November 2010, Week 1


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Wed, 3 Nov 2010 22:07:12 -0400
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A Lost Generation

Obama Deserved to Lose--But the Country Doesn't Deserve the Consequences.

John B. Judis
The New Republic
November 3, 2010

Asked on Monday to assess the significance of the
coming Democratic defeat, Tim Kaine, the chairman of
the Democratic National Committee, tried to portray
this election as fairly typical. "Since Teddy
Roosevelt," Kaine told Gwen Ifill of the PBS NewsHour,
"the average midterm is, you lose 28 House seats and
lose four Senate seats if you're the party in the White
House." Does losing over 60 House seats and as many as
eight Senate seats simply make this a below average
outcome, or did something much more serious and
significant happen in yesterday's election?

Republicans might say it's the re-emergence of a
conservative Republican majority, but that's not really
what happened. What this election suggests to me is
that the United States may have finally lost its
ability to adapt politically to the systemic crises
that it has periodically faced. The U.S emerged from
the Civil War, the depression of the 1890s, World War
I, and the Great Depression and World War II stronger
than ever-with a more buoyant economy and greater
international standing. A large part of the reason was
the political system's ability to provide the
leadership the country needed. But what this election
suggests to me is that this may no longer be the case.

This economic downturn structurally resembles the
depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s rather than the
cyclical recessions that have recurred since World War
II. The American people, mired in debt, with one in six
lacking full-time employment, are not spending; and
businesses, uncertain of demand for their products, are
not investing no matter how low interest rates fall.
With the Fed virtually powerless, the only way to
stimulate private demand and investment is through
public spending. Obama tried to do this with his
initial stimulus program, but it was watered down by
tax cuts, and undermined by decreases in state
spending. By this summer, its effect had dissipated.

The Republicans may not have a mandate to repeal health
care, but they do have one to cut spending. Many voters
have concluded that Obama's stimulus program actually
contributed to the rise in unemployment and that
cutting public spending will speed a recovery. It's
complete nonsense, as the experience of the United
States in 1937 or of Japan in the 1990s demonstrated,
but it will guide Republican thinking in Congress, and
prevent Obama and the Democrats from passing a new
stimulus program. Republicans will accede to tax cuts,
especially if they are skewed toward the wealthy, but
tax cuts can be saved rather than spent. They won't
halt the slowdown. Which leads me to expect that the
slowdown will continue-with disastrous results for the

And that's only what one can expect over the next few
years. Like the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s,
this slowdown was also precipitated by the exhaustion
of opportunities for economic growth. America's
challenge over the next decade will be to develop new
industries that can produce goods and services that can
be sold on the world market. The United States has a
head start in biotechnology and computer technology,
but as the Obama administration recognized, much of the
new demand will focus on the development of renewable
energy and green technology. As the Chinese, Japanese,
and Europeans understand, these kinds of industries
require government coordination and subsidies. But the
new generation of Republicans rejects this kind of
industrial policy. They even oppose Obama's obviously
successful auto bailout.

Instead, when the U.S. finally recovers, it is likely
to re-create the older economic structure that got the
country in trouble in the first place: dependence on
foreign oil to run cars; a bloated and unstable
financial sector that primarily feeds upon itself and
upon a credit-hungry public; boarded up factories; and
huge and growing trade deficits with Asia. These
continuing trade deficits, combined with budget
deficits, will finally reduce confidence in the dollar
to the point where it ceases to be a viable
international currency.

The election results will also put an end to the Obama
administration's attempt to reach an international
climate accord. It will cripple its ability to adopt
domestic limits on carbon emissions. The election could
also doom Obama's one substantial foreign policy
achievement-the arms treaty it signed with Russia that
still awaits Senate confirmation. In other areas, the
Obama administration will be able to act without having
to seek Congressional approval. But there is little
reason to believe that the class of Republicans will be
helpful in formulating a tough policy toward an
increasingly arrogant China, extricating America from
Afghanistan, and using American leverage to seek a
peaceful settlement of Israel-Palestinian conflict.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the fix that
the country is in. Out of power, the Republicans are
the party of reactionary insurrection. They have little
constructive to offer the country, and they have
successfully frustrated Obama's efforts at every turn.
But Obama has to share some of the blame. Structural
crises like the Civil War or the two Great Depressions
present presidents with formidable challenges, but also
great opportunities. If they fail, they discredit
themselves and their party, as Hoover did after 1929;
but if they succeed, as McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt
did after 1896 or Franklin Roosevelt did after 1932,
they not only help the country, but also create
enduring majorities for their party.

To succeed requires some knowledge of the task at hand,
which Hoover did not have; it also requires a
vulnerable opposition, which Franklin Roosevelt had,
and which Obama certainly had in the first months of
his presidency, when Republicans were in disarray and
Wall Street was disgraced. Two things are then required
of a president: bold and unprecedented initiatives that
address the underlying economic problems, and a
populist-and sometimes polarizing-politics that
marshals support for these initiatives and disarms the
opposition. Obama failed on both counts: his economic
program-no matter how large in comparison to past
efforts-was too timid, as many liberal economists
recognized; and Obama proved surprisingly inept at
convincing the public that even these efforts were

