When Liberal Dreams Collide with Public Opinion

In the Bella Center on the south side of Copenhagen and in the Senate chamber on the north side of the Capitol, we're seeing what happens when liberal dreams collide with American public opinion. It's like what happens when a butterfly collides with the windshield of a speeding sport utility vehicle. Splat.

The liberal dreams may have seemed, on those nights in Invesco Field and Grant Park, as beautiful as a butterfly. But they are still subject to the merciless laws of political physics.

Eleven months ago, this did not seem inevitable. It was widely supposed that economic distress would increase America's appetite for big-government measures to restrict carbon dioxide emissions and control the provision of health care. Especially when a young, dynamic president employed his oratorical gifts to transcend, as he put it, old ideological and partisan divisions.

Obama's persuasive powers are surprisingly weak. His advocacy seems to have moved Americans in the opposite of the intended direction.

Barack Obama, who seemed so confident of his powers as he prepared for his inauguration, evidently believed that he could persuade Americans to support left-of-center policies that they had never favored before.

A Democratic Congress rejected Hillary Clinton's health care plan in 1994, and a unanimous Senate rejected the central provision of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. But this time, with a steep recession and a new leader, things would be different.

As snow fell on the global warming alarmists in Copenhagen and a winter storm made a beeline for the Capitol as the Senate was set to begin its round-the-clock weekend session, things don't seem that different at all.

The Copenhagen conclave seems to be unable to produce the promised binding treaty committing 100-plus nations to reduce carbon emissions. It seems likely to kick the can down the road to 2012.

One reason is that the leaders of China and India are unwilling to slow down the economic growth that has been lifting millions out of poverty in order to avert a disaster predicted by climate scientists who, we now know from the Climategate e-mails, have been busy manipulating data, suppressing evidence and silencing anyone who disagrees.

Another is that American voters have shown a growing skepticism of such predictions. The cap-and-trade bill that Obama hoped to brag about in Copenhagen now clearly has no chance of passage in the Senate. Obama talks of giving developing countries $100 billion to pay for emissions reductions. But the ABC/Washington Post poll reports that by a 57 to 39 percent margin Americans oppose donating even $10 billion.

Similarly, pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that only 34 percent of Americans say passing a Democratic health care bill is better than passing nothing, while 57 percent say it's better to pass no health care bill at all. That's also the opinion of Dr. Howard Dean, former Democratic national chairman, and the left-wing MSNBC pundit Keith Olbermann.

There is still some chance that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can corral 60 Democratic votes for whatever health care bill he unveils. But it's looking increasingly unlikely--and increasingly politically suicidal for some of those 60 Senate Democrats.

Bill Clinton has told those Democrats that they'd be better off politically passing something rather than nothing. But his own job rating swelled only after his health care proposals failed to pass.

"What's really exceptional at this stage of Obama's presidency," writes Andrew Kohut, the Pew Research Center's respected pollster, "is the extent to which the public has moved in a conservative direction on a range of issues. These trends have emanated as much from the middle of the electorate as from the highly energized conservative right. Even more notable, however, is the extent to which liberals appear to be dozing as the country has shifted on both economic and social issues."

From which we can draw two conclusions. One is that economic distress does not move Americans to support more government. Rasmussen reports that 66 percent of Americans favor smaller government with fewer services and only 22 percent favor more services and higher taxes.

The second is that Obama's persuasive powers are surprisingly weak. His advocacy seems to have moved Americans in the opposite of the intended direction.

Obama first came to national attention in 2004 by promising to heal partisan, ideological and racial divisions. Like the other two Democratic presidents elected in the last 40 years, he campaigned in the center and started off governing on the left. In Copenhagen and on Capitol Hill we are seeing the results. Splat.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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