Perhaps the most brilliant thing about Barack Obama's successful campaign was its vagueness. In offering himself as the all-purpose Change We Can Believe In, Obama gave believers a blank slate and a tacit license to project upon him their deepest longings.
Not that there were no specifics. His promise of tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans and tax hikes for those earning over $250,000 had a statistical specificity that Obama's Republican rival never matched. And those who recall Obama's Democratic debates with Hillary Clinton will remember intense disagreements over ultimately forgettable details of their health-care plans.
Details, however, were not the Obama campaign's strongest selling point. Rather, Obama succeeded by capitalizing on the kind of boundless Hope that prompted a Florida woman, Peggy Joseph, to her memorable declaration after a late-October campaign rally: "I won't have to worry about putting gas in my car; I won't have to worry about paying my mortgage. You know, if I help him, he's gonna help me."
Such irrational expectations are inevitably followed by disillusionment. No prediction of what the next four years might bring is safer than this: The yawning gap between Hope and reality will produce a bumper crop of ex-Democrats.
Every Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has driven millions of his erstwhile supporters into the GOP ranks, and there is no reason to expect that Obama will break this precedent. Indeed, the absurdly inflated hopes generated by Obama's campaign practically guarantee that his tenure in the White House will leave many Democrats bitterly disappointed -- some so bitter that they become ex-Democrats like me.
My conservative friends in Washington are often surprised to learn that I used to be a passionate partisan Democrat. When I went to vote in 1984, the poll worker stopped me at the door and asked me to remove my Mondale-Ferraro pin so as not to violate the rule against campaigning in a polling place.
I didn't bother to vote in 1988 (voting for Mike Dukakis in Georgia was obviously a waste of time), but in 1992, I was absolutely on fire for Clinton-Gore, plastering my car with bumper stickers and talking up the ticket at every opportunity. Finally, I thought, here was the kind of common-sense moderate Democrat who could succeed where my fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, had failed.
Oh, foolish hope! Scarcely had the inaugural band begun playing "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" than my disillusionment commenced. It was rapid and soon complete.
Bill Clinton, in my mind, had two great accomplishments as president: He signed the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 and he made me an ex-Democrat. While my conversion is probably an extreme example of the phenomenon, I'm one of millions whom Clinton drove out of the party.
There was a reason, after all, that the Obama campaign pushed so hard to register first-time voters this year -- the Clinton years produced so many "once burned, twice shy" voters who now wouldn't vote for any Democrat under any circumstance.
Obama gained his margin of victory in large measure by enlisting the support of the disengaged, the disaffected and those too young to know better. Voters under 30 -- who weren't yet in high school when Bill Clinton was elected -- went for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin. Many of these young Obama supporters will be among the first to feel the shock of discovering how wide is the chasm that separates their Hope from any Change that Obama can actually accomplish.
Already, their disillusionment is beginning, the Internet rumbling with discontent as Obama staffs his administration with Washington insiders, Clinton cronies and even, perhaps, Hillary Clinton herself. Many more will be disheartened to discover that there is no magic in Obama's economic plan, a patchwork of warmed-over Keynesian "pump-priming" claptrap as stale as the memory of Hubert Humphrey.
Exactly how soon will the disappointments become sufficient to begin turning former believers into ex-Democrats? It's hard to tell. But it is nonetheless certain that many who voted for Obama will either stay home on Election Day 2010 or vote Republican, and still more will defect by 2012. And unless Obama starts making Peggy Joseph's mortgage and car payments, even she may eventually abandon Hope.
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