January 25, 2010


Theory of Change at Year One: What was Obama selling? What did we expect when he took office? And how have those expectations worked out in practice? (Mark Schmitt and Rick Perlstein, January 25, 2010, American Prospect)


What attracted me to your essays, in fact, was how they mooted the question of what we imagined Barack Obama to be and instead gave us a vocabulary to more clearly see what Barack Obama actually does, as a way to project what he might do -- specifically, how he might succeed. And I agree with your retrospective re-evaluation: The essays yielded great description but not-so-great prediction. I think I have some insights as to why.

Every president has a honeymoon. But Obama's really did seem qualitatively more intense than any other new presidency perhaps since Lyndon Johnson inherited the mantle from the martyred Kennedy. I began to think of the possibility of an Obama era, one as (to coin a phrase!) "game changing" as the Reagan era or the Roosevelt era. I conceptualized it in terms of fluid dynamics, a tipping-point strategy. Gently, by degrees, the median voter would see Obama's positions, rooted in traditional Democratic themes of economic solidarity, as the normal, consensual position (just like voters did before Reagan) and that voters would come to see Reagan's children as alien, jarring, and strange.

Conservatives eagerly played to type -- GOP congressional leaders called in Joe the Plumber for strategy sessions, and Newsmax.com started advertising a 2009 "Hot Sarah Calendar." On my blog I labeled what Republicans had been reduced to as "Palinporn": "material to help lonely conservatives retreat within their own cocoon of fantasy rather than participate in the actual conversations taking place to govern the country." It was a very "Obama theory of change" insight: Obama could simply get on with governing. Republicans would conversely build ever more elaborate halls of mirrors that made it increasingly impossible for them to speak to America. In fact, around that time, I was exhilarated by the thought of Rush Limbaugh's ratings exploding through the roof, from 20 million to 30 million listeners -- 30 million Americans able only to speak to each other, sounding to the rest of the country like practitioners of esoteric Masonic rites.

Some Republican politicians, craving power, chasing the median voter, might feel they had no choice to defect, from the party of the strange -- the GOP -- to the party of the normal -- the Democrats. That, or surrender their relevance to the governing project, and join the nuts parsing Barack's mom's dissertation for "facts that could be useful in upcoming Supreme Court cases."

Even before Arlen Specter switched parties I became intrigued by the story of a Republican assemblyman in Tennessee named Kent Williams. Republicans had been preparing to assume control of the Tennessee House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years when Williams made a deal to become a Democrat in exchange for Democrats' votes to make him speaker. I read between the lines, presuming him a shrewd operator who had decided that smart money was in the Obamaite center. Then came Specter; I felt like a stampede might be beginning.

Foolish Perlstein. Turns out Tennessee was just a banal power-grabbing double cross, with little or nothing ideological to it at all. Specter was just a one-off.

Must be tough for a guy who writes about how ideology blinds people to reality to confess that it happens to him too. At least in this instance he recognizes it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 25, 2010 7:08 AM
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