The meaning of yesterday’s defeat — a follow-up to John’s post

I agree with John’s statement that America isn’t a center-right country. I’ve said this on Power Line and in other public settings, sometimes to derision. We are a center-center country, with the center drifting slowly but perceptibly to the left.

However, I disagree with the view that this election represents an unambiguous mandate for more government and “free stuff.” If that’s what the electorate wanted, it wouldn’t have voted in a House that won’t give them these things.

I agree with John that, with the way the culture is trending, the future favors more government and “free stuff.” But harsh economic realities may stand firmly in the way.

The worst part about last night is that America elected a president who, in my opinion, doesn’t care about dealing seriously with these harsh economic realities. He cares about creating a transformative legacy — one that consists essentially of more government and free stuff for certain groups, along European lines. Obama didn’t get himself elected to preside over cuts that would be inconsistent with such a legacy (i.e., cuts to things other than our defense). He’ll leave that to his successors.

By contrast, Mitt Romney’s legacy likely would have been a serious attempt to deal with the harsh economic realities that are about to smack us in the face. Unlike Obama, he regarded such an attempt as the good fight, and more than reason enough to become president. But Romney won’t have that opportunity. Considering the difficulties it would have entailed, he shouldn’t curse his luck too much.

Note, however, that Obama didn’t campaign as someone who is unconcerned with debt; nor did he campaign on a transformative platform. Instead, he campaigned on a program of dealing with the debt by taxing the rich. Once it becomes clear to Americans that we can’t solve the debt problem this way, he will be left high and dry. That’s fine with him, but it won’t be fine for his Party.

In any case, this election shouldn’t be read as a mandate to expand the government and hand out free stuff. And when Obama tries to accomplish these things, resistance will be fierce.

In early February 2011, I attended a dinner hosted by our friend Peter Robinson. After dinner, in discussing the election of 2010, several distinguished guests gushed that the Republican victory proved the pioneer spirit endures in America, a center-right country with a DNA that, when push comes to shove, is strongly resistant to government attempts to limit our freedom in exchange for free stuff.

I took issue with reading this sort of definitive judgment into one election. Given the shape of the economy in 2010, the Republicans were bound to perform well. But in normal elections, I argued, Republicans struggle to win on the pioneer spirit without more. To the dismay of some of Peter’s guests, I cited George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” as a key to his electoral success.

Today, I would guard against making the opposite error to the one espoused at Peter’s dinner, namely reading into this election the demise of the pioneer spirit and the victory of big government. Rugged individualism remains a strand in our politics, just as left-liberal collectivism does. The long-term trend seems to favor the latter strand. But events, some predictable and some not, will have their say.

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