Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne, dispirited by the possibility of a Republican winning a Massachusetts Senate seat, writes in today’s Washington Post about the lessons Obama should take from the surprisingly close race. Much of the piece is devoted to arguing that presidents get blamed for whatever happens on their watch, regardless of whether it’s their fault. Just as Reagan was held responsible for the 1981-82 recession, Obama is also suffering because of the lousy economic environment. But he isn’t doing a good job blaming conservatism for the current economic crisis.
Dionne works up to this conclusion:
Yet the truth that liberals and Obama must grapple with is that they have failed so far to dent the right’s narrative, especially among those moderates and independents with no strong commitments to either side in this fight.
The president’s supporters comfort themselves that Obama’s numbers will improve as the economy gets better. This is a form of intellectual complacency. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went down during a slump, too. But even when he was in the doldrums, Reagan was laying the groundwork for a critique of liberalism that held sway in American politics long after he left office.
Progressives will never reach their own Morning in America unless they use the Gipper’s method to offer their own critique of the conservatism he helped make dominant. It is still more powerful in our politics, as we are learning in Massachusetts, than it ought to be.
The problem with Dionne’s analysis is that he neglects the fact that Reagan’s critique of liberalism resonated because it’s a part of our nation’s DNA. The country was founded after fighting a revolution to break away from a government that was exerting too much control over people’s lives, and ever since, there has always been a certain libertarian, “leave me alone” streak running down the spine of the country that has caused resistance to major new expansions of government. This tendency, coupled with the fact that we don’t live in a parliamentary system, is why we haven’t gone as far as Europe in embracing a social welfare state. The problem conservatism faces is that it’s proven much more adept at criticizing the welfare state abstractly than actually scaling it back in reality.