Conservatives now laying their plans for the coming New Year might best be advised to begin by looking backward. A glance in the rearview mirror should suffice to demonstrate the difficulty in anticipating political developments, and the importance of being prepared for unexpected contingencies.
A year ago — in late December 2007 — an NBC poll showed Mitt Romney leading among Republicans in the Iowa caucuses at 27 percent, with John McCain a distant fourth, behind Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. On the Democratic side, Iowa looked like a three-way dead heat: John Edwards at 24 percent, Hillary Clinton at 23 percent, Barack Obama at 22 percent. About the same time, another poll showed Romney leading McCain by 14 points in New Hampshire, with Rudolph Giuliani a close third.
Most conservatives in late 2007 still held the same “Stop Hillary” mindset they had held ever since Bush’s 2004 re-election. Every bit of bad news for Hillary was cheered by Republicans, who expected her to win the nomination, but who were happy to see her bashed and battered in the process.
Few in the GOP at that time imagined that the damage — as when Tim Russert tripped her up with a debate question about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s plan to grant driver’s licenses to illegal aliens — would ultimately sink Clinton and make Obama the nominee. Fewer still expected that McCain, whose fundraising woes nearly ended his candidacy in late summer 2007, would emerge to win the GOP nomination.
Hindsight shows how foolish were the expectations that prevailed as 2007 came to a close. Conservatives shared the Clinton campaign’s belief that the former first lady would score an early knockout in the Democratic primaries, essentially locking up the nomination on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. As Joshua Green of the Atlantic Monthly has since reported, that mistaken belief was a key factor in the failure of Team Hillary to organize effectively for a long nomination battle.
In light of how things turned out, it is an amusing irony that in late 2007 it was Republicans who worried about a long, ugly struggle for their party’s nomination. “I fear our intraparty fury will destroy all leaders and send us off to a brokered convention — and from thence, probably to defeat,” Tony Blankley wrote in his column on Dec. 19, 2007. “If the Democrats have their candidate by February and we are campaigning harshly until August, we surely would start in a deep hole.”
Instead, Romney surprised Republicans by announcing on Feb. 7 that he was suspending his campaign, effectively ceding the nomination to McCain. And while the Democrats struggled on until June — with Obama finally defeating Hillary only because of a shift in support among the party’s superdelegates — that long, bruising campaign seemed to enhance, rather than diminish, the Democratic advantage in the general election.
As he now prepares to begin his presidency, Obama is covered in a mantle of invincibility. This is partly the result of his meteoric rise and partly the result of astonishingly sycophantic media coverage — two closely related phenomena.
With the Republican minority in Congress almost powerless to resist the implementation of Obama’s agenda, it is easy to believe that the new president will meet easy success in the coming year. Like those year-ago predictions that have since proven laughably misguided, triumphant expectations for Obama in 2009 may rest on wobbly assumptions.
Among these assumptions is that the new president will continue to enjoy favorable press coverage no matter what he does. Yet if Obama makes standard operating procedure of his recent high-handed treatment of reporters — interrupting John McCormick of the Chicago Tribune to tell him he would “waste his question” by asking about the Blagojevich scandal — it could bring a premature end to his media “honeymoon.”
A deterioration of the press corps’ leg-tingling infatuation with Obama may seem too fond a hope. A more reasonable prospect is that the new administration’s economic plans will fail to bring recovery from the recent financial collapse. Obama will be relieved of responsibility in the short term by a “blame Bush” strategy, but how long will the public accept such excuses as a substitute for recovery? Already, informed analysts are scoffing that Obama’s job-creation math doesn’t add up.
Furthermore, the need to address the economic crisis will make it extremely difficult for Obama to push through the centerpiece of the Democrats’ domestic agenda, universal health care. A policy that might have seemed fiscally plausible while the economy was booming will be hard to justify with federal revenue slumping in a recession.
With even Newt Gingrich seemingly hesitant to oppose the Obama agenda, it may be reasonable to foresee 2009 as a continuation of the “Triumph of Hope” narrative. A look back at 2008 reminds us, however, that reasonable expectations don’t always work out.