Ed Driscoll

Asleep at the Wheel, Versus Listening to Voters

In the American Interest Online, Walter Russell Mead charts how badly President Obama has fallen — though the heights from which he began his administration were unsustainable, precisely because they were illusionary, as just about every pundit on the right not named Christopher Buckley or David Brooks tried to point out back then:

All pundits, including yours truly, get it wrong sometimes, and normally there would be little point in dwelling on past blunders.  But it this case, it is worth exhuming these vaporous and embarrassing stupidities for a few moments.  Many of our nation’s intellectual leaders wonder why the rest of the country isn’t more respectful of their claims to be guided by and speak for the cool voice of celestial reason.  That so many of them gushed over Barack Obama with all of the profundity of reflection and intellectual distance of tweeners at a Justin Bieber concert should help them understand why their claims of superior wisdom are sometimes met with caustic cynicism.

A significant chunk of the American liberal intelligentsia completely lost its head over Barack Obama.  They mistook hopes and fantasies for reality.  Worse, the disease spread to at least some members of the White House team.  An administration elected with a mandate to stabilize the country misread the political situation and came to the belief that the country wanted the kinds of serious and deep changes that liberals have wanted for decades.  It was 1933, and President Obama was the new FDR.

They did not perceive just how wrong they were; nor did they understand how the error undermined the logical case they wanted to make in favor of a bigger role for government guided by smart, well-credentialed liberal wonks.  Give us more power because we understand the world better than you do, was the message.  We are so smart, so well-credentialed, so careful to read all the best papers by all the certified experts that the recommendations we make and the regulations we write, however outlandish and burdensome they look to all you non-experts out there, are certain to work.  Trust us because we are always right, and only fools and charlatans would be so stupid as to disagree.

They were fundamentally misreading the mood of the country, the political situation, and the ability of the new president even as they claimed that their superior and universal wisdom gave them the right and the duty to plan the future of vast swatches of the American economy.  They were swept away by giddy euphoria even as they proclaimed the virtue of cool reason.  Voters could see this; increasingly, they tuned the administration out.

Of course, American voters tuned the administration out because from the start, the administration tuned out anyone to the right of Keith Olbermann. Actually before the start — recall that Obama’s infamous Bitter Clingers speech during the 2008 primary season was referencing Hillary-supporting Pennsylvania Democrats.

And while he didn’t intend it this way, President Obama’s standard stump speech this fall, involving cars, Slurpees, and passenger seating arrangements was a reminder of America’s biggest complaint over the last two years: he and his party were firmly at the wheel of all branches of government, and they weren’t about to listen to everyone shouting that they were off course and becoming increasingly lost.

To contrast such imperial arrogance, “Republicans should seek clarity by listening to voters,” Glenn Reynolds writes in the Washington Examiner:

Republicans in Congress — and the more elevated institutions of the press, like this one, that are not in the tank — will have to fight such efforts and make sure that the facts come out.

One way to do so is to stay on message, of course. Another is to follow House Minority Leader (and, soon, Speaker) John Boehner’s advice, and “listen.” During the Obamacare debacle, Democratic representatives and senators ran away from constituent meetings and town halls. The last thing they wanted to do was listen to their constituents.

By way of contrast, Republicans should engage constituents early and often, and — publicly — encourage Democrats to do the same.

The town hall meeting is a popular tactic, and one that Democrats will have trouble emulating. That alone would make it good politics, but there’s substance as well as tactics in support of this approach.

One of the main reasons for the Democrats’ defeat this year was voters’ sense that they wouldn’t listen — that they rammed through a predetermined agenda without paying any attention to voters’ misgivings, and that they, in fact, seemed to glory in their lack of accountability. (Remember Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s parade-with-gavel through the throngs of anti-Obamacare protesters?)

By listening to voters at town hall meetings, Republicans can not only show that they care, they can accomplish something else. They can actually learn something.

By not listening to voters, and not being straight with them, Democrats committed political suicide. Republicans should take a lesson, and promote clarity. In these times, voters will reward that.

Congressional representatives who actually remember that they are representatives, that is, servants of the voters who elected them. It’s such a crazy idea that it just might work if it’s tried once again.