The autumn of convenient narratives

The most politically successful Democrat since JFK, Bill Clinton, could hope for many things but not the deep affection and loyalty of the nation’s liberal establishment. He may have achieved a lot but not what they were really after: a validation of their faith in the power of government to manage as much as possible all aspects of daily life.

Since Reagan’s arrival, that faith had been repeatedly challenged and defeated in elections, so the liberal establishment was yearning for a man whose election and policies would cast the past few decades as an aberration from what they consider the desired and normal trajectory of American history. That man wasn’t Bill Clinton. Decisively defeated in the midterm elections of ’94, he came back an utterly reformed fellow with welfare reform, business tax cuts and plenty of deregulation. “The era of big government is over,” he said. Not exactly the words of a bleeding heart.

Unable to push a liberal agenda, Bill Clinton could only ingratiate himself to the liberal establishment by portraying himself as the victim of visceral Republican attacks. He would get sympathy and support for that, but his inability to advance liberal policies and his success due to his centrist politics would only create skepticism and unease in the ranks of the liberal establishment.

Barack Obama has modeled himself as the opposite of a Clintonite centrist. The era of big government is back. After the $800 billion stimulus package, the health care bill and some other legislative victories, President Obama and his supporters thought that the way was paved for more political successes. Of course, everything hinged on the promise that Obama’s policies would work and produce tangible political benefits.

Nothing of the sort has happened. The choice for the liberal establishment thereafter has been to either reexamine its policies or take the easy way out: blame politics. It has chosen the easy way out.

One explanation for Obama’s troubles is that the man is just too principled and high-minded for American politics. The Telegraph’s Toby Harnden characterized Obama’s first comments on the 9/11 mosque as “high-minded, principled and legalistic.” How high-minded and principled can someone be if he artfully tries to avoid and muddle the issue at hand? The main issue for the opponents of the mosque wasn’t the legal right of building the mosque near Ground Zero but the appropriateness of doing so. The president’s first response was anything but high-minded or principled. It was an answer that Obama hoped would be read and understood differently by different audiences. Obama expected that the proponents of the mosque would view it as a high-minded and principled defense of it and the opponents as a disinterested and rather neutral response. At the end, the opponents viewed as an endorsement and the proponents understood the second Obama statement that tried to clarify that he wasn’t speaking about the wisdom of building the mosque on Ground Zero as backtracking. Arguing that Obama is too high-minded to be politically successful seems like a rather far-fetched explanation for Obama’s unpopularity.