The election results amply illustrated Obama's
political failure. Economic downturns invariably awaken
the populist demon inside the American psyche.
Americans see themselves as part of a broad middle
class-from the clerk at Wal-Mart to the small
businessman-who do the work and play by the rules, but
see themselves taken advantage of by illegal
immigrants, welfare cheats, pointy headed state
bureaucrats, Wall Street speculators, and ruthless
Robber Barons. Rightwing populists tend to point their
finger primarily at the undeserving poor and the
government that serves them; leftwing populists at Wall
Street and CEOs. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt
was able to direct Americans' ire primarily at the
"economic royalists." But Obama, who was uncomfortable
with the rhetoric of populism and apportioned blame on
Main Street as well as Wall Street, left a political
vacuum that the rightwing populists of the Tea Party
filled. They even managed to portray Obama and the
Democrats as the patrons of Wall Street. When asked who
was most to blame for "current economic problems," a
plurality of voters yesterday said "Wall Street
bankers" rather than George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
But amazingly, these voters backed Republicans by 56 to
42 percent. That testifies to the utter failure of the
Obama administration's politics.

The other telltale sign of Obama's failure was the
youth vote. Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 very
much depended upon increased support from and turnout
among young voters. In 2008, Obama's organization
specifically targeted these voters. In this election,
voters 18-to-29 again favored Democrats by a whopping
56 to 40 percent in House races. But they constituted
only eleven percent of the electorate this year
compared to 18 percent in 2008 House races and 12.5
percent in 2006. Obama and his political aides
recognized that this was a problem, and in the last
weeks of the election, tried to rouse these voters
(hence all those campus rallies and the "Daily Show"
appearance). But it was too late.

The damage was done soon after Obama took office, when
he and his political aides decided to disband the huge
locally-based political organization they had created.
Obama for America became Organizing for America, and
was eventually folded into the Democratic National
Committee. But it proved toothless, as Ari Berman
recounts in Herding Donkeys, an excellent account of
the rise and fall of Obama's organizing efforts.

Republicans can certainly make the case that this
election cuts short the kind of Democratic majority
that Ruy Teixeira and I foresaw in our 2002 book, The
Emerging Democratic Majority. But they would not be
justified in suggesting that it revives the older
Republican majority. The Republicans remain (as they
were after the 2008 election) a bitterly divided party
without an accepted national leadership. You
essentially have Karl Rove, Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney,
and Mitch McConnell on one side; the Tea Parties, Sarah
Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Glenn Beck on the other. The
Republican National Committee is virtually defunct.

In 1994, when the Republicans won the Congress, the
election was not only a repudiation of the Clinton
administration, but also an affirmation of the
Republican alternative. According to one poll, 52
percent of voters approved, and only 28 percent
disapproved of "Republican Congressional leaders'
policies and plans for the future." This election,
however, was not a victory for the Republicans, but a
defeat for Obama and the Democrats. According to exit
polls, 53 percent of voters in House races had an
unfavorable view of the Republican Party and only 41
percent had a favorable view. I found this myself in
interviewing suburban Philadelphia voters last weekend.
Even those who said they were Republicans had grave
doubts about what the party stood for and regarded the
Tea Partiers as "wackos."

The election results themselves did not represent a
full-blown realignment, but a more modest shift in
existing loyalties. Democrats retained, but at somewhat
reduced proportion, the loyalties of blacks, Latinos,
and professionals (evidenced in the 52 to 46 percent
support among those with post-graduate degrees); and
they suffered from reduced turnout among young voters.
Republicans increased sharply their margin among white
voters without college degrees, who made up 39 percent
of the electorate. In 2008 House races, Republicans
carried this group by 54 to 44 percent; this year, it
was 62 to 35 percent. In other words, the Republicans
did better with their coalition than the Democrats did
with theirs; but the contours remained the same.

Where does that leave American politics? If the
downturn continues unabated-and it might-and if the
Republicans can control their radical right (the way
that Reagan co-opted the Christian right in 1980 and
1984), and if they nominate and unite behind someone
like Mitt Romney in 2012, and if Obama doesn't revive
the movement that carried him to the White House in
2008, the Republicans could win back the presidency.
But if I am right about the fundamental problems that
this nation suffers from at home and overseas, then any
politician's or political party's victory is likely to
prove short-lived. If you want to imagine what American
politics will be like, think about Japan.

Japan had a remarkably stable leadership from the end
of World War II until their bubble burst in the 1990s.
As the country has stumbled over the last two decades,
unable finally to extricate from its slump, it has
suffered through a rapid of succession of leaders,
several of whom, like Obama, have stirred hopes of
renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and
despair within the electorate. From 1950 to 1970, Japan
had six prime ministers. It has had 14 from 1990 to the
present, and six from 2005 to the present. That kind of
political instability is both cause and effect of
Japan's inability to transform its economy and
international relations to meet the challenges of a new

The U.S. does not have a parliamentary system. It has
been characterized by long-term political realignments
in which one party had been dominant for a decade or
more. But the latest realignments have not come to
pass. In 2001, Karl Rove believed that George W. Bush
had created a new McKinley majority that would endure
for decades; and when Obama was elected, many
Democrats, including me, thought that he had a chance
to create a Roosevelt-like Democratic majority. But
instead, like Japan, we've had a succession of false
dawns, or what Walter Dean Burnham once called an
"unstable equilibrium." That's not good for party
loyalists, but it's also not good for the country.
America needs bold and consistent leadership to get us
out of the impasse we are in, but if this election says
anything, it's that we're not going to get it over the
next two or maybe even ten years.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic
and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace.


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