I received a note from a friend commenting on the Left's uprising against President Obama (see here and here and here). He told me that he thinks “all this lefty fulmination against Obama is sound and fury signifying nothing.”
I have a different take.
Quite apart from whether the revolt among Obama's liberal-Left base will help derail health-care legislation, the Left's unhappiness with Obama is significant. Let's start with the most obvious thing first: the spell he had cast over many of them has been broken, and it will never be reclaimed.
In addition, Obama's presidency is already weaker than any other presidency has been at a comparable point into the mandate. To have this new fissure complicates Obama's political life considerably. When independents are fleeing your party in overwhelming numbers, which is now happening to Obama and the Democrats, it is doubly important that your core supporters remain by your side. For Obama to alienate many of them this early into his presidency means that he's heading toward politically treacherous territory. And Obama has alienated his liberal/Left base at precisely the same time that the rest of the country is convinced that Obama is pursuing a liberal and, in some respects, genuinely radical agenda.
This rupture will also dampen the enthusiasm of his base as we head toward mid-term elections. If Democrats go into the 2010 elections facing an energized opposition party, massive defections among independents, and a dispirited base, what may have been a very bad night for them could become a historically awful one. It's certainly true that we have a long way to go until next November. But it's also true that some trends are unmistakable, and they may prove to be irreversible.
Finally, Obama now has much less political maneuverability than he used to. Political advisers in the White House will be wary of doing anything to further upset the Left, meaning that an Obama move to the center — never a strong possibility to begin with — is less likely now. In fact, the president may take steps to re-connect with his base, which would further alienate the rest of the country.
The collateral damage Obama has sustained because of the health-care debate is astonishing. It has revealed him to be a hyper-partisan rather than a unifying figure. And because Obama's claims have been so transparently untrue and because they have been repeated so often, he has done enormous harm to his credibility. We have also seen key Democrats openly challenge Obama and refuse to bend to his will and way. The message is out: Obama can be rolled. He evokes little fear, which means party indiscipline will soon follow.
The health-care debate may one day become a case study for a government class. I suspect most people will look back at it and say that few legislative efforts have been so substantively and procedurally flawed and so politically harmful.
Three days after assuming the presidency, when his approval ratings were sky-high and many of his supporters viewed Obama almost as if he were a demi-God, I wrote this:
But precisely because this appeal is largely aesthetic rather than substantive, because it is not grounded in things deep or permanent, its durability is limited. Reality will intrude… the things people are taken up with now [Obama's style and charm] will not be determinative. And if things get worse rather than better, if Obama appears overmatched by events, then what are viewed as strengths now will be seen as weaknesses later. The day's vanity will become the night's remorse. Barack Obama is President of the United States, not a crown prince on a white horse. Fairy tales are fine; but fairy tales are childish things.
The Left has now learned that lesson the hard way.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.