Washington Promoting his new book, Jimmy Carter, whose version of Christianity allows ample scope for what some Christians consider the sin of pride, has been doing something at which he has had long practice — praising himself. He is, he says, “probably superior” to all other ex-presidents and would have enacted comprehensive health care if a selfish Ted Kennedy had not sabotaged his plan.
Actually, one reason Carter, who promised to deliver government “as good as the American people,” lost 44 states in his 1980 re-election bid was that voters believed he considered himself too good for them. And they thought he did not know them — that he was disconnected from the way most people thought and felt.
Eight years later, another Democratic presidential candidate had a comparable problem. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis had vetoed a bill that would have required public school teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps the bill was constitutionally problematic. But a presidential campaign is not a law seminar. Dukakis’ incomprehension of American political culture outside of Massachusetts was apparent when, responding to Republican insinuations about his patriotism, he said dismissively that “every first-year law student” studies flag-salute cases that vindicate his position.
Today, Barack Obama, a chronic campaigner, is out and about trying to arouse the masses against the inequity of not raising taxes on “the rich.” He opposes extending the Bush tax rates — they are due to expire Dec. 31, when a higher rate is restored — for “millionaires and billionaires.”
And for quarter-millionaires. Expiration would mean an increase for households with incomes of at least $250,000. Obama’s $750,000 fudge sweeps many people into the plutocracy. In Obama’s Chicago, a high-school principal can earn $148,000. A police officer with 25 years on the force can earn $114,000 — not counting overtime. If the principal and the officer are married, supposedly they are rich.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama said the rich begin at $150,000. If so, both the principal and the police officer are perilously close to becoming targets of liberal redistributionists.
The damage that has been done to the Democratic brand in just 20 months has encouraged comparisons of Obama to Carter, who seemed miniaturized by the presidency, and to Dukakis, who seemed mystified that Massachusetts’ political culture was not the national norm. There also is, however, an Obama resemblance to Lyndon Johnson.
Obama became president knowing next to nothing about Washington. Johnson began his career as a congressional staffer and spent almost all of his pre-presidential adulthood in Washington. But there is this similarity between them: overreaching.
Obama’s overreaching is testimony to what 44 years can do to a party’s memory. It has forgotten the 1966 elections, which cost Democrats three Senate and 47 House seats, abruptly terminating two years of liberal happiness that had followed 28 fallow years.
In 1938, five years into the New Deal, the public was weary of Washington’s hyperkinesis. Voters recoiled against FDR’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court by enlarging it, and his related attempt to purge conservative Democrats from Congress. After 1938, Republicans and conservative Democrats prevented a durable liberal legislative majority. Until the 1964 anti-Goldwater landslide.
Johnson carried 44 states, Democrats gained two Senate and 38 House seats, and hyperkinesis returned in the form of the Great Society agenda. Since 1966, liberal overreaching has been difficult. After November, it will be impossible, for many years.
For Obama, the worst result next month might be for Democrats to retain control of both houses of Congress. If they do, their majorities will be paralyzingly small. And their remaining moderates will be more resistant to the liberal leadership: The moderates will have survived not because of, but in spite of, those leaders.
Today, if you see Obama in a political ad, you are almost certainly watching a Republican ad. And a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that more than twice as many people view House Speaker Nancy Pelosi negatively (50 percent) than positively (22 percent).
If Democrats retain control of Congress, Obama will seek re-election while being perceived as responsible for everything in Washington, where everything is perceived to be dysfunctional. And anti-Washington fever may be worse than it is today, because the 2010 elections will not seem to have changed very much.
If Democrats lose both houses, Obama will seem repudiated. If they lose neither, he will seem impotent. So, if Democrats lose big, he loses big. If they lose smaller, he loses bigger.
— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. firstname.lastname@example.org