The elections yesterday show that Americans are waking up after the crisis-numbed sleepwalking into the polls in November 2008. Christie's and McDonnell's victories are a tangible sign of what the polls have been showing for months: the ideological dominance of conservatism (whatever that means), the shifting of independents from the Democrats towards the GOP, the unpopularity of Obama's policies and of the Democratic Congress (and a rapid fall in Obama's own approval rating, which I expect will be lower than Bush's at every corresponding stage of his presidency). The American people are probably not such idiots as to fail to return fewer Dems and more GOPs in 2010, and a GOP takeover of Congress, as in 1994, seems likely. This should really be a no-brainer. It was the formula of the famous 1990s: as Brothers Judd slyly put it, the ideal might be a Democratic resident and a GOP Congress. Of course this is one of the thousand reasons why Americans were such idiots to vote for Obama in 2008: there was obviously going to be a Democratic Congress, and a President McCain was needed to check it, even aside from his superior judgment, experience, integrity, and intelligence. But the sheeple were in shock from the crisis, and did what CNN told them. Now they are beginning to get their wits back.
Maybe we'll be spared the tax-spend-and-regulate health care bill. Harry Reid hinted that it might not pass this year, and it's hard to imagine it will be easier to do so in 2010, an election year. On the other hand, the defeats in Virginia and New Jersey might convince some Dems that their careers are ending anyway, so why not make history while they have the chance. Of course, this was always the reason the Democratic leadership was focusing on health care this year in particular. It's obvious that, while it's tenable that our health care system is sub-optimal, this has little or nothing to do with the 2008 crisis or the high unemployment that is our main problem right now. A leadership confident it enjoyed real majority support would have focused on fighting the crisis now, and saved big structural changes until the economy was recovering, to avoid dumping a huge, gratuitous burden of political risk on entrepreneurs and investors at just the time they were least able to bear it. But the Democrats knew that their getting majorities this big was a sort of mistake, afforded them by the crisis, by the national BDS pandemic, and by the donation of most of the MSM's dwindling reputational capital to the cause. President McCain and a Democratic Congress would have had to focus on bipartisan issues. We might even have got the one thing that would stimulate the economy more than any other policy: immigration reform. But the Democrats had to use the one-party-rule moment to plow through the paleoliberal dream.
I think Marx said that "history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce." The dictum expresses the relationship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Hoover-Roosevelt interventionism deepened and prolonged the Great Depression at home and worldwide, permanently altered America's economic constitution, largely discredited democratic capitalism in the eyes of the world, and opened a path for the rise of Hitler and the totalitarian Axis, culminating in World War II. Socialism, poverty, appeasement, retreat, war. Likewise, the comeback of Big Government under Obama has burdened business confidence, impeded recovery, and is altering the US economic constitution, while his weak, vacillating and cynical foreign policy has caused unease in allies from Poland to Israel to India to Japan to France while emboldening Putin-Medvedev and Ahmadinejad and the Taliban, and abetted the lethal blow to international law by letting Russia's thugocracy get away with the dismemberment of Georgia. But the difference of degree is so great as to be a difference of kind. America will not repeat the 1930s as France, to Marx's dismay, would not repeat the Revolution (the 1848 revolution, which led to a reaction and the rise of President-for-Life Napoleon III, was the "farce" to the "tragedy" of the 1789 revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte's world-historic career). Many of FDR's New Deal policies-- a top tax rate of 90%, show trials of leading industrialists and political opponents, an attempt to impose full-fledged planning on the economy-- amounted to very nearly an overthrow of the capitalist order. And it enjoyed strong public support as such. FDR was a formidable leader. By contrast, it is the essence of Obama to be the apotheosis of insubstantiality. "Hope and change" and "yes we can" succeeded not despite but because of their meaninglessness. How can meaninglessness be a virtue? To understand that, an interpretative glance at the past few years is needed.
