[Posted by Karl]
At The Hill, Aaron Blake produces a useful list of themes for analyzing the 2010 midterm elections. The first theme on this list asks, ” How real is the tea party effect?” (The real first theme should be the economy, which ends up fourth, but I digress.) Blake makes his discussion about conservative enthusiasm, but the tea party effect is broader than that.
On cue, David Brooks arrives to carp about — and fear — tea party sentiment. Unlike Blake, Brooks recognizes the movement is not purely left-right, even as he condescends to it:
The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.
The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.
The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.
The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.
Curiously absent from the Brooks column is any sense of what caused all of this. Primarily, it is caused by the real and perceived failures of the educated class, from Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill. There has never been much political momentum on the issue of global warming (the Senate pre-emptively rejected the Kyoto treaty on a 95-0 vote) because of economic concerns. Thus, it is not surprising that the public becomes less interested in such action amid a serious recession. If the public has become more pro-life, it may be that the now commonplace technology of sonography has graphically brought the reality of the issue into more and more families, while the supposedly educated class adheres to old dogma. If the public is more concerned about their Second Amendment rights, it may be a reaction to the fact the party in power tends to infringe on them. Indeed, the public reaction on all of these issues may be seen as a reaction against an agenda that lacks a mandate (more on that below).
If the public is more isolationist, it may be a reaction not only to our nation’s present difficulties on various fronts of the war on terror, but also due the efforts of Brooks’s pals in the educated class. Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency on the counter-factual claim that the “surge” in Iraq was a failure, that the US should renegotiate NAFTA, and so on. If the public is turning against multi-lateralism, it may be because the first year of the Obama administration is teaching them that getting rid of George W. Bush has not made our allies noticably more supportive, or our enemies less interested in killing us or obtaining nuclear capabilities.
Democrats hold power today primarily because the largely apolitical middle perceived (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) that Republican government mismanaged the war (and the response to a national disaster) and allowed the financial sector to melt down on their watch. Obama campaigned as “Change you can believe in,” but his administration is stocked with the very people who caused the financial crisis in the first place, dithers for months in making war plans, and first responds to a failed terror attack over Detroit by proclaiming “the system worked,” when it obviously failed. It’s no wonder that voters have turned against the administration, Mr. Brooks.
Of all the issues Brooks mentions, the ones most driving the tea party movement relate to excessive government spending, deficits and debt. Though these are increasingly important on a policy level, I suspect they are also symbolic to many in the movement of dysfunctional government. Pres. Obama must recognize the political danger posed by this voter bloc, if his recent rhetorical conversion to deficit hawkishness is any indicator.
However, if Obama tries to sell himself as a deficit cutter in his State of the Union speech, it may strike the angry middle as not merely incredible, but insulting. For everything that was wrong with the Clinton administration, they did consistently try to position themselves as concerned about the deficit. And Clintonites had at least convinced themselves that they were concerned about the deficit, with James Carville jokingly griping that he wanted to return in his next life as the bond market. In contrast, as Allahpundit wrote:
Imagine how total The One’s belief in his own ability to B.S. must be that after the stimulus, TARP II, the nationalization of GM, and ObamaCare, he’s actually planning to sell himself as a deficit hawk — while still pushing for cap-and-trade. If he gets voters to buy it, it’ll be a mind trick on par with the “these aren’t the droids we’re looking for” scene in Star Wars.
Given Obama’s current approval ratings, pulling off that feat seems unlikely. The previous Man From Hope started his administration focused like a laser on the economy, and burned enough political capital that his healthcare reform effort failed. The current Man of Hope expanded Bush-y bailout policies and burned his political capital on healthcare reform. If the economy makes a significant upturn in the first half of this year, Democrats may yet be saved in the midterms. But Obama will likely fail to tamp down the Perot-esque bloc as much as Clinton ultimately did.