A recoil against liberalism?

George Will and pretty much every other commenter on the right is missing the point of Tuesday’s election. It was not a referendum on liberalism or progressive politics. At play were two factors: one, the economy had still not recovered and unemployment was still way too high; and two, lots more middle-aged conservatives came out to vote than in most elections – whereas the young and generally liberal vote stayed home.

If anything that means that the president and Democrats did too little to stir up the liberal base, not that Americans outright rejected liberal politics. A very large portion of the electorate votes based on satisfaction or dissatisfaction with very little regard to conservativism or liberalism.

The 2008 election was a rejection of Bush and the Republicans more than it was a rejection of conservatism. And it was a reaction to the economic collapse, perceptions of poor governance, and especially the wars.

The 2010 elections are a rejection of Obama and the Democrats more than they are a rejection of liberalism or progressive policies. If employment had recovered you would probably have a much bluer House today. It has nothing to do with voters appraising policies or thinking about political alignment and everything to do with not being able to find a job. Not everyone spends their days thinking about whether America is conservative or liberal, or whether we should reject or embrace one or the other of these political philosophies. Pundits think everyone must think like they do, but most people don’t. Mostly this was a referendum on incumbents, as elections so often are.

Sure, the Tea Party voters recoil at liberalism, and they were out in force, but they’re just one relatively small faction of the American electorate. All the rhetorical acrobatics in the world won’t change that.

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54 thoughts on “A recoil against liberalism?

    • Not quite. Maybe you’ve seen something I haven’t but from what I can see turnout was pretty good and the liberal base came out (late, but came out nonetheless). The real problem was the D candidates got massacred by the independents.

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  1. Most people are more pragmatic than philosophical, and God bless ’em for that.

    I do, though, find it funny when I watch the US news do man-on-the-street interviews with angry newly-minted Republican voters. I can’t tell you how many of them have said something like, “I was always a liberal before, but now I’ve become a conservative. Why? Because it’s about time the government gave us jobs!” And I think, ‘Okay… well, I guess that’s… sort of… conservatism…’

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    • @Rufus, charitably, I always assume vocabulary problems.

      The public school system is so awful in this country that people aren’t really able to verbalize exactly what they feel is actually going on. If all you have is newspeak, you’re going to sound ineloquent.

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  2. You may be correct that Tues.’s vote was more a rejection of Imam Barry’s incompetence rather than his Leftist philosophy. However, Barry has clearly illustrated that his application of his rather severe and punishing statism had a deleterious effect on many if not most Americans. I’m thinking it’ll be a long time before the American voter wants to swallow Barry’s brand of Kool-Aide. And, probably not real interested in Hillary’s either.

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    • @Robert Cheeks, “Imam Barry”

      You are a contemptible, ignorant, hate-filled asshole. The best way to improve American politics and policy is for white people like you to die.

      As to ED’s initial post, he is quite right and George Will is quite wrong. See: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1789/2010-midterm-elections-exit-poll-analysis

      “The outcome of this year’s election represented a repudiation of the political status quo, rather than a vote of confidence in the GOP or a statement of support for its policies. By 52% to 42%, more voters expressed an unfavorable opinion than a favorable opinion of the GOP. Indeed, views of Republican Party are no more positive than those of the Democratic Party (53% unfavorable vs. 43% favorable), which was roundly defeated.”

      The incumbent party almost always loses seats in an off-year election, and we have the worst economy since the 1930s. That accounts for, I dunno, 90-95 percent of what happened on Tuesday.

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      • @Elvis Elvisberg, Elvis, hello, I just wanted to leap in here and letcha know that Bob is quite over the top indeed but that nothing delights him more than managing to provoke someone (especially a lefty) into a seething fury. Imagine if you will that lovable elderly irascible codger who sits at the family dinner table and throws out chestnuts that scandalize all the aunts with a huge grin on his face. That’s our man Bob. He’s quite harmless, I assure you, and too hyperbolic to really be taken serious when it comes to the communist associations of the democratic party, the religious orientation of Barak Obama or many other issues.

        While I’d encourage you to engage him I’d recommend doing so in cheerful good humor and not to take offense. It raises your blood pressure and makes him insufferably gleeful. Life’s too short to get frenzied about something on the internets. Also we try to avoid excessive direct name calling and demands of death because this not only invites pagan gods to descend and smite all and sundry but also lowers the discourse which is one of the Leagues cherished institutions.