George W. Bush ran on ideas in 2000, and many of them-- tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the No Child Left Behind Act-- became law (Social Security reform didn't but Bush tried), while his foreign policy ideology, especially its liberationist side, seems to have been conceived in the wake of 9/11. Most importantly, Bush found a way to turn the illiberal imperatives of the War on Terror inside out. On domestic and foreign policy alike, Bush represented what might be called the radical center, and as such alienated the left especially, but also many on the right. He twisted America's ideological kaleidoscope. He ended up being unpopular, which is a rather less meaningful fact than might be thought. Suppose there are five issues, and person A is for B, for C, against D, against E, and for F, while person G expresses no views on B and C and leans in favor of D and E but is not sure and seems at various times to be both for and against F. A might be unpopular, if disagreement on one issue is reason enough to dislike him, for the set of people who agree on any position on all five issues is likely to be small, while G might be popular, managing by his vagueness and vacillation to leave a majority not antagonized, particularly if he has a pleasant face or manner. Of course, if G has to make decisions he must take stands and lose "popularity" or non-objectionableness. But the point is that A's unpopularity does not mean that a coherent coalition against him is possible. The Iraq War is a case in point. You can oppose the Iraq War because you are (a) totally pacifist, (b) a defend-the-borders-only type opposed to foreign entanglements, (c) a liberal internationalist of the kind that strongly believes in the "sovereignty" of other countries regardless of regime type, (d) a UN legitimist, (e) not opposed to overthrowing dictators in principle but unpersuaded that it's worth it in this case, (f) in favor of Saddam and other dictatorships for "primitive" non-Western peoples, (g) against all US intervention because you think the US is an incorrigible greedy capitalist imperialist hegemon. These seven groups (and others) might agree on opposing the Iraq War, but they wouldn't agree on any arguments against the Iraq War. So if they want to form a coalition, they'll need to be silent about their reasons for opposing Bush, since any discussion of reasons would shatter the coalition. How can they talk to each other then? By resorting to forms of communication that don't rise to the level of reason, i.e., sneering. If we want to claim we're the enlightened majority against the misguided Bush administration, we can't explain why Bush is wrong, lest we expose our own differences, but we can agree to call him dumb, over and over again. It takes a while to run out of epithets. And if we get tired of negativity, we can get some motivational-speakerish type to dress it up in language about "hope" and "change," by which we all know, however, that "not Bush," is meant. Thus Bush Derangement Syndrome metamorphosed into the Obama administration, and the intellectual poverty of the Obama administration is the intellectual poverty of the opposition to Bush. The word "disillusioned" seems too generous to apply to former Obama supporters; the promise of Obamism was so insubstantial as barely to qualify even as an illusion.
November 3, 2009 may mark the beginning of a return to commonsense, and the GOP takes Congress in 2010 and starts to clean up the mess (first order of business: the deficit), Great Depression II will be far shorter and less painful than Great Depression I. Nonetheless I think there is something irrevocable about America's lapse of judgment in 2008. At the end of the day, a nation capable of electing a man and a party so unfit to lead as Obama and the 2008 Democrats is unfit to lead the Free World.
Relative decline for America was always nearly inevitable and mostly desirable. The 5% of the world's population that are American citizens hold far more than their share of the wealth and power of mankind. This is not to say that Americans must become poorer: on the contrary, we can and may hope that the rest of the world will come closer to America's living standards, and this is not only feasible but will benefit America. A lot of people used to fulminated that the Bush administration was squandering America's moral standing in the world. I am not quite saying the opposite, namely that Obama is squandering the moral authority that the Bush administration won. Rather, as democracy spread, as foreign economies grew and developing countries grew more literate etc., America could no longer enjoy hegemony by virtue of its mere military and economic weight. If it were to lead at all-- and a group of people or nations can usually benefit from good leadership-- it had to articulate and champion an ideology with universal appeal that other nations could believe in and support. Democracy has, for the moment, just such a universal appeal. Under the Clinton administration the US was scandalously unwilling to risk the lives of US soldiers for the benefit of others: thus we pulled out of Somalia and relied wholly on air war in Kosovo and Iraq. The Bush administration broke this taboo, and showed how democracy could be spread not only passively and defensively, waiting for dictatorships to fall, but actively, and how dictators could be held accountable. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, though undertaken in support of UN resolutions and arguably essential to restore the UN's credibility in the face of Saddam's continued defiance and impunity, was at the same time a revolutionary strike against a notion of sovereignty that legitimized every thug who killed his way to the top. It was a risky yet potentially valuable precedent. Polls that showed a decline in favorable attitudes to the US and to Bush in the aftermath of the 2003 war belie the complexity of the world's attitude. Nowhere did a democratic electorate reject a government for supporting the Bush administration. On the contrary, Howard was re-elected, Blair was re-elected, Aznar's political heir Rajoy in Spain was on course for re-election until the Madrid bombings, while Bush adversaries Chirac of France, Schroeder of Germany, and Chretien of Canada lost elections in favor of leaders much more favorable to Bush and America. America's relations with Japan, India, and eastern Europe prospered; relations with western Europe recovered without any particular concessions on America's side. The war was a dangerous expedient; the world knew that and didn't particularly like it; but they didn't have a better alternative; and the fundamental presumption that America is uniquely trustworthy and beneficent which has defined the strategies of free nations since WWII was re-examined but was still, indeed was perhaps all the more, valid. The unholy alliance of Putin, Chirac and Schroeder that had tried to stop the war fell apart, with Chirac and Schroeder losing power and disgraced, while Putin withdrew his country into morbid paranoia. Diplomatically, the gambit succeeded. It seems to be succeeding on the ground in Iraq, too: elections were held, a constitution passed, Al Qaeda nearly sparked a civil war but was beaten back, and a new Iraqi democracy took shape, a development scarcely conceivable six years ago.
