Whether or not Republican Scott Brown wins today in Massachusetts, the special Senate election has already shaken up American politics. The close race to replace Ted Kennedy, liberalism’s patron saint, shows that voters are rebelling even in the bluest of states against the last year’s unbridled pursuit of partisan liberal governance.
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of President Obama’s Inaugural, and it’s worth recalling the extraordinary political opportunity he had a year ago. An anxious country was looking for leadership amid a recession, and Democrats had huge majorities and faced a dispirited, unpopular GOP. With monetary policy stimulus already flowing, Democrats were poised to get the political credit for the inevitable economic recovery.
Twelve months later, Mr. Obama’s approval rating has fallen further and faster than any recent President’s, Congress is despised, the public mood has shifted sharply to the right on the role of government, and a Republican could pick up a Senate seat in a state with no GOP Members of Congress and that Mr. Obama carried by 26 points.
What explains this precipitous political fall? Democrats and their media allies attribute it to GOP obstructionism, though Republicans lack the votes to stop anything by themselves. Or they blame their own Blue Dogs, who haven’t stopped or even significantly modified any legislation of consequence.
Or they blame an economic agenda that wasn’t populist or liberal enough because it didn’t nationalize banks and spend even more on “stimulus.” It takes a special kind of delusion to believe, amid a popular revolt against too much government spending and debt, that another $1 trillion would have made all the difference. But that’s the latest left-wing theme.
The real message of Massachusetts is that Democrats have committed the classic political mistake of ideological overreach. Mr. Obama won the White House in part on his personal style and cool confidence amid a recession and an unpopular war. Yet liberals in Congress interpreted their victory as a mandate to repeal more or less the entire post-1980 policy era and to fulfill, at last, their dream of turning the U.S. into a cradle-to-grave entitlement state.
We had been encouraged a year ago by Mr. Obama’s selection of Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff because we thought he would have learned from the Clinton failure of 1993-1994 and knew enough to stand up to the Congressional left. How wrong we were. Mr. Emanuel and his boss have instead deferred to Congress’s liberal barons on every major domestic policy.
These committee chairmen are all creatures of the Great Society and what was called the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s. They have spent their lives in government and know almost nothing about the private sector or how to grow an economy. They view the Reagan era as an historical aberration, and they have stayed in Washington for decades precisely in wait of this moment to realize 40-years of pent-up policy ambition. They believe this is their 1965, or 1933.
While Mr. Obama campaigned as a young postpartisan Democrat who wanted a new era of comity in Washington, his victory has instead empowered these ancient left-wing warriors. These are the men who have run Washington this past year, and they are Mr. Obama’s de facto cabinet.
It is the combination of all of these and other policies that has ignited the political revolt we are now seeing in Massachusetts, and first saw last November in Virginia and New Jersey. Had Democrats modified their agenda to nurture a fragile economy and financial system, they could now claim their policies worked and build on them later.
Instead, their frenetic agenda has frightened voters and businesses about the vast expansion of government power and enormous tax increases to come. The resulting uncertainty and the anticipation of higher costs for labor, taxes and energy have undermined what ought to be a more robust pace of job creation and overall recovery.
The lesson of Mr. Obama’s lost first year is that an economic crisis is a terrible thing to exploit. As they have each time in the last 40 years that they have had total control of Washington, Democrats are proving again that America can’t be successfully governed from the left. If that is the lesson Mr. Obama learns from Massachusetts, he might still salvage his Presidency.