Published April 9, 2010
Our major political parties have durable images, both positive and negative. Over the last several decades certain impressions — fairly or not — have taken hold, like barnacles on the hull of a ship.
On the positive side for Republicans is that they have been widely seen as defenders of traditional values and institutions; strong on national defense and in confronting America's adversaries; in favor of limited government and low taxes; and champions of free-market capitalism. On the down side, Republicans have been viewed as indifferent to the plight of the poor; insensitive on race and harsh toward immigrants; judgmental and censorious on moral issues; uncaring about the environment; and beholden to the rich and to Wall Street.
This list is not exhaustive and, depending on your point of view, these images may be more caricatures than fact. But they exist and so they cannot be ignored.
What is true for Republicans is also true of Democrats. They, too, have created impressions in the public's imagination, both favorable and unfavorable. And the political task of politicians, and especially of presidents (who after all are the leaders of the parties), is to strengthen the public's confidence on issues where the party is viewed favorably and mitigate, and even alter, people's impressions on issues where the party is seen as vulnerable.
The only successful Democratic president since the early 1960s, Bill Clinton, did this fairly well. When he ran for the presidency in 1992, the Democratic Party was still scarred because of the chaotic events of the 1968 Convention and the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. It was viewed, in the memorable phrase Thomas Eagleton gave to journalist Robert Novak, as the party of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” The 1980s weren't a whole lot better, as Democrats were perceived by many voters as untrustworthy when it came to confronting the Soviet threat abroad, enamored of big government and high taxes at home, and culturally permissive.
Bill Clinton understood this, which is why he ran as a centrist and a reformer, an advocate for a “third way” approach to American politics, a man who emphasized personal responsibility, a “new covenant,” and cultural conservatism. While it's too simplistic to reduce the Clinton presidency — or any presidency, for that matter — in order to fit our neat, sweeping theories, I think it's fair to say that his presidency ran into problems when he was viewed as liberal. This perception accompanied his administration's effort to nationalize health care, his reversal on a campaign pledge to cut taxes for the middle class, and when he got crosswise with Colin Powell, Sam Nunn, and the armed forces' brass on existing policies toward gays in the military. And his presidency was a political success, in part, because he offered a powerful counternarrative, whether by championing welfare reform and free trade, by showing he was an internationalist rather than an isolationist who was willing to use force to advance American interests, or pushing for more cops on the streets.
At some point the right set of polices — some substantive and some symbolic — congeal, and discrete issues create a story line. Many factors go into the success or failure of a presidency, but Clinton (and Dick Morris) understood the power and importance of dealing with durable party images. Which brings us to Barack Obama.
Obama won the presidency in large part because he created the impression that he was a cure to some of the worst tendencies of his party, that he was a centrist and pragmatist. He mocked those who raised concerns about his past associations and liberal voting record. He was an empirical man, results-oriented, the antithesis of an ideologue. That is the image he presented, and it's one much of the country believed.
Yet almost 15 months into his presidency, Obama has governed in a very different manner. While he has for the most part been careful to avoid kicking cultural tripwires, he has, on the most important issues of the day, reinforced the worst impressions of the Democratic Party: profligate to the point of recklessness, enamored with big government, interested in centralized control and empowering the bureaucracy, a demonizer of the business world and the profit motive, and a person who believes in higher taxes and the redistribution of wealth.
It turns out Barack Obama is Lyndon Johnson on steroids.
Facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis, the president passed a huge new entitlement program which, when it is fully implemented, will cost several trillion dollars over the next 10 years. And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, our publicly held debt, which has increased by almost $2 trillion since Obama took office, will reach $20 trillion in 2020, a figure equal to 90 percent of the estimated Gross Domestic Product that year — an unsustainable ratio. In the process, Obama's politics will create a previously unknown level of dependency on the government.
And while Obama has acted admirably when it comes to the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and our use of drones in Pakistan, as well as keeping in place several elements of President Bush's anti-terrorism policies, he has also developed some troubling habits, from bullying and criticizing American allies, to downplaying human rights in our foreign policy, to criticizing the United States on foreign soil for sins real and imagined (including, but not limited to, “torture” and unilateralism, Hiroshima and Guantanamo Bay, disrespecting Europe and not showing sufficient respect to the Muslim world). Obama's administration has pushed for civilian trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and decimated the morale of the CIA. He is underfunding our defenses and revamping American nuclear strategy to substantially narrow the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons, even if we are attacked with biological and chemical weapons.
Obama has added to his troubles by shattering one of his core campaign commitments, which was that he was the embodiment of a new kind of politics, uplifting, high-minded, transparent and transpartisan.
In politics it usually requires a lot more time and effort to undo damaging impressions than it does to create them. Bill Clinton spent much of his presidency trying to rebalance his party, much as Tony Blair did in Great Britain. Blair succeeded more than Clinton did — but Clinton did well enough. Now along comes Barack Obama who, in a year, has washed away much of the good that had been done. We are back to the future. His party is back to the 1970s and 1980s.
By virtually every measure — recent election results, generic congressional ballot comparisons, voter intensity, which party the voters trust on the most important issues, the public's confidence in government, and the depth of anti-incumbent sentiments — the Democratic Party is now in a state of disrepair. But the full extent of this won't be known until the first Tuesday in November. My guess is that by the first Wednesday in November, Democrats will begin to come to grips with just how much harm Obama has done to them and to their party. And then the question will become whether this most ideological of presidents will, like Bill Clinton before him, pivot toward the center. There are several acts yet to play out before we get to that point in this political drama. But get to it we will.
Pete 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 initiative.