An America which exercised its power for the general good, to spread freedom and uphold international security, might be able to hold continued sway over the free world through moral suasion, initiative, and good example. Near the end of the Bush years this seemed to be taking place: al-Qaeda had been drawn into the trap of Iraq and self-defeated; no one questioned the legitimacy of the new Iraqi democracy; the bonds between the Western allies were being reforged with the Iraqi precedent unrepudiated; and the Free World alliance of the Cold War years had now been definitely expanded to eastern Europe and India, and was strengthened in Japan. A McCain administration might have made a cause celebre of Georgia as the Bush administration had done with Iraq, thus reaffirming the commitment to international law which the Iraq war had seemed to undermine-- but international law, please note, in the sense that democracies' borders are inviolable, not in the sense that tyrants are sacrosanct-- and immigration reform at home would have strengthened the foundations of American democracy from below, reaffirming America's egalitarian ideals and signalling its openness to the world. The scenario seems to have the force of destiny, but one can flunk one's destiny, one can miss one's moment.
I'm not sure that the moment can be recovered. Why should allies trust us again if we treat them as shabbily as the Obama administration has done to Poland and Georgia? Indeed, the Obama administration's manner of dismissing the war-- "a dumb war, a rash war"-- is an insulted to Tony Blair and all of America's most faithful allies. It would be an entirely different matter if he had limited himself to respectful disagreement. Obama's ignorant remarks about the impossibility of one nation imposing democracy on another have just enough of the flavor of a new false orthodoxy to make strategic thinking difficult going forward. The situation in Afghanistan is especially sad. The Democrats embraced Afghanistan as "the good war" opportunistically, as a means to outflank Bush's "war president" credentials, but Afghanistan never offered hopes of a conclusion as satisfactory as was possible in Iraq. Iraq is urban and literate and middle-class and densely populated and civilized modern enough to have a decent chance of making democracy work; moreover, Americans were in a position really to run the country for a while, and lay the foundations of a new politico-institutional matrix. In Afghanistan a democratic outcome always stretched the bounds of plausibility, which made objectives harder to define, since our ideology makes democracy obligatory. At this point, we should probably abandon objectives other than to avoid the disgrace of having the Afghans who allied with us be left at the mercy of the Taliban. Maybe we defend the cities; maybe we accept some Afghans as refugees in the US, as we did after Vietnam; maybe we try to negotiate some power-sharing federalist deal. But the Obama administration is far from having made it clear that they have a strategy and are determined to pursue it through to success. The contrast with the Bush administration in 2007 is striking. It seems likely to end in quagmire, attrition, retreat, compromises, a blot on our record.
We have ceased to be the comparative free-market paragon we were in the 1990s. It is not just that we've gotten worse; other countries have gotten better. Western European countries have been comparatively reformist; and now they almost all have right-leaning governments with an interest in fiscal discipline and/or market reform. Now our unemployment rates are above Europe's and may stay there for a while. Asia, not surprisingly, is showing a much more robust recovery from the 2008 recession. America is ceasing to be the cutting edge of prosperity. I think we'll recover, more quickly than in the 1930s, both economically and ideologically. There will be a shift back in the direction of supporting freedom abroad and limited government at home. But by that time the world will have begun to move on, to find ways to rely less on American leadership and example. We probably have decades of prosperity before us, and American ideas, not least the liberationist credo of the Bush administration which is now incarnate in Iraq, will continue to be influential, but the American people, the escapist rubes who voted for "hope" and "change," will cease to be the most important carriers of those ideas.