Commentary Magazine


Remember When Everything Was So Certain?

Michael Gerson notes how surprising the first month of the Obama administration has been:

Thirty days after Obama’s inauguration, everything old is new again. While the administration has not undone the 1996 welfare reform (the entitlement, for example, was not restored), it has weakened that landmark reform and given conservatives back their issue. The Pelosi stimulus package seemed more like the Christmas wish list of a greedy child than a sober, necessary economic measure. Its excesses – and the arrogance of Democratic leaders in the process of constructing it – managed to unify and encourage the Republican caucus on their defining ideological commitment: limited government. Fear of massive debt and resulting inflation is now undermining the reception of Obama spending initiatives across the ideological spectrum. And it was a remarkable confirmation of stereotypes for liberals to propose condoms as “stimulus” spending and to refer to the home of the brave as “a nation of cowards.”

Once again we see how misplaced and premature was much of the post-election chatter. For weeks the pundits raged. The Republicans needed to undergo a massive ideological transformation. The Democrats had a new permanent majority. The country had shifted left. Obama was a political genius in the mold of FDR or Reagan. Maybe some of this is true, but it seems far less certain than it did in November. (And some of it, such as the prospects for a civil war between secularists and the religious right seems bizarrely irrelevant.)

As I and some others have argued, politics in the real world (rather than in pundits’ columns) is about how parties and leaders perform in a given set of circumstances. The course of the Republican Party in the near term won’t be determined by some arcane argument between camps of bloggers. It will largely depend on how successfully the Obama administration navigates through the next few years and whether the GOP can maintain principled opposition, provide reasonable alternative strategies, and ultimately find a credible national leader.

Their task may be made easier by the Obama team’s over-interpretation or misinterpretation of the election results as a mandate to lurch to the left on domestic policy and by its startling incompetence (on everything from vetting to Tim Geithner’s disastrous roll-out of his bank bailout plan). Neither weakness of the current administration may last, which would go to show once again that nothing is permanent in politics.

Moreover, the burden is on those in power to govern wisely and well. So long as the Obama administration keeps fumbling and bumbling along, hope stirs among Republicans for a swift revival. Given all that has occurred over the last month, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched as it did in November, does it?