Tamping Down Expectations – Will It Work?

After feeding off of emotional rhetoric and high-flying promises of the campaign, Democrats are now trying to lower expectations.

Democratic leaders are tamping down on expectations for rapid change and trying to signal they will place a calm hand on the nation’s tiller.

“The country must be governed from the middle,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday. Repeating themes from election night, she said she plans to emphasize “civility” and “fiscal responsibility.”

Of course Nancy Pelosi had no desire nor has she made any attempt to “govern from the middle” in this last Congress. And “civility” has certainly not been a priority. Please excuse me if I find her promises a bit hollow. There’s the obvious difference in what she and I would probably identify as “the middle” and certainly as to what defines “civility”. No doubt we’d also not see eye-to-eye on how we define “competence”.

Of course dampening expectations is certainly a necessity, given what has been promised and what can realistically be delivered in this financial climate. So in the next two months expect a lot of this from various Democratic leaders – especially in Congress. Why Congress?

Well, they claim to have learned a lesson from Republicans, of all people:

Yet, they face massive expectations for change and deep-seated fears of overreaching. But senior aides say they’ve learned from the mistakes of the past. Nearly every member of the current Democratic leadership in the House served through the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton was elected president. Two years later, the GOP gained control of Congress.

More recently, they’ve watched Republicans go from complete dominance to minority status in the space of two elections.

“The difference is we have the benefit of experience in seeing what happens when you gain control,” said a senior Democratic aide. “I do not envision a scenario where we’d go off on an ideological mission in an undisciplined way.”

But there are a lot of itchy trigger-fingers under the capital dome. There’s also their abysmal approval ratings.

That leaves them with two ways to approach this: one, get all you can while you can, understanding that in 2 years it might all change again – to the benefit of the opposition – and not allow you to pass those things you desperately want to pass, or two, be disciplined, take little steps, disappoint your constituency and see it all change again in 2 years anyway.

Knowing how “disciplined” Democrats have been in the past and how ineffective the Congressional leadership has been, I don’t see any imposition of that sort of discipline as being particularly effective for very long. With their eyes on their own races in two years, Democratic legislators are going to want to deliver on what they’ve promised. What they’ve run on are all the promises Obama made.

So if Congressional leadership eventually erodes in terms of enforcing discipline, that shifts another leadership burden on Obama. Ironically, he may end up having to be the brake on Congress. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in his past to indicate he’d be willing or able to stand up to his own party. Of course that would certainly be a step toward governing from the middle, but it is something which remains unknown at this point. Add the fact that Congress is going to be trying to put his promises into legislation and pass it, and you can see that the incentive to act as a brake is severely eroded.

As for this attempt to lower expectations, my sense is that won’t be successful and, in fact, pressure will build very quickly to start the promised “change”. Those who enthusiastically endorsed and supported Obama and the Democrats aren’t going to want to wait for the payoff. And the economic ignorance that the Democrats so willingly exploited during the campaign could now be their undoing as their constituency demands they go full speed ahead in an economic climate that simply won’t support it.

So while Democrats appear to believe they can exert the discipline necessary to “govern from the middle” and delay putting their agenda into full motion until the economy improves, the pressure to go farther and faster is definitely going to be there. As they’ll likely discover, they can exert all the discipline in the world, but overpromising and not delivering is precisely what caused the Republicans their problems. In the Republicans case it was all about their promises to reform government and cut spending, and they did neither.

The Democrats are all about expanding government and spending. And in normal financial times, that would be something they could do (whether we like it or not). What they don’t seem to understand, however, is all the “discipline” in the world, even in the face of financial disaster, won’t change the expectations that have been built on the promises they made. In fact, in the face of the financial disaster, the demand for more government and more relief may increase.

So while they claim to have learned their lesson, they are smack dab in the middle of having to live up to their promises. If they don’t, their stock is lowered. If they do, they may deepen the financial problems of the country. If there is a safe middle ground, I certainly don’t see it. And I also don’t believe the Democrats really have or can exert the discipline necessary to walk that narrow path if it even exists.

[Crossposted at QandO]

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