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Obama's Greatest Triumph

Daniel_Henninger.jpegHe is six months away from destroying both the Republican Party and Reagan’s legacy.

 DANIEL HENNINGER, WSJ March 30, 2016 

Barack Obama will retire a happy man. He is now close to destroying his political enemies—the Republican Party, the American conservative movement and the public-policy legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Today, the last men standing amidst the debris of the Republican presidential competition are Donald Trump, a political independent who is using the Republican Party like an Uber car; Ted Cruz, who used the Republican Party as a footstool; and John Kasich, a remnant of the Reagan revolution, who is being told by Republicans to quit.

History may quibble, but this death-spiral began with Barack Obama’s health-care summit at Blair House on Feb. 25, 2010. For a day, Republicans gave detailed policy critiques of the proposed Affordable Care Act. When it was over, the Democrats, including Mr. Obama, said they had heard nothing new.

That meeting was the last good-faith event in the Obama presidency. Barack Obama killed 

politics in Washington that day because he had no use for it, and has said so many times. The Democrats survived the Obama desert by going to ground. But frustrated Republicans outside Congress eventually started tearing each other apart.

After Mr. Obama won in 2008, Democrats controlled the Senate and House with large majorities. Normally, a party out of power is disabled but not destroyed by the presidency’s advantages. Democrats, when out of power, historically remain intact until the wheel turns again. Their ideology has been simple: tax and spend.

The minority Republicans began well. In 2010, ObamaCare passed with zero Republican Senate votes, and Dodd-Frank with only one Republican Senate vote. It was a remarkable display of party discipline.

In the first term, Republicans and conservatives fought Barack Obama. In the second term, they decided it made more sense to fight each other.

Among the reasons is that the Republican leadership missed the messaging force of social media until it was too late. Congressional politics is mostly process. Modern politics is mostly message. The Obama message machine, “tax cuts for millionaires,” never stopped.

With no party spokesman for conservatism, an ideological vacuum existed. Freelance operators filled it.

They included two hyper-ambitious Senate freshmen, Marco Rubioand Ted Cruz. They also included a movement to purge and cleanse conservatism, led by groups such as Heritage Action and by talk radio hosts. Together they conjured an internal enemy—the Republican Establishment.

Conservatives complain constantly about the bias of the mainstream media. With the bar so low on website entry, members-only media alternatives emerged, such as RedState and Breitbart News.

But the hated MSM is essentially a Roman phalanx. It stays in formation and protects the progressive castle. The conservative alternatives showed no such discipline. Early into the second Obama term, they commenced an internecine political war.

The right began demanding that congressional Republicans conduct ritualistic suicide raids on the Obama presidency. The MSM would have depicted these as hapless defeats by presidential veto, but some wanted the catharsis of constant public losses—on principle.

By early 2015, when the primary season began, virtually all issues inside the Republican Party had been reframed as proof of betrayal—either of conservative principle or of “the middle class.” Trade is a jobs sellout. Immigration reform is amnesty.

With his Cheshire Cat grin, Barack Obama faded into the background and let the conservatives’ civil war rip. For Republicans, every grievance, slight or loss became a scab to be picked, day after day.

In time, the attacks on “the establishment” and “donor class” became indiscriminate, ostracizing good people in the party and inside the conservative movement. The anti-establishment offensive created a frenzy faction inside the Republican base. And of course, it produced Donald Trump.

The Trumpians and Cruzians, who of late have been knifing one another in a blind rage, say this is a rebirth. So was Rosemary’s baby.

The New York Times this week published a lead piece by Nicholas Confessore called “How the G.O.P. Elite Lost Its Voters to Donald Trump.” It is a gleeful, disingenuous and malign burial of the one thing the Democratic left never thought it could kill: Ronald Reagan’s conservative legacy.

The piece, which mostly transcribes the opinions of “some conservative intellectuals,” is a road map to Republican self-destruction, delegitimizing everything Ronald Reagan stood for—tax cuts, deregulation, entitlement reform, even economic growth. (Archaic footnote: Reaganomics produced an historic economic boom, for everyone, from 1983-90.)

Conservatives, it says, instead of challenging the economy Barack Obama rendered half-dead for two terms, now favor “wage subsidies, relocation aid” and “even targeted infrastructure spending.”

And Citizens United merely enabled the “donor class,” identified asPaul Singer and Charles and David Koch, who favor the discredited “Ryan budgets,” a proxy for Reagan.

In early 2015, Republicans were one election away from defeating a weak Democratic opponent and controlling both houses of Congress. Barring a miracle in Cleveland, they likely are six months away from losing two of those three plus the Supreme Court.

Barack Obama should frame the Confessore piece and hang it in the Obama Library. His presidency produced a moribund U.S. economy for eight years. In a response so bizarre that future historians will gape, the Republicans decided to destroy each other.

Write to henninger@wsj.com

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Obama's Greatest Triumph
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