Two years ago, incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was asked by The Wall Street Journal how the Democrats, with their powerful new majorities, would avoid overreaching. Among other things, he said, they would have to think “less ideologically.”
Obviously, they didn’t get the memo. Instead, they unleashed all their pent-up Great Society impulses.
With the electorate increasingly concerned about rising deficits, they piled on the red ink. They turned the stimulus package into a conveyor belt of pork for favored constituencies and rammed through a massive takeover of the nation’s health system.
What strikes me is the contrast with the mood of two years ago. The nation had elected its first black president. There was a sense of a door opening to something new and hopeful. It was a moment that reflected well on our country, one in which all could share regardless of party.
I didn’t vote for Barack Obama, but that feeling was pervasive, however brief. I thought in my more optimistic moments that maybe things would work out for the best. Politics is fascinating because it always has the capacity to surprise. Maybe Obama the canny campaigner would prove to be a wise president.
Think of the opportunity he was given. The Republican Party was a spent force. The obvious strategy would be for the new president, buoyed by the nation’s good will, to broaden his legislative coalition by peeling off Republicans on certain issues, thus boosting his own standing and dividing his opposition.
He could have pushed through meaningful spending cuts to allay fears about the exploding deficit, or insisted on powerful incentives for entrepreneurship in the stimulus package. He could have demanded that Congress pare back the blatant Democratic pork.
Instead, he let the Democratic Congress fill in the crucial details. One mammoth legislative blob after another rolled out of the Democratic House — the pork-stuffed stimulus bill, cap and trade, health care.
At home, the post-partisan mask dropped. He began to see Republicans as “enemies.” Abroad, with his obsequious overtures to Iran and his weird tendency to bow to foreign leaders, he reattached Jimmy Carter’s “kick me” sign to America’s foreign policy.
This president has done more in less time to revive the GOP than any political figure I can think of.
And his agenda has been politically fatal to many members of his own party. Exhibit A would be what happened Tuesday to Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who has represented Missouri’s 4th District for many years. He was unseated by Republican Vicky Hartzler, a flawed candidate by most accounts who had real difficulty doing more than reciting talking points.
Skelton didn’t vote for the health care bill, but he voted for cap and trade and no doubt it was the key to his demise. Voters were entitled to ask: If a normally sober man like Ike Skelton could be made to vote yes on an economy-killer like that, what else might he be pressured to do by his fellow Dems?
My sense was the voters of the 4th District, who went heavily for McCain in ’08, probably would have voted for a Republican zombie this year rather than any Democrat. The zombie could at least be relied upon to vote no when faced with the sort of enormities coughed up by the Pelosi House.
Democrats criticized Republicans for being “the party of no,” without seeming to understand that this probably boosted Republican prospects. This year, voters wanted obstructionists — lawmakers whose first imperative was to stop the reckless Democrats.
Certainly, Tuesday’s vote wasn’t an endorsement of Republicans. As the pollster Scott Rasmussen notes, it was less a vote for the GOP than a vote against the party in power.
With their disastrous performance over the last two years, the Democrats have marked themselves. It will be a long time before the voters trust them again with both political branches of the government.