It's pretty clear that Democrats are less enthusiastic about voting this year than Republicans. The latest evidence comes from Gallup, which reports that Republicans' 3 percent edge in congressional voting among registered voters increases to 13 and 18 points when you include just those likely and very likely to actually vote.
So why are Democrats less enthusiastic? And why has “the progressive donor base,” as Democratic consultant Jim Jordans reports, “stopped writing checks”?
I don't think it's just because the economy remains sour or that President Obama failed to jam a public option in the health care bill.
I find a more convincing explanation in an offhand phrase in a subordinate clause in a brief article by Adam Serwer of the Center for American Progress on the Washington Post's opinion pages. “There's no question,” Serwer writes, defying anyone to disagree, “that Obama has completely reversed on his promises to roll back Bush-era national security policies.”
For it is not economics but foreign policy that has motivated the left half of the Democratic Party over the last decade.
When Howard Dean's supporters were declaring that they wanted to “take our country back” in 2003 and 2004, they weren't talking about repealing the Bush tax cuts. They were talking about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and taking a more conciliatory and respectful stance to the leaders of Old Europe and revolutionary Iran.
Similarly, Obama's refusal in 2007 and 2008 to admit that there was even a smidgen of success to George W. Bush's surge strategy in Iraq — even today he will only hint that the surge worked — cannot be chalked up to an intellectual incapacity to assimilate the facts.
It can only be explained as an unwillingness to rile the base of the Democratic Party whose concerns, as we know from Bob Woodward's account of the president's conduct of deliberations over what to do in Afghanistan, are never far from his mind.
Nevertheless, he has left these Democrats disappointed.
They hoped to see an abject and abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq within weeks of the Obama inauguration. They hoped to see a beginning of withdrawal from Afghanistan not in July 2011 but in the early months of 2009. They hoped to see the detention facility at Guantanamo closed and shuttered and the detainees tried in civilian courts or freed to regale the media with tales of torture.
The uncomfortable truth is that many — not most, but many — Democratic politicians and Democratic voters saw political benefit in an American defeat in Iraq. Many, including Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, then boss of Obama's new chief of staff Pete Rouse, thronged to the Washington premiere of Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 9/11.” They tried to give every appearance of agreeing with the “Bush-lied-people-died” crowd and with those who charged that high-ranking officials colluded in systematic torture.
It was a lot of fun while it lasted, up to election night 2008 and Inauguration Day 2009. But then Obama had to govern. Knowing little of military affairs, he retained Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has loyally served presidents of both parties. Understanding even if not admitting the great headway Americans had made in Iraq, Obama declined to throw it all away.
Appreciating that Afghanistan was critical to protecting Americans, he made a commitment to increase troop levels there in May 2009, reconsidered it from August to November, then restated it Dec. 1, with a commitment to begin withdrawals in July 2011.
In so doing, Obama implicitly confessed that the view of the world held with quasi-religious fervor by the Democratic left was delusional all along. Bush didn't lie, we didn't go into Afghanistan and Iraq without allies and against their wishes, we didn't carry out policies of torture, etc. The effort to cast Iraq as another Vietnam and America under Bush as an oppressive rogue power were perhaps emotionally satisfying but unconnected to reality.
Without saying so, Obama has found himself having to teach this lesson to the Adam Serwers of the world. They don't like hearing it. They're keeping their ears plugged up and their eyes defiantly shut. Their MyObama Web pages are inactive and their checkbooks are closed. They've tuned out of the campaign and many of them won't even vote. The president they helped elect — and the world — have turned out not to be what they thought.
Michael Barone,The Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.