That same year, the New Politics became bipartisan. Contrary to claims from both its left-wing critics and right-wing fans, George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was not an alternative to Clinton's feel-your-pain liberalism; it was a Republican version of it. Unlike his father, W. was obsessed with convincing voters, particularly swing voters, that he cared, that he was a "different kind of conservative." When somebody hurts, he said, government has to move. By the end of his presidency, compassionate conservatism was in tatters. The left couldn't spot any compassion; the right couldn't identify much conservatism.
But Bush succeeded in conjuring forth the greatest expression of the New Politics in living memory: Barack Obama. One thing was clear about Obama's candidacy: It was all about the poetry of "genuine feeling." He may have been cool and aloof, but supporting him was a statement of passion, of self-image. He made supporters feel good about themselves. "We are the ones we've been waiting for," he said. "We are the change that we seek."
Obama insisted that his rhetoric wasn't "just words" but something greater, more profound -- certainly not the "bad poetry" that Wilde and Kristol attacked. But it was hard to find the substance. "What's troubling about the campaign," warned liberal historian Sean Wilentz, "is that it's gone beyond hope and change to redemption."
The campaign officially ended last November, but Obama has spent much of his presidency acting as if he hadn't gotten the news. The problem is that Obama's New Politics approach is great for a presidential campaign, and it can even work for a presidency -- when times are going well, as they were in the 1990s. But when times are tough, as they are now, Americans want decisions, action, progress.
That is certainly the case for the president's own political base, which seemed almost as annoyed with his Nobel Peace Prize as his opponents did. They want to stop celebrating his potential and start celebrating his accomplishments -- which means getting something more concrete than words on health care, jobs, the war and, increasingly, gay rights. And if that spells the end of "New Politics," good riddance.
Obama's feelings are sincere and genuine, as Wilde and Kristol would say. But we are at the point at which the gifted poet must distinguish himself from the amateur. Is the poetry a means to an actual end? Or is it all there is?
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