You know things are bad when Democrats are message-hopping faster then John McCain in 2008 and when Democratic leaders and pundits take comfort in comparing President Obama’s approval ratings to the low points of previous presidents.
We shouldn’t find much solace knowing that Reagan also experienced a trough and climbed out of it. History and politics may be cyclical, but life is not. Our trajectory on global warming, for instance, is linear: the longer we allow the forces of denial to hold sway, the more likely we are to hit the point of irreversibility.
Moreover, the election of Barack Obama was a singular moment: the first African-American president elected to replace the most reactionary and radical administration in our history, following a campaign where a woman nearly shattered the ultimate glass ceiling. The force and momentum of those factors and the unprecedented engagement and hope it generated should never have dissipated so rapidly. This is not some mundane political cycle, this is a travesty.
It didn’t have to be this way.
There was a telling paragraph in Peter Baker’s recent Education of a President:
“We’re all a lot more cynical now,” one aide told me. The easy answer is to blame the Republicans, and White House aides do that with exuberance. But they are also looking at their own misjudgments, the hubris that led them to think they really could defy the laws of politics. “It’s not that we believed our own press or press releases, but there was definitely a sense at the beginning that we could really change Washington,” another White House official told me. “ ‘Arrogance’ isn’t the right word, but we were overconfident.”
It’s easy to cross the line from confidence, an essential component of success, to over-confidence, an ingredient of failure. Thinking back to the (justified) euphoria around President Obama’s inauguration, it’s easy to understand why many Democrats crossed that line. But that’s not to say there weren’t warning signs of the disaster to come. The flaps over Donnie McClurkin and Rick Warren were portents, signaling to Obama and Democratic lawmakers that the transition from hope to action was beginning.
I warned about over-confidence as far back as March of 2009, when I argued against bickering with Rush Limbaugh from the White House podium:
I know it’s hard for Democrats to appreciate how quickly political fortunes turn — the glow of victory, the high of electoral success gives a sense of inevitability and invincibility, of permanence. But there’s nothing permanent about power. The tide will turn again, and the engine that will drive it is the fury stirred by the likes of Limbaugh. Feeding that machine, expanding and enhancing it is a mistake. A serious one.
It’s a truism that victory makes every decision seem genius, defeat, the reverse. Democrats, now in power, have a sense of triumph that makes every decision feel smart, every chess move a checkmate. Thus the “Rush strategy” foisted on those of us who have spent the past decade trying to point out how noxious and pernicious Limbaugh and his ilk have been (and continue to be), and how detrimental the anger they’ve stoked.
Empowering Limbaugh in the hopes of a bank-shot against Republicans will yield the opposite result: Limbaugh will become more powerful, Republicans will relish his increased influence and allow him to do their dirty work.
It’s easy to feel like the old era is gone, the old demons slain, that we WON, that nobody’s afraid of the once-vaunted Republican attack machine. … but the seeds of Democratic defeat are planted not by Republican elected officials, who, like McCain, will carry the Bush albatross for years to come, but by those who can freely fan the flames of outrage, who can fight dirty, who can bend and break the rules with impunity, who can tear down their opponents’ integrity and character, and whose apparent reward (as in the case of Ann Coulter) is to be given yet a larger platform. No thanks.
My narrow point was that the dirty work of battling Limbaugh should not rise to the level of the White House. It would only empower him and his blathering cohorts. Surrogates could do that. My larger point was that the lesson from campaign 2008 should not be that there was now an indomitable, web-fueled Democratic force that would sweep away all rightwing resistance. If anything, the right would now fight harder and uglier. Decades in the making, the well-oiled rightwing attack machine wasn’t about to sputter out and die.
So who exactly was the White House official referring to when he/she told Peter Baker “we were overconfident”? I doubt it’s President Obama, since he is too disciplined, introspective and self-aware to lapse into over-confidence. I don’t really think it’s a single individual (though Rahm Emanuel’s famous bluster is emblematic of it) but it’s more a mindset that took over the White House and Democratic leadership, a mindset that denigrated the left’s concerns, that toyed with Limbaugh, that embraced faux-bipartisanship, that began taking measurements for Mount Rushmore, that scoffed at the Tea Party, that relied on an ephemeral email list and the myth of online dominance to convince itself that the GOP was permanently marginalized.
The problem with over-confidence as opposed to mere confidence is that the former makes you insular, the latter motivates you to solicit – and appreciate – external advice. The former leads Democratic insiders to slap down the ‘petulant’ left, the latter compels them to crowdsource strategy rather than rely on the “wisdom” of the same old Beltway strategists, pundits and pollsters.
The big question now is whether the impending electoral train wreck will convert Democratic over-confidence to defeatism or whether the White House can find confidence where they should have sought it all these months, in core progressive principles and values.