Barack Obama survived his re-election, but he is suffering a form of Jimmy Carter’s fate nevertheless. The ambiguous idealism of Carter’s first run for the presidency was precisely what set the table for his downfall later on. Being a “blank screen” or the personal object of the enthusiasm of millions—these may play well when a candidate is unknown, but they are postures impossible to maintain as president. In both cases, they led inevitably to disappointment and disillusionment.
The moral of this story is not directed at Democratic politicians; it is meant for us, the liberal rank and file. We still “yearn to believe,” as Perlstein says. There is something about the Carter / Obama personality that appeals to us in a deep, unspoken way, and that has led Democrats to fall for a whole string of passionless centrists: John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. Each time, Democratic voters are enchanted by a kind of intellectual idealism that (we are told) is unmoored from ideology. We persuade ourselves that the answer to the savagery of the right—the way to trump the naked class aggression of the One Percent—is to say farewell to our own tradition and get past politics and ideology altogether. And so we focus on the person of the well-meaning, hyper-intelligent leader. We are so high-minded, we think. We are so scientific.
We are such losers.