Saturday, February 5, 2011

Predicting Obama's Place in History

In 2008, I wrote an unpublished op-ed about why liberals should vote for McCain and conservatives Obama.  The short version - if Obama won, he'd have little political capital, and disappoint the liberals, and if McCain won, he would hasten the demise of the Republican Party. 

This conclusion was sparked by a political science book called The Politics Presidents Make, by Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek.  US history consists of regimes where one party's ideas and institutions are somewhat more dominant for a generation.  "Opposition presidents" who oppose the dominant regime always run into trouble - Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and Andrew Johnson were examples that were almost impeached because they overreached and alienated both sides.  In order to accomplish something when the other party's ideas are more popular, they need to be sneaky, compromising, and two-faced.  There are five regimes in US History - the Jeffersonian Regime, the Jacksonian Regime, the Lincoln Regime, the New deal Regime, and the Reagan Regime.  In early 2008, when I wrote the op-ed, I believed that the ideas of the Reagan regime still had vitality in 2008; Bush fatigue should not be confused with Reagan fatigue.  I predicted that Obama would be an opposition president.

Generally, regimes end with a leader who tries to straddle the stalwarts of their party and those who think the party's solutions no longer work in modern times.  Think of Jimmy Carter.  McCain would have fit that mold perfectly.  He had a record of being a maverick, and yet tried to prove that he was a loyal conservative during the campaign.  Skowronek calls these leaders "disjunctive presidents."  Streamlining things by vetoing pork was a good plank for McCain, because that's something that appeals to everyone, both the base and the reformers.  Carter did that too - he promised to improve welfare services without spending any more money on them, and tried to streamline government with deregulation.  Yet, their political failures hasten their party's demise as the public believes their party's solutions no longer work.  Some presidents are dealt a losing hand.  I didn't think of Bush as a disjunctive president, however, because disjunctive presidents have never won reelection, and almost never have the political capital to launch a war.

Two things seemed wrong with this in the fall of 2008.  First, Obama's indictment of the Reagan regime seemed a lot more thorough than Clinton, Nixon, and Johnson's indictment of the Reagan, New Deal, and Lincoln regimes.  It even seemed to generate a movement for transformational leadership.  Second, I thought the really poor economy would give Obama much more capital than normal, and the Congressional election was a landslide for Democrats.  Other presidents we might consider transformational did not have supermajorities in Congress as big as Obama's (especially the most recent one, Reagan, whose party never controlled the House).  Even Franklin Roosevelt's majorities contained a lot more conservative Democrats than now exist in the Senate.  The poor economy could have skipped the disjunctive phase and placed Obama right in the transformation phase. 

Now, I think my original prediction was more on target.  If Obama were to be a transformational president, as he hoped to be (remember his praise of Reagan), he would have to energize liberal followers the way FDR did (with unions) or Reagan did (with the conservative movement).  The only movement he's energized is the Tea Party, an opposition he helped crystallize.  Crystallizing an opposition is much more characteristic of opposition presidents than transformational presidents.  The movement behind Obama's election was more about the man than his issues.

For conservatives, the bad news is that opposition presidents often win reelection.  Presidents Tyler, Taylor, Cleveland, Wilson, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton are opposition presidents, and only the first two lost reelection.  Obama has also passed a lot more of his liberal proposals than any of those presidents except Woodrow Wilson.  The good news is that a McCain presidency would have been a disaster for conservatives.  The Tea Party, lacking a bete noire, would have been much less powerful while liberals would have formed a strong group opposed to "Bush's third term."  With the recession looming large, a McCain presidency would have been a prolonged test of conservative ideals in the public mind (the public, rightly or wrongly, would see Bush and McCain as conservatives).  Having a Democrat in office has deflected much of that feeling.  Republicans can marginalize Bush and don't need to explain away McCain.

I say this with hesitation; the stimulus and health care proposal are truly repugnant to conservatives.  The health care proposal will be very hard to dismantle, and perhaps worse than anything McCain would have done, but the alternative might have been a worse health care proposal down the line.  

No comments:

Post a Comment