Political Fantasy World

It never ceases to amaze me how many smart people manage to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that their political philosophy has massive support.

It never ceases to amaze me how many smart people manage to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that their political philosophy has massive support.

Most commonly, this is seen in the Pundit’s Fallacy that, if only a politician espousing exactly the beliefs that Thomas Friedman holds would run, he’d win in a landslide. But that’s at least excusable by data showing as desire for a “more centrist” and “less partisan” candidate. That those groupings include people across a wide spectrum of belief is easy to gloss over.

But how do people on the far right and far left justify this view?

Matt Stoller‘s Salon essay “What Democrats can do about Obama” is but the latest exemplar.

 Democrats may soon have to confront an uncomfortable truth, and ask whether Obama is a suitable choice at the top of the ticket in 2012. They may then have to ask themselves if there’s any way they can push him off the top of the ticket.

That these questions have not yet been asked in any serious way shows how weak the Democratic Party is as a political organization. Yet this political weakness is not inevitable, it can be changed through courage and collective action by a few party insiders smart and principled enough to understand the value of a public debate, and by activists who are courageous enough to face the real legacy of the Obama years.

Obama has ruined the Democratic Party. The 2010 wipeout was an electoral catastrophe so bad you’d have to go back to 1894 to find comparable losses. From 2008 to 2010, according to Gallup, the fastest growing demographic party label was former Democrat. Obama took over the party in 2008 with 36 percent of Americans considering themselves Democrats. Within just two years, that number had dropped to 31 percent, which tied a 22-year low.

There’s a reason no one serious is asking these questions. The last time a political party dumped a sitting president and won the presidency with a different candidate? As best I can tell, never.

If would be one thing if Obama were failing because he was too close to party orthodoxy. Yet his failures have come precisely because Obama has not listened to Democratic Party voters. He continued idiotic wars, bailed out banks, ignored luminaries like Paul Krugman, and generally did whatever he could to repudiate the New Deal. The Democratic Party should be the party of pay raises and homes, but under Obama it has become the party of pay cuts and foreclosures. Getting rid of Obama as the head of the party is the first step in reverting to form.

So why isn’t there a legitimate primary challenger to Obama to make this case? Forty years ago, primaries were instituted in the Democratic Party as a response to party insiders having too much influence over nominations. These reforms were implemented before the prevalence of money in politics was as extreme as it is now. At this point, primary challenges are so expensive that a serious 2012 campaign would ironically require support of party insiders for viability. The party, inflexible as it was in 1968, is perhaps even more rigid today. As a result, no candidate has stepped up to challenge Obama in a primary, even though 32 percent of Democratic voters want one.

This is an institutional crisis for Democrats. The groups that fund and organize the party — an uneasy alliance of financiers, conservative technology interests, the telecommunications industry, healthcare industries, labor unions, feminists, elite foundations, African-American church networks, academic elites, liberals at groups like MoveOn, the ACLU and the blogosphere — are frustrated, but not one of them has broken from the pack. In remaining silent, they give their assent to the right-wing policy framework that first George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama, cemented in place. It will be nearly impossible to dislodge such a framework without starting within the Democratic Party itself.

There’s an argument to be made that Obama has continued the Bush foreign policy; indeed, I’ve made it. But the caveat is that it’s because Bush moderated and went back to the Realist consensus in his second term, especially after the 2006 midterm shellacking. On the bank bailouts and stimulus packages, he was basically following the expert consensus and operating within the constraints of political reality.

FDL’s Blue Texan points out that several liberal economics luminaries–Paul KrugmanDean BakerBrad DeLong, and others–argued for a much larger stimulus. But passing the $787 billion version required the Democrats to go to the mats, barely peeling off enough Republican votes to avoid a Senate filibuster. And doing that fired up the Tea Party and directly led to the historic 2010 thumping that Stoller blames on Obama being insufficiently progressive.

Krugman and I were on the same side of the bank bailout issue and for similar reasons. But we were extreme outliers. Most economists were warning of dire consequences if we allowed the banks to collapse. As it was, the Bush administration’s decision to  let Lehman Brothers go under is cited by many as ground zero in the global financial collapse.