        Thanks!

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      • @Elvis Elvisberg, You know if this keeps up we won’t be friends.
        Also, I may be an ‘asshole’ but hardly contemptible.
        Also, I’m a ‘uniter not a divider,’ just like Barry though I actually do it and Barry lies about doing it.
        Also, you may have noticed there are not enough commie-Dems left in Washington City to get a decent circle jerk going…gee, you moron, I wonder why???? Dah!
        Elvis, I’d spend a little more time reading the sundry threads and wait until I got into high school before commenting here, if I were you.
        I assume you’re on the soccer team?

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  3. I agree with regard to the referendum on liberalism, though I think “They should have revved up the base!” is not the right way to look at it. I think a lot of it really comes down to the Health Care Bill. Not because the PPACA was that dreadful or that unpopular, but rather it became indicative of a larger issue wherein they simply decided that what the public thought didn’t really matter because either they knew what was best or the public would change their mind. Though they were wrong on the latter, they might be right on the former, but ultimately that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they spent the better part of a year ramming something through regardless of what the public thought. Maybe, in the end, it will be proven to have been worth the cost. But this election and the loss of their mandate was the cost.

    Of course, what I think the Republicans are going to find out if they spend the next year trying to repeal Obamacare is that the issue wasn’t as much the PPACA itself (though that’s part of it) but Washington’s insistence on pursuing its own issues rather than “fixing the economy” or broader issues. If the GOP is similarly narrow-minded, they might get what they want, but it’ll be at significant political cost to a public that I think is mostly tired on a health care focus in a country without jobs.

    That’s my take, anyway.

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      • @ThatPirateGuy, well, the public seems to be losing its enthusiasm on the global warming issue and since the big legislation has yet to be passed, the GOP is going to be in pretty good shape just by threatening to block legislation. If Obama and the Democrats choose to spend the next year fighting the issue, the GOP will totally come out the winner. I see the PPACA, obviously, as a different matter. The deed is done.

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        • @Trumwill, Agreed Trumwill. There is no way Obama’s going to make any kind of concerted push on global warming. He’s demonstrated very clearly that he has no intention of sticking his political neck out on anything as wobbly as AGW. He could barely be persuaded to bestirr himself for healthcare reform which was his signature issue.

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            • @Michael Drew, I do Michael. Look at how long he took. When did he actually start lobbying people and twisting arms?
              Now in Obama’s defense I think this occurred not because of lack of interest or laziness but more because he honestly thought it’d just cruise along without his expending too much political capital. But if you look at other issues; DADT for instance, the wars or financial reform we see a significant disinclination on Obama’s part to stake bold positions or to be very vehement in the defense of the positions he does take.

              So yes, I think he’s a politician first and far away and a legislator and principled reformer a very very very distant second.

              But do you think Obama will expend political capital for Cap and Trade? Barnstorm the house? Arm-twist the Senate? Jawbone the electorate? Honestly? I just don’t see it.

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            • @North, I just remember all sorts of press conferences and joint sessions of Congress ‘n stuff, but I guess I don’t have the fine sense of when they should have happened and just what should’ve been said that you do. I would submit that neither of us really know what arm-twisting was done when.

              This is the one liberal meme against Obama I just don’t understand. “He didn’t *really* fight for X!” I mean, he fought for things. Somethings he indisputably didn’t make an attempt for. But others he clearly did, HCR in particular. I honestly don’t know what the aesthetic standard of “FIGHTING” is that my liberal friends are so hung up on in politicians. It seems like something that can always be dangled out as just beyond the actions that were in fact taken on an issue by a politician one wants to find fault with. If Obama didn’t “FIGHT!” for HCR, how would we know if he had?

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            • @Michael Drew, I followed HCR very closely Michael. Obama was very hands off until well towards the end of the year. On one hand it demonstrated an admirable deference to congress (the exact opposite of Hillary’s attempt a political generation earlier) but it made things slow. My own impression was that Obama didn’t jump in and do heavy lifting and fighting until he realized that he was looking at it going down in flames and leaving him with bupkiss after a year of chasing Olympia Snowe around the senate table.

              My core point remains that I don’t think Obama would put very much on the line for climate change legislation. I haven’t seen him lead a difficult charge yet. I’ve barely seen him lead an easy charge. He campaigned as a hope and change bipartisan politician. Well now he’s got someone to bipartisan at in the form of a GOP congress.

