For both parties, midterm tunnel vision
The Washington Post, October 27, 2010
"If only we'd let the banks and Detroit totally collapse, and blamed Bush for the whole thing, we'd be sitting pretty."
Somewhere in the corner of a calculating Democratic political heart this thought must have occurred. Like Lenin's sly adage, "the worse, the better." The politics seem inexplicable otherwise. FDR and the Democrats scored healthy gains in the 1934 midterm election, after allthough unemployment had inched down only from a catastrophic 23.6 percent in 1932 to a still-catastrophic 21.7 percent. Seen this way, President Obama's big political mistake was stopping the recession from turning into a depression. The economy Obama inherited and has tried imperfectly to fix is now not so deep a calamity that everyone feels impelled to rally around their president. Instead, it's just awful enough for everyone to feel Obama has failed.
A shellacking is coming. The only question is how big. Yet if this is certain, there's nonsense galore being peddled about the election's meaning. The American people in their wisdom are about to punish a party they're furious with by giving more power to a party they can't stand. Talk about a pathetic set of options.
Economic anxiety that fuels disgust with both parties is the seminal political fact of our time, but it will be ignored by Washington in the orgies of ecstasy and despair we'll soon witness. Republicans will be blind in victory, Democrats blind in defeat. For the next two years we'll thus be ruled by the blind fighting the blind.
Psychologists talk about a phenomenon called "confirmation bias" to describe our tendency to process information or interpret events in ways that confirm what we already think. While the Darwinian survival value of this instinct may not be obvious, it explains virtually everything we're hearing from both parties.
Take the GOP. So long as they ignore their own approval ratings, Republicans feel they're on the threshold of a satisfying vindication as the public revolts against Obama's socialist overreach. How this indictment can be offered with a straight face is a mystery, when Obama's chief lefty sins seem to be (1) a stimulus on a scale that former Reagan adviser Martin Feldstein and other Republican economists thought was necessary, and (2) enacting Romneycare for the masses. But who can fathom the Republican mind?
If Republicans are happily deluded, however, Democrats are fatally condescending. In the Democrats' eyes, their coming setback is proof of little more than the public's plodding failure to understand all that's been done for them. To be sure, there's truth in their complaint that the White House didn't fight the PR wars well (Exhibit A is Romneycare being successfully and ludicrously branded as socialism). But far bigger than the Democrats' communications problem is their reality problem. You want to shake Democrats and scream:
"No, no, it's not thatit's that unemployment is still near 10 percent, trillions are being added to the debt with no plan to stem the tide, plus you designed health reform so that no one would feel any real benefits for years."
Oh, and, by the way:
"Not a single banker who walked away rich while destroying his or her firm, wrecking the economy and leaving taxpayers with the bill has gone to jail or been forced to give back the ill-gotten gains. And despite 'reform,' Wall Street is still free to operate like a casino."
In this context, "Hey, but it could've been a depression," was never going to be a winner.
So now what? Republicans will over-interpret; Democrats will overdramatize. The GOP will proclaim that its big victory means it is on the right track, not that most Americans think the country is on the wrong one. Democrats will take up arms for their traditional circular firing squad. Then both parties will turn on each other with new levels of venom.
I had hoped President Obama could move us past these dynamics. It's hardly all his fault that we haven't. But our politics remain shockingly unequal to our challenges. Everyone knows the 2012 presidential election starts Nov. 3. But the race to build a new movement to free America from Democratic and Republican blindness starts then, too. There's a missing chair, a missing microphone, a missing podium, in every public debate today. More on this after next Tuesday.