‘The people have spoken, the bastards.” That would be how Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill are feeling. The last two years of their leadership have been rebuffed. The question for the Democratic Party: Was it worth it? Was it worth following the president and the speaker in their mad pursuit of liberal legislation the country would not, could not, like? And what will you do now? Which path will you take?
The Republicans saw their own establishment firmly, sharply put down. The question for them: What will you do to show yourselves worthy of the bounty?
The Republicans won big, but both parties return to Washington chastened. Good.
Two small points on the election’s atmospherics that carry implications for the future. The first is that negative ads became boring, unpersuasive. Forty years ago they were new, exciting in a sort of prurient way. Now voters take for granted that politicians are no good, and such ads are just more polluted water going over the waterfall. The biggest long-term loser: liberalism. If all pols are sleazoid crooks, then why would people want to give them more governmental power to order our lives? The implicit message of two generations of negative ads: Vote conservative, limit the reach of the thieves.
The second, not much noticed, is that all candidates must assume now that they are being taped, wherever they are, including private conversations. Sharron Angle was taped in a private meeting with a potential supporter, who leaked it to the press, to her embarrassment. The taper/leaker was a sleaze and a weasel—a sleazel—but candidates can no longer ever assume they are speaking in confidence; they have to assume even aides and supporters are wired. (Go reread “Game Change” and wonder if some of the conversations reported there were taped.) The zone of privacy just got smaller, and the possibility of blackmail, a perennial unseen force in politics, wider. Prediction: this fact will, at some point in 2012, cause an uproar.
On to the aftermath of the election. On Wednesday President Obama gave a news conference to share his thoughts. Viewers would have found it disappointing if there had been any viewers. The president is speaking, in effect, to an empty room. From my notes five minutes in: “This wet blanket, this occupier of the least interesting corner of the faculty lounge, this joy-free zone, this inert gas.” By the end I was certain he will never produce a successful stimulus because he is a human depression.
Actually I thought the worst thing you can say about a president: that he won’t even make a good former president.
His detachment is so great, it is even from himself. As he spoke, he seemed to be narrating from a remove. It was like hearing the audiobook of Volume I of his presidential memoirs. “Obama was frustrated. He honestly didn’t understand what the country was doing. It was as if they had compulsive hand-washing disorder. In ’08 they washed off Bush. Now they’re washing off Obama. There he is, swirling down the drain! It’s all too dramatic, too polar. The morning after the election it occurred to him: maybe he should take strong action. Maybe he should fire America! They did well in 2008, but since then they’ve been slipping. They weren’t giving him the followership he needed. But that wouldn’t work, they’d only complain. He had to keep his cool. His aides kept telling him, ‘Show humility.’ But they never told him what humility looked like. What was he supposed to do, burst into tears and say hit me? Not knowing how to feel humility or therefore show humility he decided to announce humility: He found the election ‘humbling,’ he said.”
What Democrats have to learn from this election: Cut loose from that. Join with Republicans where you can, create legislation together, send the bill to the White House, see what happens. Even as the Republicans have succeeded in getting out from under George W. Bush, this is your chance to get out from under Mr. Obama, and possibly prosper in 2012 whatever happens to him.
What the tea party, by which I mean members and sympathizers, has to learn from 2010 is this: Not only the message is important but the messenger.
Even in a perfect political environment, those candidates who were conservative but seemed strange, or unprofessional, or not fully qualified, or like empty bags skittering along the street, did not fare well. The tea party provided the fire and passion of the election, and helped produce major wins—Marco Rubio by 19 points! But in the future the tea party is going to have to ask itself: is this candidate electable? Will he pass muster with those who may not themselves be deeply political but who hold certain expectations as to the dignity and stature required of those who hold office?
This is the key question the tea party will face in 2012. And it will be hard to answer it, because the tea party doesn’t have leaders or conventions, so the answer will have to bubble up from a thousand groups, from 10,000leaders.
Electable doesn’t mean not-conservative. Electable means mature, accomplished, stable—and able to persuade.
Conservatives talked a lot about Ronald Reagan this year, but they have to take him more to heart, because his example here is a guide. All this seemed lost last week on Sarah Palin, who called him, on Fox, “an actor.” She was defending her form of policical celebrity—reality show, “Dancing With the Stars,” etc. This is how she did it: “Wasn’t Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn’t he in ‘Bedtime for Bonzo,’ Bozo, something? Ronald Reagan was an actor.”
Excuse me, but this was ignorant even for Mrs. Palin. Reagan people quietly flipped their lids, but I’ll voice their consternation to make a larger point. Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president.
The point is not “He was a great man and you are a nincompoop,” though that is true. The point is that Reagan’s career is a guide, not only for the tea party but for all in politics. He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him. He wasn’t in search of a life when he ran for office, and he wasn’t in search of fame; he’d already lived a life, he was already well known, he’d accomplished things in the world.
Here is an old tradition badly in need of return: You have to earn your way into politics. You should go have a life, build a string of accomplishments, then enter public service. And you need actual talent: You have to be able to bring people in and along. You can’t just bully them, you can’t just assert and taunt, you have to be able to persuade.
Americans don’t want, as their representatives, people who seem empty or crazy. They’ll vote no on that.
It’s not just the message, it’s the messenger.