Thursday, October 23, 2008

Curb Your Enthusiasm
A snapshot of a snapshot, from

Barack Obama's probably going to win this thing. You don't want to get overconfident--and I know the campaign is still busting its ass, precisely to guard against overconfidence--and there's still enough time for things to flip again. But if there's any glimmer of hope out there for the Republicans, I don't see it right now. And not only is Obama looking poised to rack up the biggest win for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide (which is actually pretty faint praise), but the Democratic congressional majorities are likely to swell to something like 260-265 seats in the House and 58-60 seats in the Senate. The butterscotch and whipped cream atop this sundae of partisan delight is that not only will this be the biggest Democratic majority in four decades, but as I wrote the other day, this is going to be the most ideologically coherent Democratic majority the country has ever seen. And Obama himself is pretty clearly thinking about not just how to win, but how to govern.

Yet I'm worried. Not about the election, for all the reasons noted above and more, but about the governing. And it's not Obama, whom I think does have the right temperament for the times and a good sense for how much change, how quickly, the public and the power centers can accommodate; or the Democratic leaders in Congress, who probably will be reasonable in their demands on the new president... at least for awhile. Most of these folks, on both sides, have a decent awareness of how badly the Democrats screwed this unified-power thing up sixteen years ago, and likely will put those lessons to good use.

No, I'm worried about us. The big mass of Obama supporters out there, and (maybe more to the point) the policy analysts and advocates who have been waiting so long for this moment. Recently when speaking with colleagues, I've noticed this gleam in their eyes when they talk about the next administration--how, at long last, "we" are going to get a real hearing, and very possibly support and resources, for this or that worthwhile cause. That just seems like a huge setup for disappointment. Yes, there's going to be some stimulus, as virtually everyone agrees there should be, and probably most of the measures supported will be worthwhile. But neither money nor attention nor time is limitless, and Obama and his congressional allies are going to disappoint us. Maybe again and again.

Every leader does. And beyond the relatively small community of policy obsessives, how deeply the disillusionment cuts the first time an Obama administration official is caught lying or stealing, or the new president makes a bad decision, will be telling. Right now you can't turn your head on the New York City subway without seeing Obama buttons, t-shirts, hats, stickers. I'd be very comfortable betting that six months from now, virtually all of those things will be buried in drawers or closets. Everybody just wants to win this thing--to push aside the dismal Bush years with the most non-Bush alternative practically imaginable. But as any Phillies fan can tell you, things change when you win; your expectations go up, and you get cranky when the stars don't align.

Maybe I'm mindful of this because just two years ago, we were in the same place--not so much with the congressional Democrats, who seemed likely to retake the House but were still going to be facing an intransigent Bush, but with Eliot Spitzer, about to roll to a record landslide win in the New York gubernatorial contest. We all know how that ended, but even before Spitzer was caught cavorting with a hooker who thought he was the governor of New Jersey (true story), he'd squandered his goodwill and much of his popularity with an awkward, ineffectual first year. Spitzer had run on the slogan, "On Day One, Everything Changes." Very little did, and relatively little would have even if Spitzer had been as deft and prudent as I believe Obama will be. He's got to find a way to temper expectations without tempering excitement and optimism--or else those feelings are likely to curdle into disillusionment, and we'll have gone much too far toward squandering this opportunity.


Brian said...

I often think that gridlock is best for the country as it's usually only the really important things that will pass. Should be interesting to see if the Dems can keep their foot off the gas pedal and be frugal enough to truly emerge as the party that claims they are for the middle class.

David said...

I'm somewhat inclined to agree, though I think the case could be made that when things are going relatively well, the higher-standard facet of "gridlock" is more desirable and when things are going badly--like now--it might be better to have unified control for faster action.

That said, I'm finding myself hoping the Democrats don't get to 60 seats in the Senate... and were it the Republicans with a great prospect of unified control come January, I'd be terrified. So I can't claim total non-hack-ness here.

The Navigator said...

Interesting - why would it be desirable for the Dems to fall short of 60? It's hard to say exactly what that would mean, since the 60th Dem might turn out to be more conservative than the 40the Repub, so we can't be sure exactly what 60 Dems would mean, but broadly speaking I assume it's a fair proxy for "assurance that the main Dem platform points would pass." Assuming you see it the same way, is there some Dem platform point you oppose? Or is it more of a process point - it's better if they need to modify things to entice a few GOP defectors? Or just generally 41 opposition votes is a hedge against corruption or something?

My view is affected by the GOP's behavior, especially with Clinton's budgets and health care reform: when actual change is in the air, the GOP closes ranks and opposes it uniformly; hence, real change requires 60 Dems. And I want very much for that to happen.

Chris said...

The theory goes that if one party holds all the power, they can do 'anything', and thus they'll do something bad. I disagree.

I do hope if the Democrats get 60 that the 'Blue Dogs' within the party ensure that the platform isn't too far left. First of all, I'm not a huge leftist like many of my Democratic brethren, and secondly, I don't think the public is going to be entirely receptive to some policies. They weren't receptive to many of the right-wing policies of Bush (and weren't of Reagan's even though history has been re-written on that subject).

David said...

Most of it is that I'm basically with Brian that I want some check on the worse (by which I guess I mean profligate) instincts of the Democrats.

Another part of it is that Congress is going to have to pass some unpleasant things--tax increases, service cuts, etc. Traditionally, those things only happen when everyone's neck is on the line. I mentioned the 103rd Congress ('93); the Clinton tax hikes passed, with only Democratic votes in the House, and probably saved the economy, teeing up the prosperity of the rest of the decade. But the Democrats got killed so badly a year and a half later that I can't imagine they'd be willing to be the party of spinach and liver again...

The Navigator said...

I think 39 GOP Senators would have plenty of leverage for my taste. They'd have to pick their spots, but they could use the media and raise a ruckus at the right points, and draw off the most conservative Dems to stop things that were too profligate or too far left, whatever that might be.

I'm not all that worried about over-spending, apres Bush. Cheney may well be right - maybe deficits don't matter. Even if they do, I don't see this Dem caucus, with Tester, McCaskill, Webb, and others around being significantly more profligate than the GOP.

And for the record, I hope they get really profigate with things that matter: I'd like to see foreign aid and investment in renewable energy reseach and money for public jobs (in clean energy, ideally) increased ten-fold.

I can envision the Dems being profligate, it's true, but there are so few times when the country gets profligate with the poor and less fortunate - it's been over forty years since the Great Society and even those programs fell short of what Johnson's advisors thought would be necessary to do the job.

I like the idea of getting bipartisan cover for the necessary but unpopular steps that you rightly note will be necessary but, as I say, I'm deeply skeptical that the GOP will help out no matter how critical it is. The GOP will make the Dems be the party of spinach and liver - there's no way around it.