If you had been dropped from outer space into the Democratic National Convention, you would have thought that we enjoyed full employment, reduced poverty and stared down Iran, leaving us with deeply important issues like paying for birth control for grown women. You would have thought that a large majority of Americans weren’t sympathetic to Israel and weren’t religious. You’d have thought that the federal government had money to burn and no looming debt crisis. You would never have thought that Obama had signed a “historic” health-care bill. And you’d have thought that the political heavyweight in the Obama household was Michelle. (Well, you might have been right about the last one.)
But knowing that the America of 2012 is so very different than the convention portrait, it’s worth asking how the Democrats’ convention became so divorced from reality.
We saw a party in which the inability to tackle the monumental problems of our time ( entitlement reform, fiscal crisis, endemic high unemployment, a nuclear-armed Iran) has left a large gaping hole where its core should be. As our problems have gotten bigger, the party has gotten smaller, angrier and less grown-up. The house is burning down, and the Democratic constituencies want free ice cream.
So, how does it happen that days are spent on abortion on demand (which we essentially have anyway until the Supreme Court decides differently) and contraception, while big-ticket items are ignored?
The answer is twofold, I think. The current state of the Democratic Party is both the natural consequences of a longtime trend and the reflection of a president who is tragically unequipped to do his job.
Constituent politics is nothing new to the Democratic Party, of course. Ever since FDR strung together an alliance of urban blacks, Southern whites, labor and immigrants, the Democratic Party has been collecting interest groups like a girl collects charms for her bracelet. The groups have multiplied (gays, Native Americans, public employees), but the concept has been the same for 70 years. In exchange for votes the Democratic Party will give you lots of “free” stuff. To get free stuff you have to pay a lot of taxes and idealize government as the font of good deeds, so that citizens won’t mind an increasingly intrusive and expensive government. The point is not to solve problems or even measure success; the point is to keep the swapping (votes for free stuff) going strong.
A lot of the big-ticket items have already been doled out. So now we’re down to the really small beans ( free contraception!). Whether the giveaways are small or large (e.g., unlimited health care for all, free college education) the idea is propounded that the measure of a decent, successful society is how much free stuff you give away.
This phenomenon has been amply documented (most recently by Jay Cost in in his new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic). But usually the itty-bitty items and the atomized nature of a party strung together only by the common desire to get free stuff are not so obvious. Usually, there is an overarching purpose that takes center stage, while the interest group plate-spinners carry on along the sidelines. What was so startling at this year’s Democratic convention was that there is nothing else but the interest group beg-a-thon.
And this brings us to the current president. In 2008 Barack Obama had big themes and big ambitions that gave the party coherence. Having failed to do the big things (curb the debt, stop Iran, jump-start the economy), he chose to ignore the biggest issues of our time. My colleague Michael Gerson aptly put it: “Obama made almost no mention of the continuing jobs crisis. He offered nothing new or creative on a fiscal and debt crisis that undermines economic confidence. Much of Obama’s agenda — lowering tuition costs, recruiting math and science teachers, ‘long-lasting batteries’ — sounded like a seventh-year State of the Union address, a collection of policy leavings and leftovers.”
So then it wasn’t merely that Obama let loose the rent-seekers (and birth control-seekers and free-education-seekers). No, he needed them to fill up the space and the airwaves, to promise that no matter what (fiscal crisis, recession) he will still be there to cater to the whims and demands of the constituent groups. Sure the economy is bad, but who’s going to give you free college tuition?
It’s ludicrous, of course. If the economy doesn’t improve and we don’t avoid the fiscal cliff, we’ll be taking away, not handing out stuff. This is the “austerity” against which the liberals inveigh. In fact, they are driving us ever closer to the point where we will will have to quickly and severely cut out the handouts.
It is, as conservatives have said for so long, the Western European syndrome. As we spend and cater to the demanding crowd, we push ourselves closer and closer to the point where both the excessive demands and actual needs will go unmet.
It is interesting that on Friday major financial institutions sounded the alarm about the state of the economy. James Pethokoukis quoted JPMorgan’s economist Michael Feroli:
Labor market activity was disappointing again in Aug . . . The more comprehensive employment-to-population ratio ticked down to 58.3%; this measure is a mere 0.1% above its cycle trough, indicating that once one takes account of population growth there has been essentially no progress in repairing the labor market after the recent downturn. In fact, if you go through the details it’s hard to find any redeeming aspects to this jobs report. In terms of the broader economy, today’s numbers should check any enthusiasm that the economy was gaining momentum toward the end of the summer. Instead, the economy appears to remain stuck in the mud.
“Awful,” “dreary,” weak” and “dismaying.” He sounds like the town crier straining to wake up the town. But in Charlotte the Democrats had their fingers in their ears, as if blocking out the noise would make it go away, or at least muffle others’ hearing. What’s that? The economy is near a recession? Hmm. Did I mention we’ll give you free birth control?
I like to say that the first side in a campaign to raise social issues is losing on everything else. In this case, the campaign spending three days on wedge issues and statist trinkets is getting clobbered on everything else.
Maybe the Obama cynicism is right and the public is willing to be coddled and distracted. But somehow I think not. At some point voters want to fix the big things; they might even be willing to forgo a lot of free stuff.