It took more than half a decade, countless American and Iraqi deaths in a war based on lies, a sinking economy and the drowning of an American city to finally kill Bush-Cheney-Rove's dream of a conservative realignment.
Democrats, controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, have managed to kill their own dream of dominance in 12 months.
How did it happen?
Theories abound, but two diametrically opposed narratives have taken hold:
The first, promulgated by conservatives, is that the new administration has moved too far to the left and alienated a large swath of independent and moderate voters.
The second, pushed by progressive activists and bloggers, is that the administration hasn't been true enough to fundamental Democratic principles, has embraced some of Bush's worst excesses on civil liberties, and has ditched popular ideas (like the public option) in favor of watered down centrist policies, thus looking weak and ineffectual.
The conservative argument is unpersuasive. After years of a systematic effort by the right to use Overton-style tactics to radicalize our national discourse, the center has moved so far right that the left is barely recognizable. With a military surge in Afghanistan, a denuded health insurance bill limping through Congress, Bush-era detainee policies reinforced, a deflated climate summit, and a windfall year for bankers, among other things, it's almost ludicrous to claim that the new administration is run by a gang of lefties.
The case by progressives that Democrats are undermining themselves with faux-bipartisanship and tepid policies gets much closer to the heart of the problem. I've written a number of posts arguing that it's all a matter of values and ethics. In essence: when you fail to govern based on a morally sound, well-articulated, solidly-grounded set of ideals, you look weak. All the legislative wins in the world won't change that. People gravitate to people who exude moral authority. The vast majority of voters lack the detailed policy knowledge that would enable them to make an accurate assessment of policy differences, but they do have a visceral sense of when a candidate or an elected official believes in something and fights for it. It's why campaigns are laden with moral arguments; politicians ask to be elected because they'll "do the right thing." The right thing in the current administration's case was to be the anti-Bush, nothing more, nothing less. The ethical antidote to a radical administration. It was both politically smart and morally right. And it worked wonders for Democrats as the entire subtext of the 2008 campaign.
The question of whether President Obama is too far left or not left enough will be at the center of the message wars in the lead-up to the midterms. And because these two themes have been analyzed and fleshed out in countless articles and blog posts, it's tempting to see the events of the past year exclusively through the prism of one or the other.
But I'd like to suggest an additional explanation for the demise of Democratic fortunes, namely, that Democratic leaders made two crucial miscalculations in early 2009. A quick glance at the news a year ago today offers clues. On January 19th, 2009, CBS published the "Obama-Lincoln parallel." The Washington Post wrote about a "bear market for Republicans leaving the Hill or the administration." The same day, techPresident discussed "How the Obama Transition is Using Tech to Innovate." Elsewhere that day, LGBT bloggers were complaining that gay Bishop Gene Robinson's prayer was left out of HBO's live broadcast of the inaugural concert.
In that small selection of stories, key themes emerge: a) Obama is the next Lincoln; b) The Obama online revolution continues; c) Republicans are finished; d) a handful of progressives aren't buying it.
Looking back, it's not that difficult to see how the seeds of today's Republican resurgence were planted in those early days:
1. Democratic leaders and strategists, high on victory and awed by the Obama campaign's online prowess, underestimated the dormant power of the old rightwing message machine.
With a sense of invincibility and of history, and believing that the GOP had been mortally wounded, they engaged and legitimized Rush Limbaugh from the White House podium in the belief that it would further marginalize Republicans. It was a mammoth mistake, since it was Rush, Hannity, Drudge, Fox, rightwing blogs, town hall protesters and old-fashioned chain emails that permanently defined the health care debate. Obama's vaunted online army was outgunned and outmaneuvered, while a much-ridiculed Tea Party came out of nowhere to transform the political landscape.
2. Democratic leaders and strategists, privately disdainful of the netroots, underestimated the influence of progressive bloggers.
