Last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, and the ensuing media coverage, have focused attention only six weeks after President Obama's inaugural on a fast mobilizing political opposition. This is record short time, after a national election defeat, for a rallying of the out-party.
After Sen. Barry Goldwater's much more one-sided defeat by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Republicans took a long time before they finally formulated a coherent alternative platform of their own. Richard Nixon won the Presidency in 1968 and 1972 not because of such a platform but because of moderate voters' dissatisfaction with a big-government liberalism they identified with the Democratic candidates. It was not until 1980 that the party found a winning agenda and voice with the nomination and election of Ronald Reagan.
Democrats, likewise, won the Presidency in 1976 more because of Republican unpopularity than because of Jimmy Carter's alternative views. Carter, in fact, had few formed views and entered the White House as an undefined populist. In 1981, shocked by the one-sided Reagan victory, Democrats went into a general ideological drift, nominating traditional liberal candidates Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis in 1984 and 1988 despite apparent public fatigue with such liberalism. When Bill Clinton won in 1992, his platform was populist and he shunned identification with liberalism.
As a lifelong Democrat, I am concerned that President Obama could come out of his first 100 days decidedly weaker than when they began. His November victory was not as strong as anticipated, given the unpopularity of the outgoing Bush administration, a weakening economy, and an often inept McCain-Palin Republican ticket. Yet Obama has proceeded as if he were a landslide winner, like Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and Reagan in 1980, and has pushed forward a costly and ambitious domestic agenda even though we remain in a severe economic downturn.
Obama's audacity — I consider it politically dangerous overreach — has energized Republicans and, in particular, conservatives as they would not have been had Obama followed the bipartisan, consensus path he promised on taking office. The politically polarizing economic-stimulus package and his proposed federal budget have done it.
Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has drawn the most media attention, and White House counterfire, after the CPAC conference. Almost no notice, however, has been given to the fact that post-conference polling among the some 8,000 conservative participants found that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was their most favored candidate. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the author of the 1994 Contract With America, also made a strong showing. Romney, runnerup to Sen. John McCain in the 2008 nominating race, would have run a far stronger general-election campaign than McCain — especially since his financial/economic credentials were far stronger than McCain's. Those credentials, now, make him a natural spokesperson for the out party in a time of financial/economic crisis.
Why has Obama rushed forward with a costly domestic agenda when the country is in economic crisis and when federal deficits already are at record level? I am mystified. The proposals in the Obama budget are, mainly, those he made during his campaign and in his nomination-acceptance speech in Denver. But that was before the country had been overtaken by hard times. Surely, I thought, he would revise his agenda to take into account the new situation. But he has not.
In any case, the net effect has been to worry moderates and all but the most partisan Democratic voters — and to speed the opposition's efforts to regroup.
A Republican and conservative renaissance remain distant. But the partisan stimulus package and budget have gotten last fall's losers moving. It would be a mistake to take Limbaugh too lightly. Yes, he is only a talk-show host. But he has a devoted following of millions and is not a policy dummy. Limbaugh is being treated by Democrats now as my own generation of Democrats treated Ronald Reagan in 1979 — as an articulate but lightweight performer who would be overwhelmed once he entered the main ring. We were wrong. Romney and Gingrich should also be taken quite seriously. We shall see, in the period immediately ahead, whether congressional Republicans will hold their discipline as they did in opposing the Obama stimulus package.
We thought the end of the Bush years might also end a period of fierce partisanship. That does not appear the way we are headed.