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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Case Study in Over-Interpretation

I’ve been warning for a while that the 2010 midterm election is a political event that is sure to be over-intepreted in most conservative and some progressive quarters. Victor Davis Hanson at National Review has penned an advance spin on November 2 that provides an excellent case in point.
The main burden of Hanson’s column is to argue that since 2008 voters have wised up to Barack Obama’s deceptions, and are poised to do now what they should have done two years ago (talk about elitist contempt for voters!). You wouldn’t know from reading Hanson that among the intervening events was an economic collapse that took hold before and immediately after Obama took office, a development that would have depressed the approval ratings of George Washington. You also wouldn’t know that the stipulated decline in Democratic political standing is exaggerated by failure to note the difference between presidential and midterm turnout patterns, now and always (the electorate that will turn out on November 2 will almost certainly be one that would have, in fact, elected John McCain president in 2008).
No, Hanson’s convinced that Democrats are in trouble because voters are mad that Obama pursued a “radical” agenda after campaigning on a promise of bipartisanship:

Almost all the current style and substance of President Obama were clear enough in the 2008 campaign. But in that long-ago, dreamy summer of mass hypnosis, the excitement about our first African-American president, a biased media, Bush/Iraq, the September 15 meltdown, the lackluster McCain candidacy, and an orphaned election with no incumbent running all conspired to convince voters that what they heard and saw was not so disturbing — or at least that it would end once Obama became president.
So the 2008 campaign, as brilliantly as it was waged in Machiavellian fashion by Obama, will be reinterpreted in the context of the 2010 setback.
The voters are rebelling because they believe they have been had. They now think that they were deceived in 2008 into voting for someone who never had any intention of governing in the bipartisan manner on which he had campaigned.

Now Hanson can plausibly, if not convincingly, argue that many Obama voters were entirely unaware that his platform consistently included precisely the kind of health care reform initiative he pursued in office; precisely the kind of climate change legislation he’s pushed; and precisely the kind of spending initiatives he promoted in the stimulus bill and elsewhere. But he is not entitled to presume, without evidence, that the one thing voters heard was Obama’s promise to reach out to Republicans. It also should be obvious that “bipartisanship” is one of those things that Americans say they like in the abstract, but sometimes interpret differently in concrete cases. Indeed, Hanson is one of those Americans, since he seems to interpret “bipartisanship” as involving abandonment of Obama’s entire platform because Republicans opposed it uniformly. I don’t know where he was when Obama and Senate Democrats were conspicuously sucking up to Republican Senators on the stimulus bill (which wound up being smaller and more oriented to tax cuts as a result) or health care reform, but it’s delusional to think Obama insisted on partisanship as an end in itself (as, say, House Republicans did during the DeLay era, when they typically refused to entertain amendments that might attract Democratic votes and thus dilute partisan credit for legislation).
More to the point, by making bipartisanship the acid test of the Obama presidency, Hanson is certainly setting up Republicans for some embarrassing moments in the near future. Is there any chance a triumphant GOP would “reach out” to Obama in any important way if they make the expected gains on November 2? Will Republicans suddenly forget that the GOP “betrayals of conservative principle” so often demonized by Tea Party activists involved the few genuinely bipartisan initiatives of the Bush administration? Is there any chance whatsoever that a significant number of Republicans would risk destruction by agreeing to consider any kind of tax increase, however construed, in order to obtain a bipartisan deficit reduction agreement?
Now perhaps I’m missing something here and what Hanson is actually saying is that Americans want a conservative government, now and forever, and since John McCain was something of a RINO and Bush turned out to be one, too, then conservatives voted for Obama as the most efficient way to produce a turn to the right, via surrender to conservatives in Congress. If so, it’s just another way of saying that every election, regardless of the outcome, can be intepreted by the same theory of voters desperately begging for conservative governance and only screwing up when they are deceived. It’s certainly no stranger a theory than the conservative conviction that tax cuts for corporations and high earners are always the solution to every economic problem.

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