When Rome was "falling," did it feel like it? When all of the tasty, leafy fronds started vanishing, did the dinosaurs say, "So this is what extinction looks like"? When British troops signed up for a quick war, they expected to be "home by Christmas." They certainly didn't say "goodbye to all that" — in the words of Robert Graves — until long after they realized "all that" had in fact disappeared.
I'm beginning to wonder if the political moment is much, much more significant than most of us realize. The rules may have changed in ways no one would have predicted two years ago. And perhaps 10 years from now we'll look back on this moment and it will all seem so obvious.
In 2008, American liberalism seemed poised for its comeback. The pendulum of Arthur Schlesinger's "cycle of history" was swinging back toward a new progressive era. Obama would be the liberal Reagan.
Now that all looks preposterous. Of course, considerable blame can be laid at a White House that seems confused about how to relate to the American people when the American people don't share the White House's ideological agenda. Indeed, the White House seems particularly gifted at generating issues that put it crosswise with the majority of voters, from the Arizona immigration lawsuit to the cotton-mouthed explanations about whether or not it considers NASA's primary mission to be boosting the self-esteem of Muslim youth.
But it would be foolish to overread the importance of much of that. Politicians are sometimes dealt bad cards and play them well and sometimes they are dealt good cards and play them badly. But the basic political rules stay the same.
But what about when the rules change? For nearly a century now, the rules have said that tough economic times make big government more popular. For more than 40 years it has been a rule that environmental disasters — and scares over alleged ones — help environmentalists push tighter regulations. According to the rules, Americans never want to let go of an entitlement once they have it. According to the rules, populism is a force for getting the government to do more, not less. According to the rules, Americans don't care about the deficit during a recession.
And yet none of these rules seem to be applying; at least not too strongly. Big government seems more unpopular today than ever. The gulf oil spill should be a Gaiasend for environmentalists, and yet three quarters of the American people oppose Obama's drilling ban. Sixty percent of likely voters want their newly minted right to health care repealed. Unlike Europe, where protesters take to the streets to save their cushy perks and protect a large welfare state, the tea party protesters have been taking to the streets to trim back government.
But even on the continent the rules are changing. European governments have turned into deficit hawks to the point where the American president feels the need to lecture them on their stinginess.
Of course, he increasingly feels the same need here at home as our out-of-control debt is becoming a live issue, despite the fact that voters should be clamoring — according to the rules — for more taxpayer-funded jobs.
Barack Obama recently recruited Bill Clinton to stump for the Democrats as a surrogate because the former president is more popular than the current one. It's ironic because candidate Obama had once disparaged the Clinton presidency as not ambitious enough. Obama wanted to be a liberal Reagan who would reverse the rising conservative tide in American politics (just as he would reverse the rise of the oceans), not be the sort of president who accepted the tide and merely navigated its currents.
But is it really so outlandish to imagine that Bill Clinton, a creature spawned from politics like a golem from clay, had a better sense of political reality than the ivory tower intellectual currently occupying the White House? Clinton proclaimed the era of Big Government was over, and left office quite popular. Barack Obama said, in effect, "Oh no it's not" and his presidency and his party are in freefall, despite an economic climate that, according to the rules, says he should be not only running the table but be popular for it.
As a conservative, I'm very reluctant to believe that the rules change easily or often. And there's no end of explanations for the political climate that would leave the rules intact. But it's just becoming harder and harder to shake the feeling that something bigger than politics as usual is at work.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor at large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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