Paul Krugman's recent, widely quoted op-ed in Monday's New York Times opens with this: "It's feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It's also feeling a lot like 1980." I generally agree with a lot of what Krugman has to say, but in this case I think he's dead wrong.
It isn't 1980 because that year saw the completion of a genuine ideological shift in the electorate from New Deal/Great Society liberalism to small government/free market conservatism. In 2008, another ideological shift, back to the left, seems to be starting, but just because folks in the heartland don't like George W. Bush doesn't mean they love Ted Kennedy.
It's not 1992, either. That year, voters were also in a "throw the rascals out" mood, but not for the same reasons as this year. In 2008, the conservative consensus is fading while a new liberal consensus seems to be emerging. In '92, far-right conservatism was still on the upswing, and it was the Republican far right which instigated the personal repudiation of George H.W. Bush, who was never considered to be "one of us" on hot-button issues like taxes and abortion.
Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot took advantage of Bush I's weakness to divide the party and enable the election of moderate centrist Bill Clinton. But while Bush himself was a weak candidate, the conservative movement was still strong and getting stronger -- witness the 1994 elections. 2008 sees conservatism beginning its decline, but the electorate is nowhere near ready to fully reject it.
If this election year resembles any in recent history, it's 1968. That year, the Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson had bogged the country down in a deeply unpopular war, and its domestic policies seemed to have run off the rails. The electorate, while still largely liberal, was ready to take a step back and catch its collective breath.
And into the breach stepped Richard Nixon. He may have seemed pretty conservative at the time with his message of "law and order," but he'd probably be considered too liberal to even have a shot at the Democratic nomination today. After all, the guy founded the Environmental Protection Agency, established detente with China, and was a strong proponent of affirmative action, to name just a few.
In 1968, the idea of a government founded on progressive liberalism and spearheaded by federal activism was a generally accepted one. Reaganesque conservatism, with its emphasis on so-called "family values," a strong military and a laissez-faire attitude towards business, is still the consensus ideology today, even though plenty of cracks have appeared in the facade over the last four years. In fact, in a recent Battleground Poll, a whopping 62% of those surveyed described themselves as "very conservative" or "somewhat conservative."
George Bush and his administration have made a hash of conservative ideology just as LBJ set back liberal orthodoxy. However, this is still largely a country of gun-toting, abortion-hating, God-fearing haters of tax-and-spending, welfare-queen liberals. Barack Obama, being an intelligent politician, realizes this.
So why is everyone giving him such a hard time for his recent forays into Clintonesque centrism? Because the left is so yearning for a Reagan-like transformational figure to lead us back to the promised land that it's projected its ideology onto a guy who doesn't necessarily fit the mold.
Bill Clinton knew that to survive as a Democrat in the age of rampant conservatism, he had to employ what is now known as triangulation, for better or worse, in order to get anything done. Obama understands the same thing. A liberal base alone, even an energized liberal base, is not going to get him elected in November. He's merely employing the age-old tack of running to the left in the primaries and then moving to the center for the general election.
Some have said this approach caused Al Gore's loss in 2000 and John Kerry's loss in 2004. But they were lousy, uncharismatic campaigners. Obama is exciting even when he's pissing off the progressive wing of his party.
Progressives and liberals who think that the country is ready to lurch to the left after four decades of surging right are jumping the gun. The pendulum is starting to swing back in a liberal direction, but it's still got a ways to go. While America is deeply dissatisfied with its conservative leadership, I think it's the Republican party that's in the voters' crosshairs, not the conservative consensus itself.
To elect a far-left liberal in 2008 would be like Reagan getting elected in 1968, or FDR gaining the White House in 1924. The country simply isn't ready yet. The liberals' time will come again -- just not this year.
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