Similarly, Krugman and I were outliers on the stimulus, with him arguing for one wildly larger than there was political support for and me arguing for a much smaller one targeted at those who lost their jobs and houses because of the meltdown. Frankly, either of those would likely have been better than the expensive but futile mishmash we got. But nobody made either of us king and we therefore got to live with the political realities rather than our fantasy world.

By any reasonable standpoint, Obama has been a fairly centrist president. One can make the case that his “lead from behind” style has made him a weak president but one can also make the opposite case–that he’s passed a massive stimulus, a historic reorganization of the health care system, and took us to a war that had very little political support through working the system from behind the scenes.

In other words, party inflexibility has a price. If the economy worsens going into the fall, and the president continues as he has to attempt to cut Social Security, Democrats might be facing a Carter-Reagan scenario. Reagan, at first considered a lightweight candidate, ended up winning a landslide victory that devastated the Democratic Party in 1980. Carter wasn’t the only loss; many significant liberal senators, such as George McGovern, John Culver and Birch Bayh, fell that year.

The alternative, however, was to nominate Ted Kennedy. That would have been much more satisfying for those we then called “liberals.” But Kennedy would almost surely have lost even more states than Carter–and quite possibly created an even bigger Republican wave in the Senate. But Stoller apparently thinks that would have been preferable:

So what can party leaders do? History offers one model. In 1892, the Democratic Party nominated Grover Cleveland, and with sweeping majorities in both houses, Democrats had control of the federal government for the first time since before the Civil War. Then a financial crisis, plus Cleveland’s stubborn allegiance to banking interests, turned his presidency into a catastrophe for Democrats.

When taking state candidates into account, the 1894 midterm elections were comparable to the 2010 wipeout; Cleveland was disliked so ardently that party leaders pushed him out of running for reelection. Instead the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan, who introduced many populist themes into the party and began the ideological transformation that would culminate with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

The Republican mythology has a similar story: Barry Goldwater’s epic loss in 1964 paved the way for Reagan in 1980.

But both stories treat ideology as the only factor. It took the calamity of the Great Depression to make Franklin Roosevelt’s radical policy prescriptions attractive to voters. And Ronald Reagan’s optimistic spirit and folk wisdom was especially attractive in 1980, following years of economic stagnation; the political and social strife of Vietnam, the civil rights fights, and Watergate; the Iran Hostage Crisis; and Jimmy Carter’s lectures about malaise.

Every presidential election is touted as “the most important ever,” because there are always major issues on the table. Four years is a long time and it comes with the ability to shape the future, especially in the realm of judicial appointments. Further, since incumbent presidents have a very high re-election rate, sacrificing one cycle for ideological principle often means sacrificing two.

With the economy is such horrible shape, Obama is undoubtedly vulnerable. Mitt Romney would almost surely beat him if the election were held this November rather than next and Rick Perry would have a strong chance. But, given the mood of the country, it’s hard to see how a Progressive dream candidate would fare better.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    It’s possible that Team Obama is timing this correctly. It is too early to make their best case, and to the extent that GOP proposals become “old,” or better yet “failed” before next November, Obama can be riding the next set (surf metaphor).

    I think it is arguably true that austerity is hindering our recovery, and I think there is a real danger for the GOP that voters could come to accept that by November.

  2. Gerry W. says:

    It never ceases to amaze me how many smart people manage to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that their political philosophy has massive support.

    No one is understanding our place in the world. The fall of communism has opened up 2 billion cheap laborers who want jobs just as much as we do. It is interesting that Tom Friedman on Sunday’s Meet the Press, just plagiarized me. And I don’t mind a bit.

