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For Obama, a mandate to be moderate

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By George F. Will
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Churchill's wife said that his being turned out of office by British voters in July 1945 -- the war in the Pacific still raged, and he was participating in the Potsdam conference -- might be a blessing in disguise. He replied: It is very well disguised.

Barack Obama might not see the silver lining on the loss of the 60th Democratic Senate vote, but it has several dimensions. Consider four of them.

First, he now has no choice but to moderate his aggravating agenda of breaking more and more sectors of society to the saddle of the state. For example, surely only Democrats tugged by the romance of political suicide will want him to try -- he will fail -- to burden the struggling economy with cap-and-trade legislation.

This complex and costly carbon-rationing plan supposedly would combat the elusive menace of global warming. Serendipitously, on Tuesday, as Massachusetts voters were telling Obama to pause regarding health-care reform, the Wall Street Journal was reporting: "An influential United Nations panel is facing growing criticism about its practices after acknowledging doubts about a 2007 statement that Himalayan glaciers were retreating faster than those anywhere else and would entirely disappear by 2035, if not sooner."

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- co-winner with Al Gore of another absurd Nobel Peace Prize -- issued the questionable 2007 report, which was based on a 2005 report from an environmental advocacy group that relied on a 1999 article quoting an Indian scientist who actually did not mention 2035. Another day, another dollop of evidence of the seepage of dubious science into policy debate, and another reason to proceed cautiously.

A second strand of the silver lining on Obama's Tuesday defeat: Pruning his agenda will reduce the pandemic uncertainty -- about the future rules and costs (health care, energy, taxes) of doing business -- that is paralyzing American businesses. His fortunes will rise if, but only if, unemployment falls. So his political prosperity, like the nation's, should benefit from the temperateness that the Massachusetts result dictates.

Third, Obama will benefit if there now is less of what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "the leakage of reality" from public life. Obama seems to have been disoriented by a false sense of having achieved unchallengeable political supremacy. Now there may be a post-Massachusetts respite from the mainstream media's torrent of obituaries for conservatism, including tedious analyses of the "crisis of the Republican Party."

The torrent has rolled merrily on, unimpeded by the ample evidence that America remains a center-right country: The number of people calling themselves conservative has increased, and the number of those calling themselves liberal has not. And disapproval of Obama flows directly from traditional conservative anxieties about government spending, taxing and meddling. Furthermore, few Republicans drench other Republicans with as much vitriol as many Democratic liberals pour on Sen. Joe Lieberman and other centrists.

Fourth, Obama is now liberated from the Curse of 60 -- exactly the minimum number of senators necessary to move the party's agenda. Democrats would not have reached 60 had not Alaska Republican Ted Stevens been convicted, on the eve of the election, in a corruption trial tainted by gross prosecutorial abuse. And had not Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, facing defeat in a Republican primary, suddenly discovered -- who knew? -- that he really is a Democrat. And had not Minnesota Democrat Al Franken defeated incumbent Norm Coleman after an excruciatingly close election, followed by a protracted and controversial recount. And, perhaps, if Illinois, Delaware and New York had elected rather than appointed senators to replace Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.

Be that as it may, the Democratic Senate caucus landed, like a roulette ball destined for a dangerous slot, on 60. It then learned that when all Democrats are indispensable, every Democrat can be an extortionist. So there have been serial purchases of 60th votes for health legislation. This squalid commerce (special benefits tailored for Florida's Medicare Advantage clients, for Louisiana and Nebraska, and for union members) did almost as much as the legislation itself to discredit the entire sorry business.

If Obama can now resist the temptation of faux populism, if he does not rage, like Lear on the heath, against banks, he can be what Americans, eager for adult supervision, elected him to be: a prudent grown-up. For this elegant and intelligent man to suddenly discover his inner William Jennings Bryan ("You shall not crucify America upon a cross of credit-default swaps") would be akin to Fred Astaire donning coveralls and clodhoppers.

georgewill@washpost.com


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