What to Fear

Starting Wednesday I think we can expect a boom market for op-eds and television commentary darkly warning that if Democrats take advantage of winning the election to implement the agenda they outlined during the campaign, they’ll be punished, punished, punished at the polls. And not just from Republicans, but from loathesome creatures like Bob Kerrey and now Doug Schoen:

If the Democrats govern as if there is no Republican Party, they are likely headed to the kind of reaction that Bill Clinton faced when he made the same misjudgment after the 1992 election victory, following a meeting in Little Rock, Ark., with then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Tom Foley.

This is a pretty odd view of what Clinton did in 1993–94 (NAFTA, anyone?) but that aside, I just think it’s pretty blinkered to act as if the electorate has a deep commitment (or lack of commitment) to bipartisanship or some finely nuanced conception of moderation. Rather, voters tend to re-elect incumbents when things seem to be working out okay whereas they tend to punish incumbents — and those closely associated with incumbents — when things seem to be going poorly. What Democrats need to do if they want to prosper in 2010 and 2012 is deliver the goods. In other words, return the economy to prosperity, avoid terrible foreign affairs calamities, etc.

People will disagree, naturally, about the best way to do that. But the point is to try to get it right. If ex post conditions in the country look bad in 2010, then it’s not going to matter at all whether or not Obama’s decisions in early 2009 were ex ante popular. Conversely, taking some ex ante unpopular votes in 2009 that pay off in terms of making things much better by election day will be rewarded. Spending your days pondering what, exactly, the election constitutes a mandate for isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.