Richard Wolffe: Democrat doom may turn to delight as Tea Party politics kick in

The United States appears to be heading in Britain's direction: towards spending cuts and power-sharing between rival parties
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The Independent Online

Barack Obama has never been short of unsolicited advice. This week brings an unusually large windfall of wise words from pundits and politicians who have never understood him but would still like to change him.

From the beginning of his unlikely journey to the White House, when I first started covering and interviewing him, most of Washington thought he needed to be more like the Clintons. Today is no different.

They say he obviously needs to triangulate with both parties, as Bill Clinton did after his bloodbath in 1994. And he clearly needs to win the older, white, working Democrats who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2008.

All that may be true. But there are a few small problems: he isn’t a Clinton. The Republican party of 2010 is not the same as it was two decades ago. And the economy is far more challenging than at any recent time. Besides, from what I know of President Obama, one of his many ambitions is to avoid Clinton’s fate and record.

Talking to Obama’s aides before the midterm elections, they displayed a strangely conflicted set of emotions: doom at the impending losses, and delight at what might follow. In fact many believed that the dynamic inside the Republican party – between the Tea Party and the presidential candidates already lining up their campaigns – was positively encouraging.

This isn’t Clintonian triangulation; it’s three-dimensional chess. There are several Republican parties to work with or against: the moderates who now represent states and districts that Obama won, the presidential contenders, and the Tea Party mascots. And this is not a president who will be left so far out of the national debate that he will be forced, like Clinton in 1995, to argue that the president is still relevant. Obama remains at the center of the stage, with a Senate still under his party’s control, with approval ratings that are surprisingly robust.

Yet he does need to return to his roots, which is why his aides were upbeat about what lies ahead.

Obama’s original brand is the politician who could rise above partisan politics, unite the so-called red and blue Americas, and reform the ways of Washington. The Tea Party’s extremism – its candidates’ support for abolishing whole government departments and ending popular social safety nets – makes it much easier for Obama to return to his default position: above the fray. For far too long in 2009, his main job seemed to be negotiating with his own squabbling Democrats.

Progressives may not like a president who stays above the fray. But independent voters, who decide American elections, do – and they just flipped their voting preference from Democrat to Republican.

Tuesday’s results suggest this strategy is based on far more than just clutching at straws. Yes, the congressional elections were a disaster for Obama’s Democrats almost across the country. Old and new, centrist and liberal, all got swept aside in the third Change election in a row. What voters gave to Democrats in 2006 and 2008, they took away in 2010.

Yet voters also stopped far short of embracing Republicans or the Tea Party. They did not hand over control of the Senate, and they still blame the Bush administration – and Wall Street – for the dismal state of the economy.

Understanding that mixed message – that rejection of both parties and politics as usual – will be key to the survival of President Obama, the Republican candidates who want to unseat him, and the new conservative majority in the House of Representatives. Otherwise 2012 will be the fourth Change election in a row.

To understand that mixed message, and the new political landscape for the president, you only need to drive a couple of hours outside Washington.

Every election night has its moment: A single result that crystallizes the complex patterns in one seemingly simple image. On Tuesday that moment came in the coal-mining state of West Virginia. When the Democrat Joe Manchin beat his Tea Party-backed rival John Raese by a comfortable 10-point margin early in the evening, it was clear where the limits of Republican and Democratic power would now lie.

Manchin is the popular governor of an economically struggling state that never warmed to Barack Obama in the primaries or general election of two years ago. But the polls suggested he was in deep trouble as he tried to win election as a senator, not least because his own voters disliked Washington and Obama.

Manchin ended the Republican hopes of a clean sweep in the Senate. But he also won in no small part with a TV ad that showed him firing his shotgun through a copy of climate change legislation. I guess that means he isn’t going to vote for it.

At the same time, as governor, he signed legislation requiring electricity companies to generate a quarter of their power from alternative sources, including so-called clean coal. For those around the world looking to President Obama for action on climate change, this is the new reality: incremental measures, shaped by regulatory action and incentives for industry, relying on dubious new technology.

Manchin’s victory also exposed the electoral disaster that is the Tea Party. His opponent was like those other Tea Party-backed candidates in Delaware, Nevada and Alaska. He was untested, unvetted and wholly unready for prime time. His family spent so much time living in Florida that his wife was ineligible to vote in West Virginia. And in difficult economic times, he found enough spare cash to repave his driveway with pink marble. The populist appeal of the Tea Party only goes so far.

Will Republicans learn from those mistakes? Unlikely. According to exit polls, the de facto leader of the Tea Party movement – Sarah Palin – is already running strongly in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina. Whether or not the Tea Party candidates can win general elections is almost unimportant; they have already demonstrated their ability to win primaries, and therefore shape the identity of Republicans.

Within weeks, Obama will be testing the Republican – and Tea Party – rhetoric to breaking point. If the new Republican leaders and members are serious about cutting the federal deficit, they will need to compromise on their first big vote: extending the Bush tax cuts, especially for those making more than $250,000 a year. Soon after that vote, the president’s bipartisan deficit commission will be making recommendations on how to bring the budget into line. You can’t do that by leaving taxes untouched, even as you deal with spending.

Political junkies in Britain often look across the Atlantic for a sign of things to come. Cameron lifted some of Obama’s campaign themes; Blair followed Clinton’s third way to power. But after this week the United States appears to be heading in Britain’s direction: towards spending cuts and power-sharing between rival parties.

The only question is whether there is any equivalent of the Liberal Democrats in a Congress whose most vocal figures want to follow Sarah Palin.

The writer is author of 'Renegade: The Making of a President' (June 2009); his book 'Revival, the Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House' is published later this month