The Great Repudiation 179

Professor James Ceaser writes that the 2010 election result was the Great Repudiation of Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s ideology.

Here are quotations from his essay:

2010 is the closest the nation has ever come to a national referendum on overall policy direction or “ideology.” Obama, who ran in 2008 by subordinating ideology to his vague themes of “hope” and “change,” has governed as one of the most ideological, partisan presidents. Some of his supporters like to argue in one breath that he is a pragmatist and centrist only to insist in the next that he has inaugurated the most historic transformation of American politics since the New Deal. The two claims are in tension. Going back to 2009’s major political contests, beginning with the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey and the Senate race in Massachusetts, the electorate has been asked the same question about Obama’s agenda and has given the same response. The 2010 election is the third or fourth reiteration of their negative judgment, only this time delivered more decisively. There is only one label that can describe the result: the Great Repudiation.

What accounts for the great repudiation? …

The main Democratic explanation going forward … [denies] that the election ever had anything to do with “change.” It was instead all about the economy. The stimulus bill, alas, did not stimulate quite as promised. So the administration now claims that there was no fix possible for the economy, in the sense of being able to achieve a recovery as fast as Americans came to expect. The blame rightly belongs to the previous administration, although President Obama now understands that pressing this argument, a year and half in office, looks petulant. The new line is therefore simply to blame “the economy,” as if it were an alien force dropped in from the outside, with no connection to his policies. … The notion that “the economy” is an actor in its own right, impervious to the change, has led some analysts to float the strange argument that Republicans should have won more convincingly than they did.

The real purpose of this explanation is to limit this election’s meaning in a way that leaves the president and his agenda untouched. The election was voters’ anguished response to the economy-nothing more. It was the Great Protest, not the Great Repudiation. This position, which Obama embraced in his post-election news conference, allows him to join up with the spirit of the election and participate in its message. He will now concentrate on the economy like, dare one say, a laser beam.

Republicans have agreed on the economy’s importance as part of the explanation for their victory. Yet in their account the anemic recovery is not unrelated to the core elements of Obama’s “change.” The president failed to appreciate what generates productive wealth, which comes not from bigger government and more spending but from the activity of private businesses and entrepreneurs. Economic “philosophy” in this large sense was in fact the main voting issue in this election. …

For many Republicans, and especially the Tea Party movement, the economic issues were linked to a deeper concern. The size of government and the extent of the federal debt represented not only a burden on future generations and a threat to American power, but also a violation of the spirit and letter of the Constitution. The Tea Party, in particular, with its Jeffersonian ideas, has reintroduced the Constitution into the public debate, a place that it has not held in the same way for over a century. This theme is what connects the Tea Party to the American tradition and makes their concerns matters of fundamental patriotism. The stakes in the 2010 election for these voters went far beyond economic questions, and for Democratic leaders to reduce everything to frustrations about “the economy, stupid” represents a final act of belittlement.

There was an additional factor in this electoral outcome, then, that was hardly noted or tested in the polls. It was a cultural clash between an elite and much of the public, between liberal intellectuals and the Obama Administration on the one hand, and the Tea Party activists on the other. The one has shown disdain and the other has responded with indignation. It is impossible, then, to say that Barack Obama was not a major factor in this election, for when he was not himself the leader he became the frequent enabler of this dismissal of middle America. That Obama would have to descend from the lofty heights that he inhabited during the campaign and after his election was something that no sane observer – and no doubt Obama himself – could fail to have foreseen. But this loss of bloated charisma has never been the real problem. It has instead been his demeanor as president. Obama modeled himself on Abraham Lincoln, and it is painful in retrospect to draw the contrast in how they have behaved. One showed humility, the other arrogance; one practiced sincerity, the other hypocrisy; one made efforts at cultivating unity, the other seemed to delight at encouraging division; and one succeeded in becoming more and more a man of the people, while the other, despite his harsh populist appeals, has grown more distant. …

Although the essay doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, or provide any new insights, it goes so directly to the heart of the matter, and so well describes not only what happened in the 2010 elections but why it happened – especially the role of the Tea Party – that it seems to us a document worth preserving. Read it all here.