Politics Upside Down

Suddenly the same-old, same-old does not work this year

All the old reasons why entrenched congressional representatives, senators, and state and local officials are usually ensured reelection — the brag of securing pork-barrel earmarked projects, boasts of years of incumbency and insider experience, habit and rote, seniority on committees and boards — aren’t quite working this year (although they did as recently as just two years ago).

People suddenly don’t care as much that their representatives won yet another recreation center or office building in their district named after themselves, or that a newly paved stretch of highway is named after a favorite congressman. Instead, to the degree politicians voted for $3 trillion more in debt the last two years or a federal takeover of health care, they face rising and blanket voter resentment. The problem is not just that we know the deficits are unsustainable, or that the borrowed money spent so haphazardly (remember that Joe Biden was supposed to monitor how the hundreds of billions were consumed?) has so far had little long-term benefit. The problem is more a spiritual one.

I think at the heart of the tea-party revolt and public anger in general is simply sheer disbelief at the astronomical debts, red ink that has increased by $3 trillion in just two years — and will fall due one day mostly on a generation that did not incur or enjoy the borrowing. People are depressed that even a restoration of the Clinton tax rates would now still leave a trillion in annual deficits, given the vast level of federal spending.

They are increasingly ashamed too that a great nation like the United States is the world’s greatest debtor, that we are the object of global financial ridicule while an authoritarian government in China, flush with trillions in cash, is admired and courted for its money. And so the public does not react to political rhetoric and promises as they have in the past. Show us the bottom line of balancing a budget the people instead demand.

When a once shoo-in Senator Russ Feingold, Sen. Patty Murray, or Rep. John Dingell is in trouble, then we know the rules are changing. True, Reagan, like Obama, nosedived in the polls in his first and second years. So did Clinton. But in the former case, policies in 1981-3 were aimed at assuring businesses that profit was a good thing; in the latter, remorse in 1994-5 reassured them that as well. The result was that private enterprise was confident of only a temporary downturn, not a rewrite of the game. Not so now: Obama, in a word, shows no signs that he wants private enterprise to make lots of money rather than have them concede at a certain point that they’ve already made enough for his tastes.

So something is different this year, as trillions of dollars sit out the economy until the November elections. Job creators and buyers want proof that there is an end to greater regulation, higher taxes, more redistributive spending, cap-and-trade, and more gratuitous name-calling.

When the president says to his rallies “Don’t make me look bad [in the November election]" I think he means that he is more worried about his own standing than the scores of congressional Democrats who both took him at his word that his hope and change agenda was the wave of the future, and now are suddenly deemed expendable. The presidential worry seems not about fifty or so representatives that won’t be around in January, but more his own loss of face.

Slurs mean nothing

The media does not seem to be able to stop the rising public anger either. The tea-partiers, as their clout grew, have gone from being ignored, to being racists, to supposedly kindred spirits who are not really conservative as much as protesting against the entrenched and powerful. Meanwhile, media editorializing means very little. Newsweek after all sold for a dollar. The New York Times is in growing percentages leveraged. Whether it is CNN or Time, the constant is a shrinking audience.

Everything seems to be in play in this year without rules and precedent. A six-term congressman in a safe seat can be ahead by 10 points and a month later poll dead even. Democrats can run the most engaging ads — bragging on voting against the Obama agenda.

What are we left with then?

The greatest misreading of public unhappiness in recent political history.

Somehow Obama, after a brilliant campaign, thought that either America was ready for European-style socialism or could be persuaded that it was, as if his own election had nothing to do with McCain’s lackluster campaign; the September 15, 2008, meltdown; the Bush-Iraq war; the novelty of electing the first African-American candidate; or the centrist, "across-the-aisle" Obama rhetoric -- but was rather an endorsement of campaign slips like “spread the wealth” and the Pennsylvania clingers speech.

Obama also apparently concluded that the public anger with Bush was that he was too conservative, rather than too liberal, in the sense of spending too much money, too lax on illegal immigration, and too prone to creating new unfunded government agencies and programs. Instead of breaking with Bush, he simply trumped him to the nth degree.

The result is politics upside down, as fainting crowds vanished; books about the brave new progressive age are remaindered about when they appear; and elected majority party officials run on everything but the public's worry over joblessness and massive debt. I cannot remember a party prepping for an election by either ignoring its legislative record or attacking it.