Last night another wave of voter disgust hit the Capitol Hill sands and swept more incumbents into the out-of-office ocean.
Kentucky is part of this story. Outsider Rand Paul, son of libertarian sensation Ron Paul, took the GOP nomination from the party establishment’s nominee.
The biggest news though came from Pennsylvania. While Democrats held onto Congressman John Murtha’s seat, an outsider businessman who was the GOP candidate came close in a district that should have been a cakewalk.
More tellingly, Democratic primary voters rejected Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, who had already been rejected so thoroughly in Republican primary polls that he switched parties months ago. Specter took into the Democratic primaries President Obama’s endorsement. In an ordinary year, this would have counted for a lot. The president’s Pennsylvania strength was a critical in 2008 to his national success. Already some are saying that Specter’s loss is another indication of Mr. Obama’s fall from voter favor.
That same message – fall from voter grace – was headlined even before the voting in the Washington Post on Sunday. The banner over a review of the newly released account of the president’s first year in office, Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, bespoke of the newly received conventional wisdom: “A gifted orator who can’t make his point.”
Journalists and political consultants like to talk about “the narrative,” as if politics were a movie script and truth and fiction were indistinguishable. The review presented the current insider-approved narrative on the Obama administration’s first year: the president is paying a noble price for such unpopular actions as the economic stimulus package and multiple bailouts that saved the nation from a depression. Meanwhile, we have mysteriously seen “flagging efforts” from the White House, “to communicate [the president’s] policies lucidly”.
A reality check is in order here. There is a lot you can say about the administration’s economic policies. Saving us from a depression is not among them. If monetary theory means anything, the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented run-up in the money supply between early September 2008 and Inauguration Day insured that we would come out of the downturn sometime between May and September 2009, which is what happened. Federal Reserve actions in late 2008 and early 2009 were directly in line with Chairman Benjamin Bernanke’s academic writings on how to respond to the kind of crisis we faced at the time. The best that can be said for the stimulus package is that it gave the newly elected administration a way to claim credit for an outcome that was already largely written in stone.
But what about the “flagging efforts to communicate… policies lucidly”? This is another key to the anti-Washington anger across the country this year, though not in the way Washington imagines.
For far from politics being a “narrative”, it is, ultimately, a quest for reality – reality about economics, national security, and national norms. When White House communications – or the communication of any public figure or institution – matches reality, it ultimately succeeds. When it deviates too far, it fails. Public anger this year has one cause: much of Washington – primarily but not only Democrats – has lost touch with reality.
The Tea Party attendees are only the most vocal element of an emerging consensus. Despite slanders from the old order, that consensus has focused on a reality known to every banker and finance minister in the world – that the United States is spending at a rate and accumulating debt to levels that test the limits of Adam Smith’s observation that “there is great deal of ruin in a nation.” Smith was reassuring a correspondent worried about the success of the American Revolution spelling the ruin of the United Kingdom, and Smith was, obviously, right to reassure the young man. But the United States today is in a different place.
The president and his White House have spent the last year and a half ignoring the real limits on national finances and the clear Constitution limits set on the national government’s power. If their communications lack lucidity, it is because their actions defy this reality, and they cannot candidly explain them.
The conflict of Washington narrative and national reality is the driving force behind the president’s incredible (for this time in a term) weakness in the polls, the outcomes to date in nominating conventions and primaries, and, indeed, all of American politics today.