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            • @Michael Drew, Ah, I kinda missed the context there. TPG raised the issue of global warming hearings and Trumwill said that legislation was dead (which is a non-sequitur, but that’s cool), so I get your point. By no means do I argue that Obama is a populist firebrand or hard-charging leslative leader across the board – and he is absolutely not going to waste political capital on a futile attempt at a climate bill in a Republican Congress when it failed in a Dem Congress. But as with Trumwill, I object to the idea that he “could barely bestirr himself” to fight on HCR. I just think that’s manifestly false, even if he didn’t meet your standards. He was hands off at the beginning because legislation starts in the legislature, and he had a friendly one that wanted to work on the issue. In retrospect, I think it’s clear he should have sent a plan up, but I really don’t se what it would have gained to start twisting arms at that point to say the bill had to be his or nothing. He certainly eventually fought, and to say that an initial strategy of letting a legislature friendly to the issue and your overall goals on it try do its job before starting to knock heads amounts to complete disengagement, or that the fact that he engaged assertively later means that he could barely be moved to do so I think demonstrates that you’re not looking at the situation objectively, but only in light of a fantasy about how a certain other politician might have handled the situation.

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    • @Trumwill, I’d like to suggest that a) there was no health reform approach that wouldn’t have had this effect on Democrats this cycle, inclding ones more friendly to the sensibilities of people around here, and that b) had they done no health care bill and instead focused on efforts to “fix the economy,” those efforts would not have produced electorate-moving success, and Tuesday would have been only slightly less bad for them than it was. From a party perspective, enacting the Holy Grail of the legislation was a no-brainer, certainly if 10, 15, even 20 more House seats lost was the price. Once the process was underway, it is true that arguments were made that dropping the effort would be more politically costly than getting it through by hook or crook. But at no time was simply not trying to do health care seriously considered by the principals on a political calculation, though I think some aides argued for that. Those arguments were summarily dismissed; this was a party priority and was pursued explicitly on principle, not on realistic hopes for immediate political turnaround.

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      • @Michael Drew, I’d also ask folks to reflect on a debate that was pretty hot when it was taking place here: in the couple of months when the campaign was in full swing, how many times did you hear candidates campaign against HCR/ACA using the word “reconciliation,” or even words like “rammed through”? I heard people talk about the spending associated with the law, the mandate, the cost/uncertainty for business – the effects of the law itself. I heard almost nothing about the legislative process. Perhaps others had a different experience, but until I see some evidence I’m going to claim vindication that objections to the process simply tracked opposition to the bill itself and were not an independent driver of voter unhappiness with HCR.

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      • @Michael Drew, passing a “better” health care bill likely would have produced the same results, electorally speaking, provided that it took the same amount of time. Passing PPACA, if they could have done so in a shorter period of time, actually, would have been less damaging (I believe) than a better bill that took longer.

        This assumes that the GOP would have been able to as effectively demonize any bill the Democrats came up with as they were the PPACA.

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        • @Trumwill, They would have been able to (demonize anything, that is).

          And the pass faster counterfactual really pretty much amounts to just wishing the world could be nicer (if you’re sympathetic to Dems, that is). It also cuts against the idea that the process should have been more bipartisan; all that waiting around was done precisely to try to reach out to moderate Republicans.

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          • @Michael Drew, I agree on all of that Michael. HCR was a good idea if you believe in policy over politics which is what most politicians are supposed to do.

            And yes, the GOP stated explicitly that Obama was going to be uniformly opposed whatever course he chose to pursue. Waterloo was the exact wording used as I recall.

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          • @Michael Drew, And the pass faster counterfactual really pretty much amounts to just wishing the world could be nicer (if you’re sympathetic to Dems, that is).

            Wishing the world were nicer, waiting for a better political climate, or focusing on other issues. Maybe passing the PPACA was worth the costs, but the costs have to be acknowledged all the same.

            The waiting around was not precisely to reach out to Republican moderates, though. It was to keep Democrats from defecting. They didn’t need a single Republican vote and it kept dragging on long after it became apparent no Republican (except Cao) was going to vote for it.

            (Note: to be clear, I am not among those suggesting that they should have been more bipartisan or whatnot. But they made the decision not to cut their losses when they eventually got it through, knowing full well that they had won the public over with it. Again, maybe this was the right thing to do morally and it was worth the political cost, but I don’t find attempts at saying “the public doesn’t really mind that so many months were spent on a bill that congress knowingly pass through over public skepticism and opposition” to be convincing when the bill came due.

