There are a lot of reasons to feel despondent at what's been going on with Democrats in Congress and the White House over the last week. What's remarkable is just how easy it was for them to get sent into this spiral of fear. I shouldn't have to keep repeating this, but all of this chaos – talking about abandoning their agenda, the president seemingly reconfiguring his entire political strategy – is happening because their 20-seat advantage in the Senate was reduced to an 18-seat advantage. Can you imagine what would happen if they suffered a really big defeat?
It reveals not just how little faith Democrats have in their beliefs, but also how little faith they have in their own political abilities. Considering the disillusionment with Obama now spreading in progressive circles, particularly over his proposal for a spending freeze, Greg Sargent noted that "fairly or not, liberals saw in him someone who would use his extraordinary communications skills to expand the field of what's pragmatically possible, to move public opinion — not someone who would ever play by the other side's rhetorical rules. Each time he falls short of this ideal, people grow less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hence the outcry about the freeze — even if the details of the freeze are proving less onerous than initially thought."
What's so disheartening about this turn of events is that this particular Democratic disease was not one from which we believed Barack Obama suffered. He was supposed to be supremely confident, unconcerned with the news cycle and always looking at the long term, seeing three moves ahead. This disease isn't about whether they care too much about polls – Republicans spend just as much time polling as Democrats do. It's about whether they believe public opinion is immutable, something they can shape or something they must always fear.
When Republicans see poll results that look unfavorable for them or something they want to do, they say to themselves, "We'll have to do something to change that." When Democrats see poll results that look unfavorable for them or something they want to do, they say, "We're screwed! Forget what we believe in – let's just try not to make the public too mad!" But Obama was supposed to be different.
Maybe he still is. Maybe he's not spooked the way Democrats in Congress are. Maybe he's still looking three moves ahead. But the evidence for that is getting awfully thin.
-- Paul Waldman
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