A new year, a new Congress. But, in all likelihood, we shall soon be witnessing the same politics.
2010 was a year of promises. Promises to return to common sense, to the American creed, to a simpler and better time before old and tired stratagems were tried ad nauseam on seemingly insurmountable problems. The world was black and white (or red and blue), politics was dice play, and there was a right answer and a wrong answer.
So was 2008.
2009 was a year of hubris, of dissension within political ranks, and ultimately of political learning. A year when the promisers went about trying to fulfill their promises, only to find out that what was presented to the electorate as new had already been tried before, so that what was cast as novel during the elections was quickly cast by the opposition as passé. Those who were so sure they were right just a year ago were humbled, and those who they had previously chastised coalesced into a powerful political movement.
2011 may pan out just like that.
Already, the Republican party is learning this year, as President Obama learnt in 2009, that it is easier to talk the talk during election year than to walk the talk in a post-election year. All political things in America are easier said than done. As Obama was under siege by his liberal base who wanted a public option for health-care reform in 2009, the Republican majority in Congress is already feeling pressure from the Tea Party movement to live up to its campaign promises. Two initial flashpoints can already be anticipated. First, Republicans pledged during the campaign to cut 100 billion from the federal domestic budget for this year (which would represent a 20 percent cut in non-security discretionary spending), but it is going to be very difficult for some Republican members (and some Republican Governors) to justify cuts in education, law enforcement, subsidies to business and farm groups. Second, the Tea Party is opposed to any further increase in the national debt limit, but it appears that doing so may be the only way to keep the government running.
Not even John Boehner’s House can stand if it were divided, but divided it will inevitably be when hard choices are placed before moderates and purists. It goes without saying that this puts Obama in a good position for 2012.
The alternating convulsions of American politics reveals something of the structural pathology of American politics, when politicians are beholden to ideologues – the ones with the energy and passion – are riled up enough to knock on doors, to donate to campaigns, and ultimately to turn out to vote – but these ideologues are often also the very people who cause their chosen leaders to veer off the political center and make their re-election less likely. And so far-left liberals (and not the Clintonites) carried Obama and Democrats into victory in 2008, but they were also the bane of the party in 2010. The Tea Party movement may well be a liability for Republicans in 2011, because as in 2008 and 2009, promises were made and an attempt to keep them has to be made, and sometimes this can mean political suicide.
It would appear that Democrats and Republicans are united in their commitment to repeat history, because we remain locked in a perpetual cycle of shouting matches where blocs of “engaged” citizens alternate turns to anoint new members into Washington’s ruling but unruly class. The Tea Party movement will be as instrumental to the rise of the Republican majority and its dissembling as the liberal base was for the ennobling and humbling of Democrats in the past political cycle.
So it is 2011, the year before we come back to the future in 2012.