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            • @Trumwill, Of course I don’t deny that there was a cost, but I don’t acknowledge that you or anyone else knows just what it was. It certainly wasn’t 65 seats.

              And I think the waiting around was indeed precisely to reach out to Republicans. Max Baucus did not want to put it through committee on a party-line vote. The fact that he couldn’t get them created doubt, and that’s when Dems started to get wobbly. As Democratic Senators sensed that the thing was in doubt, they realized their power over it was individually total, and began to extract their prices. So you got the Kickback and the Purchase. (Which are the parts of the process that, I have to acknowledge, did have political salience on their own – making the concern here with reconciliation rather humorous, as that route would have eliminated the need for those odious deals.)

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            • @Trumwill, I don’t find attempts at saying “the public doesn’t really mind that so many months were spent on a bill that congress knowingly pass through over public skepticism and opposition” to be convincing when the bill came due.

              I don’t quite understand what you’re saying I’ve claimed here, nor what exactly your claim about the meaning of this vote (if that’s what this is) is. Are you saying that, contra me, this vote was just obviously primarily about the time spent in Congress on HCR rather than other things, because after a certain point the polls turned narrowly against HCR after being positive on it when the process started? Because if you are, I think you may be exhibiting a bit of a focus bias. Not that that sentiment was entirely absent, but there are, like, a few other things going on in the world. They might have played roles, too. Anyway, maybe that’s not what you’re saying.

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  4. Why not frame it as a refudiation of liberaltarianism?

    The American People voted out the wobbly liberaltarian democrats in disgust because of all of this emphasis on libertinism.

    Had the Democrats ignored the liberaltarians from the beginning, they’d not only still hold power but they would have *GAINED* seats.

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  5. I largely agree with this analysis, Erik, except I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss reaction to policies among the electorate that turned out Tuesday. I think not a few retirees turned out to express discontent that some of the future health care largesse that has been their exclusive domain for fifty years has been redistributed to poor, unemployed, and lower-wage workers in the economy. There will be many similar elections in the future if we at any point begin to get at all serious about the albatross that that program will be for our Treasury if further changes are not made.

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  6. As Americans we just can’t seem to make up our minds. The Republicans are greatful today, but whether in 2, 4 or 6 more years, they’ll be just as exasperated with the public when they deliver on some tax cutting or entitlement reform and the public doesn’t appreciate it.

    Was anyone generally surprised that the Dems attempted the health care bill that passed? It would be really ironic though very probable that the public will have similar buyers remorse in an upcoming election cycle, feeling somehow duped if Republicans are able to accomplish some meaningful part of their agenda. W

    It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t when you’re serving as unruly a task master as the American psyche.

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  7. If anything that means that the president and Democrats did too little to stir up the liberal base, not that Americans outright rejected liberal politics.

    I think you’re right there. It would be very hard for the election to be a referendum on liberal politics when Obama hasn’t done much of anything that qualifies as liberal – the health care bill is the only thing that comes close, and even it is fairly conservative compared to what liberals supported.

    Actually, calling the health-care bill conservative isn’t fair to the sensible and non-corporatist conservatives on this blog.

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    • @Katherine, I certainly agree that Obama has been far from a far-left liberal, including in the health-care law. But I do struggle to conceive of the liberal policies and message that really would have stirred liberals to get to the polls in the off year. Our fellow commenter North believes an attempt to politicize an investigation into the torture legacy of Obama’s predecessor might have done the job. Setting aside the distastefulness (at least for me) of that suggestion, I have my doubts that it would have worked. I wonder if you have any ideas about what policies might have motivated the elusive youth/progressive vote to actually go to the polls?

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      • @Michael Drew, I can definitely see the idea of politicized torture investigations being an unpleasant one Michael. But I struggle to think of very many alternative treatments of torture by the Obama administration that could have been as objectively cowardly or reprehensible as his current “sweep it under the carpet and hope it goes away” one. He could have continued or double-downed on torture, sure, but we’d have probably impeached him for that. At least if it had been dragged out into the daylight and politicized then we’d have had a national conversation on the subject.

        Right now I don’t see that he’s done anything that would prevent or discourage a, say, President Palin (God forefend), from doing everything Bush did and more.

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