Friday, September 24, 2010

Surreality and Provocations

Electoral developments in U.S. politics are taking on an aura of surreality these days as even the most respected and usually accurate pollsters are coming up with numbers so unexpected and extreme that we have to pinch our political selves to make sure we are truly awake.

After an early campaign season in which the anger of the voters became increasingly visible during the primaries, it was understood that Republicans would make signficant gains in many states and regions as the sputtering economy, high unemployment, and a halfhearted recovery from the recent recession surged into the core of the public mood. There was even some far-out talk that the Democrats might narrowly lose the U.S. house of representatives and maintain only a small lead in the U.S. senate after controlling both houses of Congress by large margins for the past two years and after also regaining the White House in 2008.

It was conceded by most observers at the outset of this mid-term election cycle that Democrats who had won Republican seats in 2006 and 2008, especially in traditional GOP areas, might well be vulnerable. This could produce GOP gains of 25-35 in the house, and 4-6 seats in the senate. A pick-up of 3-5 governorships might also be possible.. Now poll numbers are indicating Democratic losses of 50-80 in the house, and 10-15 in the senate, and perhaps as many as ten governors. This seems to be happening in spite of the fact that several GOP nominees are eccentric or have personal and political probelms of their own. (It should also be stressed here that these indications are not necessarily what the final numbers will be.)

Much of this momentum has occurred in the few days since the primary season ended in mid-September, and has infiltrated the campaigns of several “secure” Democratic incumbents who, only a month ago, seemed totally “safe” against any Republican tide.

Now the question becomes, with only about five weeks before election day, where does the voter mood go from here? The apparent “collapse” of the Democrats is taking place well before the final days of the campaign, so it is very difficult to imagine that the current dramatic trend will continue unabated. But what is to change the public mood? The recession has been declared to be “over,” and the stock market is having a mild rally. Several economic indicators are positive.. Earnings declines seemed to have bottomed out, and are reversing upwards. Yet the voters (and consumers) seem to be unimpressed.

I suspect that the response and attitude by the Democratic leadership is the key to understanding the rapid detrioration of voter confidence and predictability. For several months, a number of us in the right, left and center of the “commentariat” class, that is, journalists and op ed columnists, talk show hosts and other broadcasters, and political scientists have been citing the unusual political behavior of the party in power and its leadership. (Of course, many of us were accused of just being very partisan.) At the top of that party, President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid have been promoting and insisting on some rather radical changes in U.S. domestic policy that climaxed in the passage of healthcare legislation known as Obamacare this past spring and summer. Not only was this unpopular (more than 60% of the public oppose it), its secret details and consequences have now begun to leak out, much of it in direct contrast to what its supporters and the Democratic leadership said it was and would be. Huge and continuing financial “bail-outs,” unprecedented takeovers of large U.S. corporations and industries, tax increases and massive new public spending and bureaucracy have conveyed a philosophy of governing, and an understanding of how the economy works, that are the opposite of common sense and what might give the public confidence in those in charge.

In short, the Obama administration and the Democrats have gone too far and too fast.

And that is only looking at domestic policy. In foreign policy (which voters usually care less about), President Obama has had very fews successes in an international environment that is increasingly unstable and threatening. His lack of experience and naive attitude to the complexity of foreign affairs has allowed international problems in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Venezuela and Israel/Palestin to deteriorate.

To be fair to Mr. Obama, he did inherit a domestic recession and a volatile international landscape. Mistakes were made by his predcessors, both Republican and Democrat. But we are now long past the time when a current president can legitimately place the blame of his problems on others. There has been plenty of time since January, 2009, to put new policies, initiatives, and relationships in place. The public intuitively knows and understands this, and a great unease has arisen, and continues to rise in the country.

As many have already pointed out, and I among them, presidents in trouble in the first part of their first terms (Reagan in 1981-82; Clinton in 1993-94) usually change course when their original directions don’t work. Mr. Obama and his advisors and collaborators seem unwilling to admit their failures or to seek new directions. This has aggravated the public mood even more, and provoked the electoral response we now see forming.

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