A Re­turn to Nor­malcy

It per­suaded Democrats that the laws of pol­i­tics had been sus­pended, and that ev­ery leg­isla­tive goal they'd ever dreamed about was now within reach.

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Ross Douthat

The fan­tasy was the idea that Barack Obama, a one-term sen­a­tor with an ap­peal­ing bi­og­ra­phy and a sil­ver tongue, would turn out to be Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt, Robert F. Kennedy and Ma­hatma Gandhi all rolled into one. This fan­tasy in­spired a wave of 1960sstyle en­thu­si­asm, an un­set­tling per­son­al­ity cult (that "Yes We Can" video full of har­mo­niz­ing celebri­ties only gets creepier in hind­sight) and a lot of over-thetop prom­ises from Obama him­self. It per­suaded Democrats that the laws of pol­i­tics had been sus­pended, and that ev­ery leg­isla­tive goal they'd ever dreamed about was now within reach. It was even pow­er­ful enough to win Pres­i­dent Obama a No­bel Peace Prize, just for be­ing his amaz­ing self.

The freak­out, which be­gan in earnest dur­ing the long, hot health care sum­mer of 2009, started from the same premise as the fan­tasy - that the Obama pres­i­dency re­ally was ca­pa­ble of com­pletely trans­form­ing Amer­i­can so­ci­ety and that we might be on the brink of a new New Deal or a greater Great So­ci­ety. But to freaked-out con­ser­va­tives, this seemed more like a night­mare than a dream. So they flipped the lib­eral script: Where Obama's acolytes were utopian, con­ser­va­tives turned apoc­a­lyp­tic, pit­ting lib­erty against tyranny, free­dom against so­cial­ism, Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism against the fate of Nin­eveh and Tyre.

This wasn't a con­ge­nial cli­mate for bi­par­ti­san­ship, to put it mildly. The fan­tasy en­sured that the Democrats would go for broke (quite lit­er­ally, judg­ing by the bud­get fig­ures) on do­mes­tic poli- cy - any­thing else, af­ter all, would have been a waste of their world­his­tor­i­cal moment. The freak­out en­sured that Repub­li­cans, more or less in lock step, would re­sist ev­ery pro­posal and vote "no" on ev­ery bill. (Af­ter all, to com­pro­mise with tyranny was no bet­ter than sur­ren­der­ing to it.)

So Democrats hailed the death of con­ser­vatism and the dawn of a glo­ri­ous new lib­eral epoch and then griped that Repub­li­cans wouldn't lend their sup­port to its fulfillment. Repub­li­cans de­nounced Pres­i­dent Obama as a Marx­ist and shrieked "you lie!" at him in the House cham­bers, and then they com­plained that he wouldn't lis­ten to their ideas.

But in the past month of lame­duck ac­tiv­ity, we've wit­nessed a re­turn to po­lit­i­cal nor­malcy. The Repub­li­can midterm sweep de­liv­ered the coup de grâce to the lib­eral fan­tasy by dra­mat­i­cally fore­short­en­ing what many pun­dits ex­pected to be an en­dur­ing Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity. But it also dropped a lid, at least tem­po­rar­ily, on the con­ser­va­tive freak­out. (It's hard to fret that much about the sup­posed Kenyan-Marx­ist rad­i­cal in the White House when any­thing he ac­com­plishes has to be co-signed by John Boehner.)

In this brave new post­elec­tion world, law­mak­ers on both sides stopped be­hav­ing like play­ers in some Belt­way ver­sion of the bat­tle at Ar­maged­don and started be­hav­ing like, well, law­mak­ers. They cut deals, traded horses, preened (and some­times whined) for the cam­eras, and cast their votes on a mix of prin­ci­ple, pique and po­lit­i­cal self-in­ter­est, rather than just fall­ing into line for or against the Obama agenda.

Par­ti­san­ship didn't dis­ap­pear, but mod­er­a­tion re­peat­edly won out. Congress cut a big bi­par­ti­san deal on taxes and spend­ing and then shot down a more par­ti­san lib­eral bud­get. One of the most con­tro­ver­sial items on the lame­duck agenda - the Dream Act, of­fer­ing the chil­dren of il­le­gal im­mi­grants a path to cit­i­zen­ship - was de­feated by bi­par­ti­san op­po­si­tion. Two of the less con­tro­ver­sial items - the re­peal of "don't ask, don't tell" ( sup­ported by some 75 per­cent of Amer­i­cans, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous polls) and the New Start arms con­trol treaty (sup­ported by nearly ev­ery Repub­li­can for­eign pol­icy hand) - passed by healthy mar­gins.

This re­turn to nor­malcy is good news for fans of bi­par­ti­san comity and cen­trism for cen­trism's sake. And it might be good news for the coun­try. In the end, some sort of bi­par­ti­san­ship will be re­quired to pull Amer­ica back from the fis­cal precipice, and the pro­duc­tiv­ity of this lame-duck De­cem­ber shows that co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the two par­ties isn't as im­pos­si­ble as it seemed just a few months ago.

But when it comes to the hard chal­lenges ahead, comity won't be enough. Real courage is re­quired as well. And this month's out­break of bi­par­ti­san­ship was con­spic­u­ously yel­low-bel­lied. Repub­li­cans and Democrats came to­gether to cut taxes, raise spend­ing, and give free health care to the first re­spon­ders on 9/11. They in­dulged, in other words, in the kind of easy, prof­li­gate "mod­er­a­tion" that's done as much dam­age to the coun­try over the years as the ide­olo­gies of ei­ther left or right. If that's all that the re­turn to nor­malcy delivers, we'll be back to fan­tasies and freak­outs soon enough.

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