Cult of personality could doom the Democrats
I’ve recently pointed out that the far right has fallen on hard times. But before liberals celebrate they should take a look at their own shop, which is itself in trouble.
For starters, the hard-right’s problems are the GOP’s gains. In passing a budget, raising the debt ceiling and, most important, putting out constructive policy ideas, the mainstream Republican Party can re-establish itself as the responsible party of reform. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, became an important player in the policy debate and began his personal redemption after the shutdown (which he helped lead) ended and he started putting out thoughtful policy ideas.
The left has bigger problems, however, than a resurgent conservative reform movement. It has to a very large extent confirmed the worst stereotypes about big government. As the Obamacare mess has played out, voters have not only been turned off from a federalized health care system but turned negative on big government in general. Moreover, the defense of Obamacare — that it can free you from the “work lock” to be subsidized by other taxpayers — is downright offensive to many voters, and it goes to the heart of most welfare-type programs well beyond Obamacare.
Then there is the realization that the Obama economic “recovery” has been tepid at best. President Bill Clinton could make the case that his brand of Democratic governance was good for the economy, good for the middle and working class and therefore a model that also allowed for an expansive, liberal welfare state (albeit one that required work for welfare, a successful innovation thrust upon him by conservatives). President Barack Obama can’t make such a claim, and indeed his focus on inequality includes an implicit criticism of his own administration. (He has been president for five years.)
On the foreign policy front, few but those employed in the administration or doggedly spinning for it would dispute that the liberal isolationism characterized by withdrawal, disregard for human rights and currying favor with despots has been a disaster. His great achievement — killing Osama bin Laden — has been dwarfed by the spread of al-Qaida and a series of foreign policy disasters, most visibly in Syria. What is the Obama/liberal foreign policy doctrine? It’s not clear there is one.
And then onto 2016, the Democrats have invested all hopes in an aging Clinton, one not nearly as popular or as politically adept as her husband, two years before the first primary. The field is so weak that should she prove unwilling to run or unconvincing as a candidate (in part because she is unsatisfactory to the frustrated left wing), there is virtually no other credible contender who might step forward. The Democrats, therefore, are essentially stuck with a candidate of the past who was very much involved in the failures of the Obama administration that were what set the left back on its heels to begin with.
In short, liberalism can become defined by a circle-the-wagons mentality around two personalities, neither of which has a record of success or a forward-looking agenda. A philosophy of defense and the status quo riding on the backs of two personalities spells trouble. If a figure falters, as Obama has, the movement has few policy ideas or secondary personalities to propel it forward.
This doesn’t mean the Democratic Party can’t win in 2014 or 2016. Its technical operations and ability to vilify its opposition are second to none. But as a political force it is spent. It is surviving precariously on the potential for wacky opponents and fading star power. It’s quite a fall from the heady days of 2008.
The left’s ideal president is increasingly unpopular and therefore a threat to the party’s Senate majority. Big losses in the Senate would bring his agenda to a screeching halt (if is hasn’t been stopped already) and serve as a reminder to Democrats of the perils of liberal statism.
Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist and anchors the paper’s Right Turn blog.