The political version of Green Lanternism

07/07/2010 09:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jon Chait debunks a second species of presidential Green Lanternism at his TNR blog. Rather than asserting that the president's failure to achieve a policy goal is a result of insufficient will, American Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner suggests on the Huffington Post that Obama's political problems are due to a lack of resolve to pursue a more liberal economic agenda:

Come November, as Republicans break out champagne, the usual commentators will offer the usual alibis and silver linings.Hal-greenlantern

The party of the newly elected president always loses Congressional seats. Not always: viz. Roosevelt, 1934, or Bush II, 2002. The two men shared nothing, except resolve in a crisis. That should tell you something. Where's Obama's resolve?

But as Chait argues, there's little evidence that "resolve" is why FDR and Bush did so well in those elections:

[T]he general trend is that midterm elections are bad for the president's party, and slow income growth is even worse. Ronald Reagan had a lot of "resolve," but he still lost a lot of seats in 1982.

Kuttner cites two notable exceptions to the pattern of the president's party losing midterm election seats. The first is 2002. I think it's pretty clear that the 9/11 attacks had an unusually powerful role here. The second is 1934... Is that another exception? Actually, no. Personal income grew an astronomical 12.7% in 1934.

So we're down to one exception to the rule: 2002. Locating a single exception to a well-established trend is not a good reason to ignore the trend.

What's fascinating is that this brand of Green Lanternism -- like the policy one -- is almost a perfect inverse of what conservatives were saying about George W. Bush just a few years ago, a fact that seems to be lost on the liberals espousing it now. For instance, Jonah Goldberg suggested back in 2006 that Bush would be more popular if he were more conservative on domestic policy:

Perhaps this unnoticed fact [Bush's alleged liberalism on domestic issues] explains part of Bush's falling poll numbers more than most observers are willing to admit. The modern conservative movement, from Goldwater to Reagan, was formed as a backlash against Nixonism. Today, Reaganite conservatives make up a majority of the Republican party. If Bush held the Reaganite line on liberty at home the way he does on liberty abroad, he'd be in a lot better shape. After all, if Bush's own base supported him at their natural level, his job-approval numbers wouldn't be stellar, but they wouldn't have his enemies cackling, either.

These beliefs are a sort of ideological Mad Libs -- if only the president were more ________ [liberal/conservative], he'd _________ [be more popular/enact the agenda I want]. It's apparently a comforting belief, but one that's rarely true.

Update 7/7 12:13 PM: For those who don't know the background, I coined the Green Lantern
theory of the presidency as a riff on Matthew Yglesias's Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics. Here's an excerpt from his original post:

As you may know, the Green Lantern Corps is a sort of interstellar peacekeeping force set up by the Guardians of Oa to maintain the peace and defend justice. It recruits members from all sorts of different species and equips them with the most powerful weapon in the universe, the power ring.

The ring is a bit goofy. Basically, it lets its bearer generate streams of green energy that can take on all kinds of shapes. The important point is that, when fully charged what the ring can do is limited only by the stipulation that it create green stuff and by the user's combination of will and imagination. Consequently, the main criterion for becoming a Green Lantern is that you need to be a person capable of "overcoming fear" which allows you to unleash the ring's full capacities. It used to be the case that the rings wouldn't function against yellow objects, but this is now understood to be a consequence of the "Parallax fear anomaly" which, along with all the ring's other limits, can be overcome with sufficient willpower.

Suffice it to say that I think all this makes an okay premise for a comic book. But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

What's more, this theory can't be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will.