He saw it coming, I’ve got to admit it.
We are as different as we can be, Tucker Carlson and I. He is a Protestant, libertarian, elitist conservative. I am a Catholic, communitarian, populist Democrat. And yet I have to tip my hat to him. Tucker predicted the winter of our discontent more accurately than all the president’s pollsters and all the president’s men.
Tucker and I have engaged in hundreds —actually, thousands—of debates since we first squared off on a now-defunct show called “Crossfire” in 2002. When we’d finished hurting America through vigorous debate on afternoon cable, we took our show on the road. From time to time we would debate—before civic organizations, trade associations, corporate meetings, weddings, bar mitzvahs, prison release parties, you name it. And throughout 2008, when tens of millions of Americans were chanting, “Change!” Tucker saw the collision coming.
He would invariably point out that when most Americans—especially independents—use the word, “change,” what they really mean is incremental improvement. “Shorter lines at the DMV,” he’d say, “or a FEMA that shows up within six months of a hurricane.” He cautioned that the Obama administration risked pushing too much fundamental change too quickly, which would alienate the independent voters who really just wanted things to get a bit better.
At the same time, he warned, there were some people for whom “change” meant radical restructuring: throw open the Bastille, cancel all the debts, declare a Jubilee. These people, Tucker warned, required a pace of change exponentially faster than the steady incrementalism of the independents. Case in point: Tucker and I debated at a gathering of thousands of young people the day before the Obama inaugural. I opened with a joke about the new president walking across the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. No one laughed. In fact, several of them whipped out their cellphones to text each other with the news that The One would be walking on water, as usual. Health care? If we but touch the hem of His garment, they figured, we shall be healed.
It would be, Tucker predicted, impossible to reconcile those two visions of change. And he was right, the bastard.
Sure, most of the problems facing our president and my party are due to the crappy economy. And it is certainly true that Barack Obama is essentially the same person, in word and deed, whom he pledged to be in the campaign. Moreover, the president has world enough and time—indeed, he looks to be on a long-term arc resembling Reagan’s and Clinton’s: mid-term setback, third year comeback, fourth year landslide re-election.
And yet it is also true that, for now, the attitudes of both the incrementalists and the radicals have soured. Incrementalists, stunned by what they see as overly broad and rapid change, are looking for the brakes. Radicals, depressed about the snail’s pace of progress, are looking for the exits.
And Tucker Carlson is looking like an oracle.
Paul Begala is a Democratic political consultant, a political commentator, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.