Florida Senate candidate and tea-party darling Marco Rubio is riding the wave of what he calls "the single greatest pushback in American history." While his view of history and the impact of other populist movements can be debated, there's no doubt that Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts has thrust Senate Democrats into a deep panic. They complain they have no message and no leadership, and they're angry at their leader, Harry Reid, and at President Obama, when their own failure to act is a big part of the public's dissatisfaction with Washington.
A mistake that Senate Democrats made, and that many wish they could take back, was their support for the Iraq War. They doubted the evidence for war but feared Republicans on national security, and they were mousetrapped. Now they've fallen into the same dynamic on health care. They're afraid of the Republicans and the tea-party cries of government takeover and socialism. Their failure to act cohesively to pass legislation is turning their worst fears into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The tea party is not all that different from earlier populist movements that served as vessels for anger on the right. A CNN/Opinion Research poll found its members tend to be male, rural, upscale, and overwhelmingly conservative, a more virulent version of the voters that identified with Ross Perot in 1992. When Clinton took office in '93 as a reformer wanting to use government to get the economy moving and the country out of recession (sound familiar?), he confronted a similar government backlash to what Obama faces today. Clinton attributed it to a combination of forces unleashed by the '60s, among them the anti-elitist fervor of his day. When defending segregation was no longer fashionable, George Wallace invented language that made government an object of scorn, deriding pointy-headed bureaucrats and tax-and-spend liberals.
During his first year, Obama seemed to think his good deeds would speak for themselves. That left an opening for critics to define his two biggest initiatives—the $787 recovery act and health-care reform—as big-government takeovers with no positive economic value. The facts are otherwise, but in this partisan environment, facts have to be actively sold and promoted to penetrate the fog of deception that surrounds political debate.
It's a good thing that Obama is now aggressively promoting his policies with travel around the country and next week's health-care summit, and using his executive power to create a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission. These are steps he should have taken last summer and early fall when the first signs of a crack-up began to appear. Now Democrats are bracing for a potential GOP takeover of the House, plus a loss of five to eight Senate seats, an outcome that would mirror the '94 election results, not a happy time for Democrats.
Instead of spending four and a half months wooing Sen. Olympia Snowe for a vote the Republican caucus would never allow, Obama's time would have been better spent playing the outside game and keeping his e-mail list of 13 million people engaged as a lobbying force. Instead, campaign top gun David Plouffe took a sabbatical to make money. That was his right, but it reflected rosy assumptions on Obama's part about how sweet reason could tame the partisan tiger.
Obama's tenure so far is strikingly similar to '93 and '94 when another young Democratic president entered office with high expectations and soon found himself down in the polls and battling a wave of conservative sentiment. The advisers around Obama would never admit it, but losing one or even both houses of Congress might be better for Obama than the gridlock paralyzing his agenda. History in our partisan age suggests that for a president to be truly successful and get big legislative achievements, a divided Congress may be necessary. Only then does each party have some stake in governing, and maneuvering room to compromise.
Clinton never would have been able to sign welfare reform if the Democrats controlled Congress, and the same is true of the balanced budget that Clinton achieved in '97. These were Republican initiatives that many Democrats would have resisted. It seems absurd that with 59 votes in the Senate, Obama can't get health-care reform done. That's because embedded in that 59 are a number of Democrats who will not vote for health care again. There's a different mindset among Democrats in February than December—they're looking out for themselves, not for him, and they're thinking parochially when it comes to legislation. If Obama wants a jobs bill, he will have to go up to Capitol Hill and be engaged and tell the Democrats what he must have for his political survival—and for theirs, come November.