The Meaning of the Midterms

Analysts are taking away from last week's election results mostly the same theories they arrived with. Interesting that so much new information has changed nobody's mind. I am no exception.

Everybody agrees that the economy was a huge part of the Democrats' problem: fairly or unfairly, the party in power got the blame. Beyond this, for progressives, the key thing was lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base--for which liberals blame Obama's appeasement of Republicans. For conservatives, it was almost the opposite: the vitality of the tea party in reaction to Obama's overreaching. For people in the middle, it was that swing voters were battered by the economy and agreed with conservatives more than with liberals about whether Obama had overreached or underreached. In short, a disappointed Democratic base, an energized GOP base, and the migration of independents from Obama.

Hard to judge the relative importance of these forces, and beyond a certain point, why try? The main thing (which a lot of analysts are strangely reluctant to admit) is that it was all of the above. Once you understand that, you see Obama's difficulty between now and 2012.

Obama cannot be guilty of both overreaching and underreaching, but he can be at fault for arousing those contradictory impressions in different segments of the electorate. This, as I have been arguing these past weeks and months, is exactly what he has done, so consistently it might almost have been by design. Again and again, he staked out a position to the left of the one he eventually settled for. The staking-out alarmed the center and right; the settling-for-less disappointed the left; and, crucially, the mostly defensible positions he eventually retreated to lacked a champion. Instead of infuriating one extreme or the other, which was unavoidable, he infuriated both, all the while failing to talk to the middle. Nothing in the campaign of 2008 suggested this degree of political incompetence.

And the man is still doing it. Apparently, he is getting ready to let the Bush tax cuts be extended for those on high incomes as well as for everybody else. If he does go along with this, progressives will rightly say that he has caved again. (They will be inconsolable, too, because if you are an American progressive you wish, in every state of the world, regardless of all other considerations, to tax the rich more heavily.) Yet extending all the tax cuts, supposing Obama does go along, will get him no credit with the center and right, because he started out opposing and is being made to recant. The worst thing is that there is no authoritative voice to make the principled case for extending all the cuts, a policy which makes pretty good sense so long as the extension is not permanent.

I think many of the policy outcomes under Obama have been good. But instead of owning the policies from the start, he was backed into them. Not just sometimes, but every time.

To recover in 2012 Obama will need a stronger economy, which should happen. He will need the GOP to discredit itself in Congress, which seems likely. It would also help if the Tea Party learned nothing from Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado, and kept harming its own prospects, which looks plausible too. But the hardest thing is that from now on Obama must lead with more conviction, and choose to disappoint either the left or the center, not both.

Obama's unconstrained policy preferences (unlike mine) are evidently more progressive than centrist. For the sake of argument, suppose those preferences are correct. Suppose his uncompromised agenda would be good for the country. As a practical matter, he would still need to judge how far the country is willing to be moved. A good leader has to anticipate those limits, not blunder into them every time, as he has. From a tactical point of view, he should also bear two other things in mind. One is that the left despises compromise, making it much harder to please than the center. The other is that the left, even if you let it down, is not going to vote Republican.