I get their point: If a Republican wins in the nation’s bluest state – in a race for Ted Kennedy’s seat, no less – it clearly shows that something big is happening. And even if Brown falls short, the fact that it was this suspenseful is still profound. This we agree on. What we disagree on is how permanent this “something big” actually is.
To the right, a Brown win (coupled with significant GOP gains this fall) would mean a total and permanent repudiation of Obama-ism. Their narrative goes something like this: New president comes in with astonishing popularity and pursues expansive agenda, then begins suffering horrible and humiliating setbacks at the polls, thus proving that the country has rejected him and his party and laying the groundwork for his demise in 2012 – and the return of Republican rule.
To me, this is wishful – and historically ignorant – analysis.
Let me be very clear: Brown can win in Massachusetts. And whether he does or doesn’t, I fully expect Democrats to suffer significant damage in November – probably more than two dozen House seats and a half-dozen in the Senate. But the difference between me and the right is that I always expected this. (Well, the November part; I didn’t think it would get quite this bad in Massachusetts.)
The political trajectory of Obama’s first two years was – or should have been – obvious from the moment he was elected. This is the buyer’s remorse phase of a presidency, when the new president’s programs are either still stuck in Congress or have been enacted too recently for voters to feel that anything has changed. And with Obama, the buyer’s remorse is – and was always going to be – particularly pronounced, given enormous expectations that greeted his election and the country’s ghastly economic condition. This is not like George H.W. Bush in 1989.
With Obama’s first two years, there is an obvious parallel – one the right will never acknowledge – to Ronald Reagan, who came to office in 1981 under very similar circumstances: landslide win, deep economic anxiety, and staggering expectations. I actually wrote about this parallel – and what it portended for Obama’s first two years – for the New York Observer in January 2009, a week before he was inaugurated:
The Reagan example comes with a cautionary note, though. After his tax cuts were enacted, there was no improvement in the economy. In fact, the country plunged into a recession in 1981 and 1982. The lack of tangible improvement in their lives soured Americans on their president, and by September '82, Reagan recorded a negative approval rating—50 percent disapproved, while 46 percent approved—for the first time. The midterm elections of '82 were a blood bath for his party, which lost 26 seats in the House. As Reagan reached the halfway point of his first term, the prospect of defeat in 1984 was all too real.When Reagan and the Republicans were throttled in 1982, Democrats crowed that the Reagan revolution was over – that voters were in revolt and that a full Democratic restoration in 1984 was on the way. I’m hearing the exact same short-sighted and wishful gloating from Republicans now.
Of course, the economy promptly went into recovery, and in the '84 campaign Americans fell in love with Reagan all over again. His revolution, at least for the time, was validated, but it's easy to forget how closely he flirted with failure.
Obama may end up being a one-termer. But it will depend on whether the economy rebounds in 2011 – not how bad the buyer’s remorse is in 2010.