On Counterfactuals, Tantrums, and the Expensive Orgy

Two political op-eds have captured my attention in the past day. They cover similar ground — the struggles of the Democrats this election cycle — in profoundly different ways.

The Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson, he writes in “The Spoiled-Brat American Electorate” that “registered voters say they intend to vote for Republicans over Democrats by an astounding 10-point margin. Respected analysts reckon that the GOP has a chance of gaining 45 to 60 seats in the House, which would bring Minority Leader John Boehner into the speaker’s office.” Yet, write David Brooks of the New York Times in “The Alternate History,” “it is possible to imagine a scenario in which things might have turned out differently.”

Dealing with counterfactuals is always difficult, but humor me. What should have been different, according to Brooks? Obama should have governed from the Right, passing Republican tax cuts to stimulate the economy and avoiding health care reform in favor of energy policy. And, most importantly, stress to the American public that the challenges faced — a collapsing economy, a crumbling infrastructure, and high unemployment — were going to take both time and sacrifice to solve. This, in Brooks’ estimation, would have muted Republican opposition over the past eighteen months and the Democratic Party would be better positioned, because “this wasn’t conventional big government liberalism,” for November’s elections.

This, of course, is complete and total bunk.

Obama’s policies have not been “big government liberalism”; he’s steered a centrist path, the health care bill (which is generally pointed to by the Right as a the centerpiece of Obama’s liberalism) is a largely Republican construct, and his harshest critics have been on the left (hence, press secretary Robert Gibbs’ railing against “the professional left“). And contrary to Brooks’ assertions that Obama hasn’t cautioned the public that the road to recovery will be a long one, he entered office saying exactly that to George Stephanopoulos: “that fixing our economy over the long term will require sacrifice from every American and scaling back some of his campaign promises.” A stimulus bill was passed, but the Republicans weren’t onboard. The only thing that Brooks gets right is the first half of his first sentence: “The Democrats could be heading toward a defeat of historic proportions in November.” Everything else, even accepting that it’s an alternate history and thus fiction, isn’t even rooted in reality.

Which brings me around to Eugene Robinson.

Robinson writes in the Post that “voters appear to be so fed up with the Democrats that they’re ready to toss them out in favor of the Republicans — for whom, according to those same polls, the nation has even greater contempt. This isn’t an ‘electoral wave,’ it’s a temper tantrum.” The root of that “temper tantrum”?

The nation demands the impossible: quick, painless solutions to long-term, structural problems. While they’re running for office, politicians of both parties encourage this kind of magical thinking. When they get into office, they’re forced to try to explain that things aren’t quite so simple — that restructuring our economy, renewing the nation’s increasingly rickety infrastructure, reforming an unsustainable system of entitlements, redefining America’s position in the world and all the other massive challenges that face the country are going to require years of effort. But the American people don’t want to hear any of this. They want somebody to make it all better. Now.

Much as it pains me to say it, he’s right. It’s true of people on both sides of the political aisle. Sacrifice was something that the World War II generation did. I’m not sure that it’s something this generation can. Our last president thought that two wars could be fought without any sacrifice, except for his golf game, and even then he made it up. Taxes, rationing, delayed gratification — American society just doesn’t do these any more.

The last decade left a lot of damage behind; it was an expensive orgy, and the ones holding the brooms cleaning it up right now are the Democrats. If John McCain had won in 2008, he and his party would be taking the brunt of the electorate’s anger right now. If Obama had followed Brooks’ advice, as anti-reality as it was, the Democrats still wouldn’t be in a good electoral position; the Bush years will take years, if not decades to fully recover from.

As I explained on Thursday, voting for Republicans this November is foolhardy in the extreme. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum makes the point today that the Republican Party is simply unprepared for legislative power; by design they are an opposition party, thus lacking in a legislative vision and the willingness to execute it. I would go further than Frum and say that even if they did attempt to be serious about governing by passing legislation, this invariably requires some compromise with the other party. Compromise is, for the agitated Republican base, a sure sign of a Fifth Columnist in the Republican ranks, the dreaded RINO — Republican In Name Only. And when their only behavior has been nihilism, it is difficult to build a coherent governing strategy around nothingness.

November’s elections, in my view, are America’s maturity moment. A vote for the Republican Party for reasons of an electoral temper tantrum is a vote for entirely the wrong reasons. There is far too much at stake — America’s standing in the world, her economy, her very way of life — for a protest vote because Obama and the Democrats couldn’t sweep up George W. Bush’s mess fast enough.

That’s the choice come November — maturity or nihilism.

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