Watchdog Blog

Saul Friedman: Beware the Conventional Wise Guys

Posted at 4:37 pm, November 6th, 2008
Saul Friedman Mug

In my first post on this site, after many years covering politics, I warned that we should “run like hell” from the conventional wisdom. Well, Sen. Barack Obama has barely gotten used to being President-elect Obama and here came the conventional wise guys. Their message: don’t overreach…govern to the bipartisan…

Even before the election, the dean of CW, Washington Post columnist David Broder, cautioned Obama that he should “signal the world that he will impose the kind of discipline needed to prevent runaway inflation and a run on the dollar.” And even as Obama was winning, CNN pundits were warning that he could overreach and move too far and too fast to the left and lose his mandate.

Columnist Robert Novak called George W. Bush’s close electoral vote win in 2004 a mandate because he won by 3.5 million votes. But on Nov. 5, Novak wrote that Obama had not “received a broad mandate from the public” although he won the electoral vote count by more than 2-to-1 and had a margin of 7.5 million popular votes.

The rationale for these admonitions, from people who were wrong about Obama’s chances and most other issues, was that the election proved America was a “center-right” nation. This from most of the commentators and television pundits. Even the estimable David Gergen suggested Obama needed to include several Republicans in his cabinet. And Broder, quoting another winner, John Kerry, suggested Obama had to build bipartisan coalitions.

In issuing these warnings and advice, columnists and commentators cited the tradition that the party that wins the presidency loses in the next congressional elections. But the last time a president confronted the kind of economic crisis we’re now in, Franklin D. Roosevelt governed far to the left and he was as partisan as presidents can get at the outset. In his first 100 days he laid the foundation for the legislation–Social Security and unemployment insurance–that are serving us now. The Democrats increased their congressional majorities in 1934 and, of course, FDR won an unprecedented victory in 1936, despite Kansas, which never seems to have learned.

The pundits also cite Lyndon Johnson, who won a sweeping victory in 1964 and lost heavily in the congressional elections of 1966. True, but Johnson was getting tied up in Vietnam and in the meantime he had given the country social legislation not matched since Roosevelt: Medicare, Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the prime civil rights acts. Bill Clinton lost Congress in 1994, but he had become the target of an unprecedented ideological war to discredit him. He won a second term anyway.

Here’s a lesson for the punditocracy: These are not the best of times, these are not conventional times and Barack Obama, as should be obvious by now, is not a conventional politician.

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