The midterm elections find the two parties, and the United States, in an uncomfortable position. Even as it apparently moves toward a major victory, the Republican Party is divided between the Tea Party and the Establishment wings, and it is still haunted by the failure of the last era of Republican rule. The Democrats, who dreamed briefly in 2008-09 that the charisma and skills of Barack Obama would reverse the Republican tide that has been flowing since Richard Nixon discovered his Southern Strategy, face the sobering prospect that this might just be a center-right country after all. Could it be that Ronald Reagan still owns America and that Barack Obama was just borrowing it for a while?
The presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 were both fought out over the same issue. Think of America as a car: the Democrats offered a competent and smooth ride to Boston. Under the accident-prone George W. Bush, the Republicans offered a bumpy ride towards Dallas. In 2004 and 2008 Democrats attacked Republicans for crashing the car; Republicans attacked Democrats for wanting to take it in the wrong direction. In 2004, the Democratic argument did not convince. In 2008, with the economy melting down, it did. Barack Obama ran as a competent, smooth driver who would make the ride so pleasant and easy that the country wouldn’t much care where he was going. Republicans keep driving off the road, the new President argued, because the roads to Dallas are bad. Without a vigilant government to invest in infrastructure, superintend the road builders, subsidize ethanol, enforce speed limits and require safety belts, the road to Dallas is a series of disasters waiting to happen. The road to Boston, on the other hand, has been built by intelligent, credentialed technocrats. The tolls may be high, the renewable fuel has some problems, and the 35 mile an hour speed limit can be a little irksome, but the road is safe and the ride is smooth.
2010 is shaping up to be a terrible year for Democrats for two reasons: more people are aware of just where the administration wants to take the car, and the ride has turned out much bumpier than advertised. Competent, professional, cool and cerebral doesn’t seem to be creating many jobs. If the ride is going to be bumpy and crash prone and we are going to end up in the ditch whichever way we head, voters appear to have concluded that we might as well face Dallas while spinning our wheels.
The two parties both face difficult challenges; possibly the Democrats, gloomy as they are likely to feel on Wednesday morning, have the easier task. President Clinton pioneered the winning strategy after the Democratic shellacking of 1994; triangulate and wait. Artful triangulation can reduce the public’s unhappiness with the perceived leftward drift of the country; over time the economic cycle is likely to reassert itself and prosperity will return. Whether President Obama can bring himself to imitate the once-despised Clintonian example is another question. It is hard to go from comparisons with Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt to hoping you can measure up to Bill Clinton. The Democratic rump in Congress will also fight change. With conservative and moderate Democrats going down in droves as the party’s recent gains in red districts and states are rolled back, the political center of gravity among the remaining congressional Democrats will shift left even as the electorate moves right. The SEIU, AFSCME and other Big Labor big spenders are going to exercise more power in a smaller party. Still, to reposition themselves for 2012, all Democrats must really do is adjust their agenda to the prevailing winds — and if congressional Democrats continue to swing left, triangulation will be that much easier and more effective for the White House.
Republicans, on the other hand, face exactly the kinds of challenges that wrecked the Bush administration. However popular fiscal discipline is in the abstract, entitlement reform is deeply unpopular when it gets down to cases. I am all for cutting Medicare costs in the abstract, but I don’t want my mother to have to change doctors because of a bunch of penny pinching bureaucrats. The federal deficit is a terrible thing, but my kids need cheap loans or they can’t go to college. And waste and mismanagement at Fannie Mae makes me very unhappy, but I want cheap and easy fixed rate mortgages — and I want house prices to rise and I don’t want anybody monkeying around with the mortgage interest deduction.
The Bush team (for all the smug self-assurance of commentators like Karl Rove today) dithered helplessly in the face of this challenge. With six years of congressional majorities, the administrated utterly failed to grapple with the problems that haunt us now. Ineffective and counter-productive posturing on Social Security was balanced by adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Meanwhile, interpreting ‘business-friendly’ in the lowest possible sense, the GOP opened its arms to lobbies and special interests without ushering in the kind of strategic change that over the long run would improve the prospects of economic growth in the economy as a whole. On education, two years of President Obama may well have done more to curb the power of teachers’ unions and improve state educational practices than eight years of President Bush. Even in power, the Republicans were better at being against things than at generating proposals for the kind of changes the country actually and urgently needs.
The signs that a Republican majority can do better this time are not good. The Tea Party has many good qualities. The insurgents are, in my view, completely justified in their loathing and contempt for the big spending GOP culture of the last administration. I am all for cutting taxes, especially mine. I also share the Tea Party’s concern that out of touch intellectual, social, media and economic elites are steering the country wrong. But it won’t be enough to say no: we face some difficult policy problems that require real wisdom and, yes, experience. Fixing the entitlement system would tax the wisdom of Solomon. Reforming our dysfunctional educational system is going to be hard. Reinventing the medical professions and building new models of medical service delivery that can provide Americans with the care they need at a price the country can afford will take a generation at best and it will involve some tough and complicated changes. So far there is not much sign that the Tea Party is much readier for this kind of change than Tom DeLay ever was.
The GOP picture is not entirely bleak. Unlike Democrats, who will ultimately have to take on the public sector labor unions or face permanent relegation to minority status, Republicans do not need to go to war with their party’s base to develop a political program that can bring them long term success. More, the basic Republican instincts against taxes and subsidies are on the right side of history these days. Developing a new American economy requires creating an environment that is suitable for the growth of small business — and small business generally does better in the kind of low-tax, low-regulation environment that Tea Party Republicans instinctively support. (Democratic preferences for high-tax, high-regulation economies offset by targeted subsidies and incentives only work if you already know which sectors and technologies will drive the next round of economic growth. That is not where we are today.) To the extent that Tea Party Republicans are able to keep K-Street Republicans from writing tax subsidies and special interest breaks into law and keeping the focus on creating a small and new business friendly low-tax, low-regulation economic climate, the shift will help get the economy moving.
The real problem for both parties is that the old roads and the old destinations don’t make that much sense anymore. A global economic upheaval is changing the rules before our eyes. This can play to America’s greatest strengths: our cultural dispositions favoring flexibility, innovation and hard work. But we will have to reinvent some of our core institutions to do this, drastically reducing the size and cost of our government, legal, health and educational systems even as we find ways to make them much more productive than ever before. The old progressive elite of Democrats’ dreams can’t lead us into the promised land — but while Republicans know this much, they haven’t figured out what comes next.
In this uncomfortable, in-between time, voters are turning restlessly from one party to the other. Right now, unless President Obama starts pulling some rabbits out of his hat (a possibility I do not discount), we are on course for two failed presidencies in a row. The cycle of voter disenchantment is speeding up; the electorate gave Bush six years before tuning him out. President Obama risks losing the country’s ear after only two.
This is not a good place for a great country to be. I am glad that Democratic hubris is getting a well deserved rebuke; I am only sorry that the consequence may be to reinforce GOP smugness. Both parties need to get smarter and more creative if this country is going to move towards a new era of progress and rising living standards. Let’s hope that the next few years yield fresh ideas about fundamental reforms to our core institutions. Without that, the political competition between parties is going to become increasingly stale, increasingly bitter — and voter dissatisfaction with the state of the country will only grow.