    MR. TOM FRIEDMAN: Well, David, what I and my co-author Michael Mandelbaum from Johns Hopkins are basically arguing is we’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is this problem didn’t start in 2008 with the subprime crisis. This problem, in our view, started at the end of the Cold War. The good news is, there is a way out if we understand exactly where we are. I beg four big points, basically.
    First of all, we made the worst mistake a country or species can make at the end of the Cold War, we misread our environment. We interpreted the victory in the Cold War–for the end of the Cold War as a victory and not understanding it’s actually an onset of one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced as a country. We had just unleashed two billion people just like us. But the ’90s turned out to be quite a party, thanks to the peace dividend, thanks to the massive productivity boost of the Internet, and thanks, most importantly, in many ways, to the collapse in oil prices, which was like a huge tax cut. Then that brings us into the 21st century. So really the ’90s was like a 3,650-day victory parade for the United States.
    Start with the 2000s, 9/11, which we’re going to talk to here. Tragically, 9/11 set us on a really bad course. We spent the last decade, in many ways necessarily, many ways excessively, chasing the losers from globalization rather than the winners. And we made up for a lot of the fall behind there by basically injecting ourselves with steroids. Just as baseball players did it to hit home runs, we injected ourselves with credit steroids, created a huge housing boom and construction boom to create jobs.

    Obama is weak and has lost his way. He has pieced this and that, but as long as we keep sending jobs overseas, his significance keeps diminishing. The republicans keep up with their ideology, even though the 1 trillion dollar Bush tax cuts have failed to produce anything. And the Tea Party is a one trick pony on cutting spending.

    I’ll go with the Tom Friedmans and Fareek Zakaria’s. Ideology has ruined our country.

  3. Kylopod says:

    >The last time a political party dumped a sitting president and won the presidency with a different candidate?

    I happen to know this one. It was in 1856, when the Democrats dumped their own incumbent, Franklin Pierce, and picked James Buchanan in his place, who went on to win in the general election. Of course, that was before candidates were selected through primaries.

    (There are arguably some other examples in the 19th century, when accidental presidents like Tyler and Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur weren’t nominated for a term in their own right, but I think that falls in a different category.)

  4. george says:

    Both Democrats and Republicans are primarily about (differing) ideology. And that seems to work as well in economics as it does in science – ie it doesn’t. It took humans tens of thousands of years to realise that the only way to find out the way the material world works is to experiment rather than to go by principle or common sense (even the ancient Greeks figured the way to look at the natural world was to base it on philosophy). I wonder how long it will take before we stop treating the economy the same way?

    Both parties do this – they start out with an ideology, and then draw their economics from that. Its been a disaster, and it doesn’t seem to be changing. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results?

    Ideology simply doesn’t work, the world is too complex for that.

  5. James in LA says:

    @george: “Ideology simply doesn’t work, the world is too complex for that.”

    Exactly right, and one strong reason why Obama will not face a primary. First, who? Second, they better be able to count caucus votes right quick because that is how Obama defeated the Clintons. Third, look what it did to Jimmy Carter?

    But more importantly, dems see other dems as trying to solve people’s problems, not “drown the gub’ment in the bathtub” so the waiting theocratic oligarchy can be ushered in. The governors of WI, OH, FL, and MI have seen that these states are now in serious jeopardy of falling to Obama next year. Add the Ryan Plan, and FL is a huge problem, a state the GOP cannot lose. Rick Perry also assures no dem stays home. The voice alone…

    My conservative friends need to put the plan forward to unite the country. To deride a President for giving speeches is to blame the scorpion for his sting. Absent a governing plan, the GOP is done.

  6. G.A.Phillips says:

    No one is understanding our place in the world. The fall of communism has opened up 2 billion cheap laborers who want jobs just as much as we do.

    Perhaps we need to pray for an Asian fall……Facebook and Twitter, I call upon your power…..

  7. G.A.Phillips says:

    My conservative friends need to put the plan forward to unite the country. To deride a President for giving speeches is to blame the scorpion for his sting. Absent a governing plan, the GOP is done.

    lol….Obama is all done, messing with the Packers season opener was the last starw!!!!!!!

    It is hard to believe that you libs still think this dude has a chance to do anything but golf crapy and write commie books come next year…..

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Excellent piece, James.

  9. James in LA says:

    @G.A.Phillips: “It is hard to believe…”

    This is where I tend to go deaf to conservative thought, this increasing reliance on “belief” in favor of all else. The world is now too complex, and has been for a while, for magic-thinking. What you believe is your business and no one else’s.

    What your rhetoric does not include is the plan to govern, much less woo back the exact voters you need now to win, voters my conservative friends have spent decades and millions of dollars demonizing.

