The Great Repudiation

From its forthcoming issue the Claremont Review of Books has posted Professor James Ceaser’s essay on the meaning of the mid-term elections. The morning after the elections I referred to them as “a stunning repudiation” of President Obama; Professsor Ceaser describes them as “The Great Repudiation.” Professor Ceaser writes:

2010 is the closest the nation has ever come to a national referendum on overall policy direction or “ideology.” Obama, who ran in 2008 by subordinating ideology to his vague themes of “hope” and “change,” has governed as one of the most ideological, partisan presidents. Some of his supporters like to argue in one breath that he is a pragmatist and centrist only to insist in the next that he has inaugurated the most historic transformation of American politics since the New Deal. The two claims are in tension. Going back to 2009’s major political contests, beginning with the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey and the Senate race in Massachusetts, the electorate has been asked the same question about Obama’s agenda and has given the same response. The 2010 election is the third or fourth reiteration of their negative judgment, only this time delivered more decisively. There is only one label that can describe the result: the Great Repudiation.

Among the important observations Professor Ceaser makes along the way is this one:

For many Republicans, and especially the Tea Party movement, the economic issues were linked to a deeper concern. The size of government and the extent of the federal debt represented not only a burden on future generations and a threat to American power, but also a violation of the spirit and letter of the Constitution. The Tea Party, in particular, with its Jeffersonian ideas, has reintroduced the Constitution into the public debate, a place that it has not held in the same way for over a century. This theme is what connects the Tea Party to the American tradition and makes their concerns matters of fundamental patriotism. The stakes in the 2010 election for these voters went far beyond economic questions, and for Democratic leaders to reduce everything to frustrations about “the economy, stupid” represents a final act of belittlement.

Here is Professor Ceaser’s conclusion:

Along with the Democrats’ open campaign to persuade the public that the election did not mean what Republicans thought it did, there is an allied effort underway, far more subtle, to undermine and weaken the GOP position. It comes from a group of self-proclaimed wise men who present themselves as being above the fray. These voices, acting from a putative concern for the nation and even for the Republican Party, urge Republicans to avoid the mistake of Obama and the Democrats of displaying hubris and overinterpreting their mandate. With this criticism of the Democrats offered as a testimony of their even-handedness and sincerity, they piously go on to tell Republicans that now is the time to engage in bipartisanship and follow a course of compromise. The problem with this sage advice is that it calls for Republicans to practice moderation and bipartisanship after the Democrats did not. It is therefore not a counsel of moderation, but a ploy designed to force Republicans to accept the overreaching policies of the past year-and-a-half. It is another way to defend Obama’s “change.” If Republicans are to remain true to the verdict of 2010, the message of this election cannot be merely containment; it must be roll back.

Professor Ceaser alludes to the Cold War foreign policy that was framed as a contest between “containment” versus “rollback.” The advocates of one version or another of containment won the day in the Cold War. See, for example, John Lewis Gaddis’s Strategies of Containment. On the home front, however, rollback is the only path to liberation.


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