Tyrrell’s Too Cheerful Thesis

Published June 5, 2014

To coin a phrase, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. has forgotten more about politics than I’ll ever know. His familiarity with great ideas and thinkers, his personal ties to some of the most important conservatives in recent history (Ronald Reagan visited his home!), and his affable writing style — not to mention that he founded the publication I write for — give me pause when considering even a modest contradiction of the man.

Perhaps RET is much more congenitally optimistic than I am about politics, but I cannot share his counseled optimism that a renewal of the “Liberal Death Wish” may cause the left to “go the way of the dinosaurs.”

No doubt, as in all areas of human endeavor, those who feel a strong sense of power or control or popularity tend to overshoot, to overestimate the public’s desire for whatever it is they’re selling. Whether it’s Sony Betamax, New Coke, Polaroid (their too-little-too-late decision to enter the digital camera market), Enron (more about fraud than about poor marketing), or Jimmy Dean’s Chocolate Chip Pancake-wrapped Sausage on a Stick (I’m not kidding), “smart” and otherwise successful people have made decisions which caused their brands something between embarrassment, real harm, or even complete destruction.

The living disaster that is the Obama administration fits squarely into this paradigm, doing great damage to the reputation of the Democratic Party and particularly of its radical subset — perhaps the majority of the party’s elected officials — known as “Progressives.”

But when you think about the biggest mistakes made by some of the biggest corporations, few have actually been fatal — at least on their own — to those companies. Sony and Coke each survived (and thrived) following two of the biggest blunders in marketing history. True collapses caused by a single decision or at least the medium-term implementation of that single decision may be famous but they’re not particularly numerous among already-large organizations — as which the Democratic Party would surely qualify.

Among the above examples, you’ll see a range of outcomes: New Coke was a very public and embarrassing stumble, but seemed to have approximately zero impact on Coca Cola’s long-term success. Sony never seemed to regain its luster as the worldwide leader in technology innovation (with the possible exception of the early ’80s popularity of the Walkman) but remains a profitable and important company. Polaroid’s refusal to adapt eventually caused its bankruptcy, but it took several years. And Enron’s bad behavior caused a rapid implosion with damaging losses to many people, not least thousands of innocent employees and relatives who held much of their life savings in the company’s stock. As for Jimmy Dean, I’m still upset that I can’t buy a chocolate-chip pancake-wrapped sausage on a stick but I doubt the company much cares.

When I think of the scandals, failure, and incompetence of the Obama administration, there is no doubt that they are causing serious injury to the public’s view of Democrats, radical leftists, and more broadly (and helpfully) the competency of government and the wisdom of an ever-larger state controlling an ever-larger part of our daily lives. (Recently released EPA rules and other schemes still being brewed up in Gina McCarthy’s witches’ cauldron in that most anti-capitalist and fundamentally anti-human bureaucracy will only add to this legacy.)

But is President Obama the Democrats’ New Coke or Betamax, or is he their Polaroid or Enron? Again a continuum: Does he signal a brief but insignificant bump in the road, moderate long-term damage to the reputation of an organization that will continue with at least some success, a catalyst toward an eventual failure, or a calamitous and precipitous ending?

RET, opining that “This present Liberal Death Wish, as with the last Liberal Death Wish, will probably only finish off the left” suggests something in between the last two. I submit it’s something closer to the first two. Rather than being the end of the brand, the Obama presidency will represent a bad but eventually surmountable miscalculation while those at the parent corporation avoid responsibility for the harm they’ve caused by fleeing to work, in a temporarily lower-profile way, for some other group whose business prospects are so weak that they’re willing to try anything. (In this case that group is British politicians.)

If I may switch metaphors, neither liberalism nor the political left is a creature to be killed. They are an aggressive cancer infecting the body politic that even the strongest courses of treatment leave able to recur, requiring the patient and his physicians to exercise vigilance and insist on regular follow-up examinations.

Too often, complacency after a few years of clean bills of health leads to missing the signs of recurrence, in turn requiring further rounds of chemotherapy — a treatment that often leaves the patient wondering if the cure is worse than the disease. In this case, the treatment is, ironically, a dose of the disease itself that is so massive it causes the body to react in a way that milder, though still harmful, episodes of the cancer had not engendered. (Is not the body an amazing thing?)

Indeed, I suggest that RET’s own examples argue against his optimistic conclusion: Following the disastrous, impoverishing, ridiculous presidency of Jimmy Carter and the near-destruction of the British economy by its Labour Party left, the two great nations elected Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, respectively.

Yet despite the huge successes of Reagan and Thatcher, a generation later we had Barack Obama and Gordon Brown. (For one of the greatest takedowns of any politician at any time, see MEP Dan Hannan’s three-minute comprehensive 2009 dismantling of Mr. Brown, many of the lessons of which apply to the reign of Barack Hussein Obama.)

Australia made a similar mistake, following the boring competent wisdom of John Howard with Julia Gillard, a woman who makes Nancy Pelosi look both moderate and intelligent. (Australia seems to have temporarily learned its lesson with the recent election of Tony Abbott, the second Aussie prime minister of the last decade whom I wished were instead president of the United States, and not just because his daughters are not bad looking.)

If a Democrat/liberal as obviously terrible as Jimmy Carter (a fact he keeps reminding us of by his refusal to go away) can be followed by a Republican/conservative as revered and successful (albeit not perfect) as Ronald Reagan yet the country would still elect BHO while so many Reagan voters remain, it demonstrates that liberalism cannot be killed, that a liberal “death wish” cannot, perhaps in line with liberal incompetence in everything else, actually succeed.

The international repetition of this pattern among countries that are some of the most similar to the United States in culture and temperament (as well as less-similar but still democratic countries, such as France) demonstrates that although our Declaration of Independence and Constitution may be unique, Americans’ human nature isn’t.

People forget, they’re fooled (again), they default into a bad decision by being offered unappealing alternatives such as John McCain and Mitt Romney who followed George W. Bush and Tom DeLay’s ruination of the Republican brand.

As a wise man once told me, if voters are given the choice between Democrats and Democrats-lite (and what else can you call the party of Medicare Part D), they’ll take the former almost every time. There’s a reason that one of Coke’s most successful tag lines was “The Real Thing.”

Since the bad behavior of Republicans is guaranteed to repeat itself, the return of Democrats is equally guaranteed. For those of us self-appointed physicians to the body politic, the best we can do following initial remission (which we can only hope will occur in the 2016 presidential elections) is to insist on regular check-ups and scans, to be ever-vigilant watching for a recurrence of the cancer that is progressivism, and to try to ensure that the body itself is strong enough to fight off the disease before more aggressive and unpleasant treatment, such as that suggested by Thomas Jefferson, becomes necessary.

As for a successful liberal “death wish,” that is no more likely than Karl Rove’s 2004 pipe dream of a “permanent Republican majority.” Furthermore, given that the purpose of government is not the dominance of a particular political party but instead to “secure these rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and since Republicans will always eventually let us down in that regard, a brief outbreak of the liberal illness (though less severe than that which we currently suffer from) is perhaps to be hoped for in the theory that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

If a liberal president like Bill Clinton could opine, as RET notes, that “the era of big government is over” only to have it return bigger than ever just a dozen years later, we should assume that the era will never really end; perhaps it may pause.

Even if I thought RET’s optimism were well-founded, I would caution against the complacency it can cause, both in the short term (such as the 2014 elections) as well as in the longer view. The final word on the subject should be the Gipper’s, from the end of his 1961 speech entitled “Encroaching Control“: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

[Originally published at The American Spectator]