    Rick Perry assures Obama will win. He will give the GOP NC,IN and maybe VA, but the midwest will not buy the act. It all boils down to FL, as it did in 2000. The GOP cannot lose it. Obama can, and still win many ways.

  10. G.A.Phillips says:

    The world is now too complex, and has been for a while, for magic-thinking.

    Some magic thinking for you my friend, and a plan that sounds kind of T.E.A. PARTY. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRmZ9zH-mYM It is very easy to understand why Obama will lose and it has nothing to do with magic.

    You think every one hates Christians don’t you lol…

    That is not why Obama won. Dang I wish I could make my own video responses….

  11. RW Rogers says:

    Seconding Michael’s compliment, I am reminded of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s admonition that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own set of facts. Some of the more prolific commenters think they are exempt. They aren’t.

  12. James in LA says:

    @michael reynolds: . We post to Serve. What irritates me most of all is this fairly new insistence on multiple sets of “facts”, most of which are based on belief alone, and none of which adequately describe our shared reality, especially when the speakers know it’s hooey. And this should be the basis of public policy WHY, again?

    Systemic belief creates a dual personality. You have one for the public, and one for ‘turch. I’ve seen it. I’ve LIVED it. It’s a dastardly concession of Self to neither the public NOR the church because neither is legally responsible for you. It also poisons pretty much everything you say in public because that personality is the one least focused — and can ill-afford — the truth.

    Ask any gay man who has lived in the closet about dual lives.

    It also permits the kind of commentary from my conservative friends who think they exist simply to ‘bait the libtards’ and so on. The public face is the false face (e.g., Jay Tea).

    None of these tactics are going to earn the trust of the public from the party that ran the country into the ground, and who’s last governing achievement was NIxon’s trip to China.

  13. James in LA says:

    @G.A.Phillips: Sorry, your argument relies on the perpetuation of the time-wasting husband/wife argument over money. Debt is a financial management problem for which there are simple remedies that could be enacted today.

    The argument does serve as a valuable smoke screen, however, from things such as banker corruption and war crimes.

    To continue to scare people with debt is not a governing policy.

    You are going to have to put forward an actual plan, once which does away with bashing Obama, and one which unites the country. Angry rants on YouTube are not going to cut it.

  14. Racehorse says:

    Jimmy Carter had a disastrous term as president, some of the problems weren’t his doing. There wasn’t a widespread movement to replace him as the candidate in 1980 and his popularity was still fairly good by election time, but the Iranian situation did him in. I still think that his problem was that he brought in a lot of people who did not know how Washington worked which compounded his inexperience problem. While Carter is a very decent person, he didn’t seem to have much of a clue how people felt and how Washington worked. You have to know the system to get anything done and have a political network . The best example is Lyndon Johnson, one of the most effective politicians ever as far as getting his programs through.

  15. G.A.Phillips says:

    As in that we are talking about facts, lol,

    None of these tactics are going to earn the trust of the public from the party that ran the country into the ground

    A sad talking point or a multi verse of fact when describing the liberal progressive democrats party.

    The culture shows it, it is undeniable.

  16. James in LA says:

    @G.A.Phillips: “A sad talking point or a multi verse of fact when describing the liberal progressive democrats party.”

    Apart from two unfunded wars, an unfunded drug program, and disastrously reactionary legislation in response to 9/11, if these did not succeed in running the country into the ground, our country’s unwillingness to face the fact that the former head of the previous criminal enterprise posing as a Presidency admitted on national television that he gave the order to torture will most certainly achieve it.

    This music has to be faced. America has to have its Nuremberg. Americans do not understand how this haunts us as a People.

    How does it feel to be associated with a party who’s de facto leader cannot enter Vermont, let alone any country in Europe for fear of arrest? Is this the shining example you want for America? Is this your basis for our shared public policy?

    You are going to have to learn how to unite people, or the GOP is done. Where is the plan to govern?

  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    The argument does serve as a valuable smoke screen, however, from things such as banker corruption and war crimes.

    lol, how about big union corruption, democratic election corruption and the super liberal rich ? War crimes ? Was you talking about the Muslims or Obama and his relentless bombing of brown people?

    To continue to scare people with debt is not a governing policy.

    Then tell Obama to stop doing it !And tell him to stop performing it for and on the rest of us.

