At the end of 2009 many conservatives will have renewed appreciation for Winston Churchill’s admonition: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Conservatives and their fellow citizens were not generally (unless engaged on the battlefield) shot at, but they were bombarded with an avalanche of leftist policy proposals. And yet, as Bill Kristol observes: “The Obama administration (so far) hasn’t succeeded in doing too much damage to the American economy. Major parts of American society and the American polity are resisting the allure of a slide into European decadence. The climate change fear-mongers are increasingly discredited, and Copenhagen was a farce.”
In short, the Obama team didn’t succeed to the degree many of us anticipated and feared it would in refashioning domestic policy and achieving its free-market-killing initiatives. Card check is off the table. Cap-and-trade has been postponed. The stimulus bill did not endear the country to the wonders of big government. The health-care bill is not yet law, but is grossly unpopular. It is worth asking: why? Why did the most heralded politician to assume the White House in a generation, in the midst of a collapse of the private sector, and with huge Democratic majorities in the House and Senate not do any better (or do more damage, depending on your perspective)?
The answers are three-fold, I think. First, this president showed no inclination or talent to engage in the nitty-gritty business of lawmaking. He did not set forth his own specific proposals on key agenda items, set a deadline, or whip Congress into line. He preferred endless speeches, innumerable TV talk-show appearances, and campaign-style events, none of which solved the hard questions as to what it is that key legislation should contain. And then Congress did what it does best — squabble, debate, reach gridlock, churn out pork-a-thon legislation in lieu of serious policy prescriptions, and show themselves to be obsessed with shielding their own constituents from measures they would willingly foist on others. The result was low output and an absence of thoughtful or innovative policy. And most glaringly, on his most important agenda item, Obama did not make substantive arguments nor focus on a coherent legislative health-care scheme that was designed to fulfill his objectives.
Second, the Obami ran Left, even beyond the tolerance of their own party. Democratic senators have held up cap-and-trade, not the Republicans. The Democrats can’t find 60 votes in the Senate to take away the right to secret ballot in union elections. Again, the liberal aspirations of special interest groups don’t match the political composition of those in office, even after an election that delivered across-the-board Democratic victories.
And finally, Obama himself did not inspire or persuade the public in the way his followers imagined he would. His campaign rhetoric wore thin, never rising above the level of platitudes. And when that rhetoric didn’t persuade, the president diminished himself and the power of the bully pulpit by inveighing against opponents, picking fights with talk-show hosts and news networks, and condescending the public (e.g., red pill/blue bill health-care hooey, Gatesgate’s “teachable moment,” etc.). In short, he didn’t lead.
This year ends with a sigh of relief from conservatives on the domestic front. Their work in opposing liberal Democratic policies is not, however, over. The health-care bill looms on the horizon and the Democrats will take a second pass at a number of their policy proposals. But there is a certain exhilaration in surviving the initial (and certainly the strongest barrage) of one’s political enemies. And for conservatives, finding that the American people are increasingly rallying to their side in the political debate is particularly gratifying.