Does Anti-Obama Fever Drive US Elections?
By Staff News & Analysis - May 21, 2010

Anti-Incumbent? Try Anti-Obama … Serious Democratic analysts concede it's their party that's facing trouble in the fall. The hordes are not massing at the gates of Washington—not yet. They won't arrive until after the midterm congressional election in November. Most are likely to be Republicans, a good number of them old Washington hands. Yesterday's primary elections, including the impressive victories of Republican Rand Paul in Kentucky and Democrat Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, didn't change that. The idea that anti-incumbent fever, striking equally at Democrats and Republicans, is the defining feature of the 2010 election is as misguided as last year's notion that President Obama's oratory would tilt the nation in favor of his ambitious agenda. Yet the media, echoing the Obama White House, has adopted anti-incumbency as the all-purpose explanation of this year's political developments. – Fred Barnes, Wall Street Journal

Dominant Social Theme: Barack Obama (left) is too radical for America and is getting what he deserves.

Free-Market Analysis: From our point of view an element of the American punditry is working overtime trying to portray upcoming House and Senate elections as an anti-Obama, pro Republican mandate. In fact, we believe that such portrayals are part of a larger dominant social theme – that Republicans are the party of free-markets and entrepreneurs and Democrats are the party of big government and socialism. Obama's socialist law-making has roiled the American electorate and soon there will be a Republican political resurgence as a result, these pundits maintain.

Certainly, Fred Barnes is not the only political pundit to explain of late that the current US elections are all about a reaction to Obama's over-spending and regulatory zeal. New York Times commentator Zev Chafets recently wrote an op-ed for the Times advancing a similar theory, though Chafets fingered conservative/Republican radio mogul Rush Limbaugh as the one organizing and focusing the backlash.

Humans are labeling creatures, but just because something – a trend, a movement, etc., – is named doesn't mean it has been accurately identified. Calling the current spectrum of conservative ideologies in the United States "Republican" may be a convenient short-hand but it has plenty of problems. The Republican party has never been exceptionally tidy in terms of its belief structures and participants, and it is probably less so today than ever.

In fact, from what we can tell, the US Republican party is riven; it's like a chopped up worm with each piece flopping about and seemingly trying to get as far away from the others as possible. The conservatives don't like the libertarians and neither of these groups like mainstream Republicans. The so-called country club Republicans are called RINOs, for Republicans-in-Name-Only and are not well-tolerated by the party's other elements. The conservative Christian Right is part of the "large tent" but separate in many ways from the rest of the Republican party – such as it is.

We have long-tracked Rush Limbaugh's career since the conservative radio personality became popular in the 1980s. But to position Limbaugh as an engine of the Tea Party movement, and maybe the main one, is perhaps to rewrite history. The Tea Party movement was – and to some degree still is – a libertarian movement that evolved in part, popularly, out of the famous Congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex) money bombs that were launched to support his presidential campaign. Chafets' analysis (at least somewhat inaccurate in our view) therefore supports Barnes' contention that the current US political dissatisfaction is aimed at Obama and is a direct result of his administration's spendthrift policies. Here's some of what Chafets wrote in the Times:

There are many theories for why very conservative Republicans seem to be doing so well lately, taking their party's Senate nominations in Florida, Kentucky and Utah, and beating Democrats head-to-head in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia. Some attribute this to a generalized anti-incumbent mood. Others say it reflects the tendency of parties in power to falter in midterm elections.

Recently it has been fashionable to ascribe right-wing success to the Tea Party movement. But the most obvious explanation is the one that's been conspicuously absent from the gusher of analysis. Republican success in 2010 can be boiled down to two words: Rush Limbaugh.

Mr. Limbaugh has played an important role in elections going back to 1994, when he commanded the air war in the Republican Congressional victory. This time, however, he is more than simply the mouthpiece of the party. He is the brains and the spirit behind its resurgence.

Is it really so simple? The trouble with this analysis is that it avoids recognizing the eight years of the George Bush presidency – which were an exercise in seemingly uncontrolled domestic and international spending. During his eight years in office, George Bush pushed his party and the political process toward a more activist, interfering, authoritarian and warlike government and opened up the fiscal and monetary resources of the public purse to do so.

In terms of his domestic agenda, Bush favored laws that leveraged the power of America's failing public school system through "No Child Left Behind." Bush tried and failed to turn on the flow of federal funds to America's religious institutions, which hitherto had been impervious to at least some of the corruptions of public money. He presided over a big increase in agricultural subsidies and later on a huge Medicare drug benefit. In the first half of his presidency, he added $1.5 trillion to the national debt.

In addition to creating new programs, Bush was generally hands-off when it came to old ones. He seems to have done little or nothing to rein in the abuses and corruption of the federal government itself, which still spends perhaps US$3 trillion (or even more now) on an absolutely un-trackable number of programs and other sorts of wealth-distribution initiatives.

Unlike Ronald Reagan who spoke out regularly against the US federal behemoth, Bush was apparently content to utilize the many levers of control provided to the president. In fact, after 9/11 Bush seems to have basically lost interest in trying to make the federal government smaller or more manageable. Instead, he presided over a huge reorganization and expansion of US intelligence agencies, started two wars and basically seems to have given the Pentagon a blank check, one that was renewed annually.

Of course, Obama's presidency has not been even a little bit better when it comes to profligacy. Faced with an economic downturn, the Obama administration presided over a bill that authorized nearly a trillion dollars in economic stimulus funds, not counting the trillions that the Federal Reserve had also released – mostly to big banks in the US and abroad. Obama's hard-fought health care program is expected to add hundreds of billions more in spending. Meanwhile, the spending, generally, of the federal government – which in 1999 made up 34.3 percent of gross domestic product – may soon grow to 40 percent.

The Obama and Bush presidencies are two sides of the same coin. Not only that, but the anger over the size and spending of the US federal government has been building for years – enhanced by detailed information to be found on the Internet and the current, grinding economic crisis. The Tea Party movement in America, despite the co-option attempts of certain Republican political entities, seems to us still to be a genuine expression of anger by US citizens over a federal government, especially, that seems impervious to the wishes of most voters. The anger was palpable under Bush (especially during his second term), as well as Obama. It is this anger that animates much of the electorate, including the various factions of the Republican party. And it is mostly this anger we would suggest, not necessarily Rush Limbaugh's rhetoric or organizational abilities, that is driving American politics today.

After Thoughts

It is certainly possible to try to explain the frustration that exists in America today as generated by one political party or another. But our perspective would be that the electoral rage (not too strong a word) is aimed at the system itself and will likely be increasingly difficult to channel neatly into the confines of a two-party structure. It is a problem for those who wish to perpetuate the system as it is, and one that likely has grave economic, investment and sociopolitical ramifications. It is therefore not a repudiation of one political party or another, but a growing rejection of America's modern political environment and business-as-usual. What comes next is currently difficult to see, but it may be much different than what has gone before, and even radically so. Denial and misleading explanations will not necessarily defer its arrival.