The Limits of Victory

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American voters rebuked the president’s impatient leaps toward statism by ending his party’s control over the House of Representatives. This is important: Obama’s ability to force ill-conceived bills into law is gone.

Yet voters showed restraint, even in their rebuke. Some of the candidates who had been the most strident critics of the president did not win their elections.

Much attention was paid to the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Delaware, a seat left open when Joe Biden became vice president. Biden had tried to stage-manage events so that his son could take over in a few years. Roughly stated, the scheme was to arrange the election of an ancient and amiable Republican “moderate,” who would keep the senate seat warm for Biden fils. Local voters, sensing and resenting the scheme, booted the seat-warmer and chose one Christine O’Donnell in the GOP primary. If nothing else, she and her supporters should be applauded for foiling Biden’s dynastic ambitions.

Statist media types insisted that Ms. O’Donnell was a “face of the Tea Party” movement for the 2010 elections, but this was an exaggeration. Although she did have the support of one large Tea Party group, Rush Limbaugh, and (relatively late in the process) Sarah Palin, O’Donnell never seemed comfortable making the case for limited government. In fact, she never seemed comfortable at all. She stumbled into several statements that made her sound like an inexperienced religious fundamentalist.

O’Donnell is a particular sort, fairly common on the coasts and in college towns. She’s a contrarian who lives by the feud with “liberals” and establishment elites. Rather than ignoring their barbs, she engages statists on their ground — bickering over trivia rather than making affirmative arguments. Example: during a critical televised debate, O’Donnell artlessly (though correctly) made the point that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the constitution. Her opponent, an effective rhetorical mechanic, was able to make her precision sound like small-mindedness. He won the election easily.

When the unions figure out that their precious pension systems are underfunded (nay, bankrupt), they’re going to march up and down the Strip with Harry’s head on a pike.

Much attention was also paid to the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by shady cretin Harry Reid. Sharron Angle, another “face of the Tea Party” and a former state legislator from Reno, mounted a credible challenge to the sitting Senate majority leader. In front of smaller groups (including FreedomFest last July), Angle made an effective case for limited government. But, like O’Donnell, she wasn’t very smooth in front of cameras.

More importantly, Reid counted on his sleazy Big Labor masters in the Las Vegas area to mobilize the minions. On election night, a talking head on one of the cable television channels boasted that Labor “really flexed its muscles” for Reid. Asked which unions, particularly, got out the vote, he said, “SEIU, AFSCME, and, uh, the AFL-CIO.” In other words, two government-employee unions and an umbrella organization that includes . . . government-employee unions.

Reid’s retention of his seat (and his party’s retention of a narrow majority in the Senate) was a triumph of sullen government clerks. When these people figure out that their precious pension systems are underfunded (nay, bankrupt), they’re going to march up and down the Strip with Harry’s head on a pike.

The real face of the Tea Party, an election-eve winner who will likely make life difficult for Reid and others, is Kentucky’s senator-elect Rand Paul. The son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul (and, like his father, a medical doctor), the new Gentleman from Kentucky has already been battle tested. During his campaign, he stuck to his critique of the “public accommodations” language in the Civil Rights Act. This was a courageous and coherent criticism of a troubling section of black-letter law. Paul made it and won. He should do a lot to keep the statists of both major parties honest.

But the key to keeping the statists in check will be the House of Representatives, not the Senate. And the new speaker of the house will be Ohio Rep. John Boehner. Not known as a small-government idealist, the new speaker did make some heartening comments in the hours after the GOP reclaimed the House. He restated his opinion that Obamacare is a “monstrosity” that he would like to overturn.

The manner in which he tries to do this will be important. The whole law needs to be revoked and rescinded. Parliamentary compromises and budgetary tricks aimed at trimming the edges will not be enough to save the country from the mischief that this perverse “reform” is already causing.

Lastly, it’s worth noting the president’s press conference on the day after the midterm elections. Living up to his burgeoning reputation for being thin-skinned and petulant, he hemmed and hawed on the matter of his role in his party’s congressional losses: “Some election nights are more fun than others. . . . We lost track of the ways we connected with the folks who got us here in the first place. . . . I've got to do a better job, like everybody else in Washington.”

In moments of adversity, Obama’s rhetorical skills vanish. He sounds and looks like a man who’s been graded on a curve his whole life.

Sixteen years earlier, in similar circumstances, Bill Clinton called a press conference and took responsibility more directly and emphatically for his party’s losses. After that press conference, he changed the course of his presidency, proceeding pragmatically through a reelection and second term. But Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton.

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