Nothing should have been a bigger red flag to the new administration than the growing complaints by established progressive bloggers that Democrats were veering off track on the stimulus, the health care bill, civil liberties, gay rights, and more. But scoffing at the netroots is second nature in many quarters of the political establishment, even though they laid the groundwork for Obama's victory. The single biggest reason Obama's hope bubble burst is because of the unintended convergence of left and right opinion-making. The cauldron of opinion that churns incessantly on blogs, Twitter, social networks, and in the elite media generates the storylines that filter across the national and local press, providing the fodder for public opinion. Stalwarts of the left, dedicated to principles not personalities, hammered the administration; couple that with the partisan criticisms from conservatives and libertarians, and the net effect was to alter conventional wisdom and undercut Obama's image and message.
I wrote about these problems while they were occurring, as did many other progressive bloggers, some of whom have been ostracized and attacked, even by their peers.
Here's an extended excerpt of something I wrote back in March:
I don't buy into this 'brilliant' strategy of elevating Rush Limbaugh in the hopes that it will tarnish Republicans. Focus relentlessly on the disastrous Bush presidency to tarnish Republicans, yes. Overturn every single illegal and unconstitutional Bush-era policy and show the country and the world that we're reclaiming the moral high ground, yes. Implement bold strategies and use soaring rhetoric to inspire Americans, yes. Hew fiercely to Democratic principles, reassert the greatness of our American identity, demonstrate the true meaning of liberalism, of progressivism, providing opportunity, seeking justice and fairness, helping those in need, yes. Spend our resources healing the sick, feeding the hungry, lifting the poor, cleaning the planet, rather than on war and more war, yes.
But expand Rush Limbaugh's profile and platform? No.
It's bad for the country and it's bad politics. Limbaugh and his cohorts (Coulter, Hannity, Beck, Savage, and so on), are largely responsible for our toxic political environment. Given major media platforms to launch crude and brutal political and cultural attacks, to demonize liberals, and to use rage as a means of lining their own pockets, these 'entertainers' have poisoned our national discourse.
There's precious little benefit in making Limbaugh more of a central player, in engaging him directly from the White House podium, in raising his stature, in stamping, sealing and approving the years he's spent bashing his political opponents. There was a moment, a brief moment, after Barack Obama was elected president, a moment long gone, where the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity could have become marginalized, bit players rather than media movers and shakers, the detritus of a sorry era. But instead, they have been granted more power -- out of some contrived political calculus. This, at a time when we don't need political calculus, we need single-minded determination to get us out of this economic calamity and to restore sanity to our government.
I know it's hard for Democrats to appreciate how quickly political fortunes turn -- the glow of victory, the high of electoral success gives a sense of inevitability and invincibility, of permanence. But there's nothing permanent about power. The tide will turn again, and the engine that will drive it is the fury stirred by the likes of Limbaugh. Feeding that machine, expanding and enhancing it is a mistake. A serious one.
It's a truism that victory makes every decision seem genius, defeat, the reverse. Democrats, now in power, have a sense of triumph that makes every decision feel smart, every chess move a checkmate. Thus the "Rush strategy" foisted on those of us who have spent the past decade trying to point out how noxious and pernicious Limbaugh and his ilk have been (and continue to be), and how detrimental the anger they've stoked.
Empowering Limbaugh in the hopes of a bank-shot against Republicans will yield the opposite result: Limbaugh will become more powerful, Republicans will relish his increased influence and allow him to do their dirty work.
It's easy to feel like the old era is gone, the old demons slain, that we WON, that nobody's afraid of the once-vaunted Republican attack machine. But Barack Obama won that battle against Hillary Clinton not just because of his abundant positive traits but because people like Rush Limbaugh gave him a 15-year head start against her.
The seeds of Democratic defeat are planted not by Republican elected officials, who, like McCain, will carry the Bush albatross for years to come, but by those who can freely fan the flames of outrage, who can fight dirty, who can bend and break the rules with impunity, who can tear down their opponents' integrity and character, and whose apparent reward (as in the case of Ann Coulter) is to be given yet a larger platform.
That summed up how I felt at the time. I got a lot of heat when I wrote it, but I stand by every word.
Progressive bloggers have been jumping up and down, yelling at their Democratic leaders that the path of compromise and pragmatism only goes so far. The limit is when you start compromising away your core values.
I sincerely hope that's the lesson learned today.