    Angry rants on YouTube are not going to cut it.

    lol. that was a plan and an explanation for most everything that we was talking about and how it happened. You need to watch that again.

  18. G.A.Phillips says:

    How does it feel to be associated with a party who’s de facto leader cannot enter Vermont, let alone any country in Europe for fear of arrest? Is this the shining example you want for America? Is this your basis for our shared public policy?

    I still love Bush and think he was a great Prz. on certain points like the one when he did what he had to with the support of our allies and within the law to protect us. Vermont and Europe can go to blazes, I don’t have to put up with foreign countries lol, and their crap, I have enough on my plate tolerating many of my fellow countrymen and women.It has been a struggle to restrain myself as I watch was has been done in and to my state for the last year.

    This music has to be faced.

    We in the real world face it every day.

    America has to have its Nuremberg. Americans do not understand how this haunts us as a People.

    Stop talking silly….dang bro can’t you see Obama over there, can’t you here Obama over there blowing his rusty old trombone….as America smolders and much of the World burns?

    I got a clue for you: they took away Bushy’s matches and gave then to some other dude along time ago.
    And the bullhorn too.

  19. ponce says:

    It is amazing how many Republicans still believe laughable things like “Tax cuts increase government revenue.”

  20. G.A.Phillips says:

    It is amazing how many Republicans still believe laughable things like “Tax cuts increase government revenue.”

    lol, and spending the poop out of government revenue, printed government revenue, borrowed, stolen,re-figured, imaginary government revenue and higher taxes is the answer!!!!!!!

    Stupid Republicans!!!!!

  21. ponce says:

    Stupid Republicans!!!!!

    Why G.A.,

    The Republicans doubled the national debt and increased the size of the federal government by 50% when they controlled the presidency and Congress.

    Believing the Republicans are the party of fiscal responsibility is yet another stupid fantasy held by Americans on the left side of the I.Q. curve.

  22. Bleev K says:

    @G.A.Phillips:

    I still love Bush and think he was a great Prz. on certain points like the one when he did what he had to with the support of our allies and within the law to protect us. Vermont and Europe can go to blazes, I don’t have to put up with foreign countries lol, and their crap, I have enough on my plate tolerating many of my fellow countrymen and women.It has been a struggle to restrain myself as I watch was has been done in and to my state for the last year.

    Could you ask your dad to help you understand some basic notions, kid?

  23. G.A.Phillips says:

    Ponce how can you even worry about what the republicans did after the last 3 years? lol, reality man, try a sip….

    let me see. I have been gone so long and with all silly voting of intelligent comments into silence around here you have gone and double dipped or siped indoctrinated yourself…lol..

    Well it is good to type crap back and forth with you again:) Been missing that. Happy Labor Day….everyone…

  24. G.A.Phillips says:

    Could you ask your dad to help you understand some basic notions, kid?

    My Dad is dead and I am 46, well physically anyhow…And I am happy that I never went to Madison like I was gonna…lol….would have been bad.

    basic notions

    never had one….

    But now I feel like a Highjacker, no pun or correct spelling intended.. so Peace Out.

    Ima check out the C.C. its been a while:)

  25. James in LA says:

    @G.A.Phillips: “Vermont and Europe can go to blazes, I don’t have to put up with foreign countries lol”

    Vermont is a United State.

    Also, “lol” is not a policy position. It’s a nervous tic that belies the weakness of your arguments.

  26. ponce says:

    Ponce how can you even worry about what the republicans did after the last 3 years? lol, reality man, try a sip….

    America hasn’t forgotten what Republican rule was like G.A., no matter how much you and your fellow wingnuts may wish it.

  27. Davebo says:

    The GOP (Grumpy Old People) is dying off quickly. Now if we could just keep them from forwarding every email they receive to everyone they know.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    I still love Bush and think he was a great Prz. on certain points like the one when he did what he had to with the support of our allies and within the law to protect us.

    Oh yes, if Bush’s Blunder in Iraq had not occurred, all of Wisconsin would be under Sharia Law right now…

    America hasn’t forgotten what Republican rule was like G.A., no matter how much you and your fellow wingnuts may wish it.

    Which is the reason why so many people still blame our current economic mess on Bush…