Zakaria on the Return of the Right

The bottom line on last week's elections is simple—the Republicans did well. Yes, these were a grab-bag collection of races with local particularities and low turnout. But notice that independents, who had shunned the GOP over the last few years, voted for the party in large numbers. And the overall results are consistent with a surprising trend across the Western world—the rise of the right. (Click here to follow Fareed Zakaria)

Imagine you had been told five years ago that a huge economic crisis would erupt, prominently featuring irresponsible financiers, and that governments would come to the rescue of firms and families. You would probably have predicted that, politically, the right (the party of bankers) would do badly and the left (the party of bureaucrats) would do well. You would have been wrong. It's not just the Republicans who came out ahead. Last month a conservative coalition swept into power in Germany. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's party has considerable public support. In Britain, conservatives are poised to win their first national election in 17 years. Even in Denmark and Sweden, where social democrats usually win, the right is in power. In fact, across continental Europe, only one major country, Spain, has a left-wing ruling party.

Why? Part of the answer is that despite the economic turmoil, few people seriously believe the answer is a turn to socialism. But it is also worth looking at the conservative parties that are thriving. Britain's Tory leader, David Cameron, calls himself a "progressive conservative." Sarkozy argues passionately for tight regulation of the financial industry, with pay caps on executive bonuses and more. Angela Merkel staunchly defends the German social market system. In Europe, the right is firmly at the center.

The United States has always been one step to the right of Europe, but even here the center held. The Republicans who won did so by emphasizing mainstream issues and traditional GOP criticisms of Obama—on spending and taxes. They did not espouse radical economic ideas or highlight their conservatism on social issues. When they did, it alienated voters, as in upstate New York.

The post–Cold War political landscape was best mapped out by two politicians early in the 1990s. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair saw that the collapse of communism had created a new reality. The dramatic left-right divide had given way to a mushier middle, with people converging on the idea of a market-based economy but with a substantial safety net. The electorate wanted not ideological clarion calls but competence. Clinton persuaded Americans to trust Democrats as stewards of public finances by empowering smart technocrats like Robert Rubin rather than left-wing politicians.

Barack Obama's handling of the financial crisis has mostly been marked by such intelligent centrism. He es-chewed calls from the left to nationalize banks, ignored criticism from scholars that the stimulus was too small, and has largely avoided business bashing. In all these areas, the left wing of his party is dissatisfied.

On health care, however, the story looks different. There are two great health-care crises in America—one in-volving coverage and the other cost. The Obama plan appears likely to tackle the first but not the second. This is bad economics but also bad politics: the crisis of cost affects 85 percent of Americans, while the crisis of coverage affects about 15 percent. Obama's message to the country appears to be "We have a dysfunctional health-care system with out-of-control costs, and let's add 45 million people to it."

Americans see a health-care bill that has been produced by the old Democratic machine rather than the new Democratic technocrats—more Lyndon Johnson than Larry Summers. That might please the party's base but it will dismay independents. Were costs to rocket over the next few years, the Democrats will have squandered a reputation for economic competence that was hard won.

When Clinton and Blair moved their parties to the center in the 1990s, conservatives were initially paralyzed, then responded by shifting even farther right. (They had to distinguish themselves from the opposition.) In Europe the left has similarly been paralyzed or drifted toward radicalism. Things are still in flux in America. But over the next few years, were the Republican Party to move decisively to the center, Obama would face the most serious challenge of his presidency.