions is all the greater now that the use of the Senate filibuster has become routine.

Together, the evolution of America's parties and political institutions create the basis for a historic impasse -- which is why health-care reform and financial regulation have been such notable achievements. Yet as important as those are, fiscally conservative Democrats have been able to combine with Republicans to hobble economic policy, block a second stimulus, and risk a double-dip recession. Although different policies probably wouldn't have made enough of a difference this fall, they could be devastating in 2012 if the recession persists.

In the article he wrote for the Prospect's first issue, Schlesinger observed that many people believe politics is about power, while others think it is about image, and he granted there is some truth in both of those views. But in a democracy, he continued, politics is "above all about the search for remedy."

The Democrats will lose ground this year because they've failed to provide economic remedies fast enough. But the long-run problem for Republicans is that remedy is not what they have been offering -- not for health care, for which they barely offer even the pretense of a solution; not for the recession, which their ideas would aggravate; not for immigration, one of several issues they want to exploit without facing up to the facts; not for climate change, which many of them entirely deny; not for energy, where their favorite response, as summed up in the chant, "Drill, baby, drill," was drowned in the Gulf oil spill. Events like the financial collapse and the oil spill keep reminding people that they need a competent and activist government to rein in the market. Unless conservatives abandon ideological fantasy and denial and become a responsible partner in government, progressives will dominate the search for remedy. And if that is what political tug-of-war is all about, we will ultimately win it.

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