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Voters Are Desperate for Political Leadership

Voters Are Desperate for Political Leadership

By Daniel Henninger - November 5, 2009

Welcome to the permanent American tea party.

You will recall how when the tea-party movement erupted during the congressional recess in August, it was spun on the left that these events were the creation of conservative ideologues. At the start, yes. By the end, though, it was about anxieties deeper than that.

The GOP is now spinning the results in Virginia and New Jersey as proof that voters are fed up with the liberal ideologues in the White House and Congress. Yes, but it's deeper than that.

What was learned Tuesday is that the American voter is absolutely, totally, unremittingly disgusted with both political parties. More than anything, the American voter is desperate for political leadership.

That electorates in two politically significant states, led by the widening independent movement, could swing within one year from enthusiasm for electing Barack Obama to support for Virginia's OK Republican Bob McDonnell and New Jersey's lackluster Chris Christie is simply astonishing.

Add another American metaphor to the political landscape: the cattle stampede. Independent voters across the U.S. have become like the massive cattle herd John Wayne drove from Texas to Kansas in "Red River." These voters are spooked and on the run, a political stampede that veered left in November 2008 and now right a mere year later. They will keep running--crushing incumbents, candidates and political models of the left and right--through November 2010 and onto 2012 until they find a person or party capable of leadership appropriate to our unsettled times. And yes, Virginia, the possibility of a man on a white horse in 2012 is not out of the question.

Exit polls in New Jersey and Virginia said the economy was on voters' minds. Unemployment is near 10% and may stay there for a year. But it's deeper than that.

This isn't just another turn in the business cycle. On Sept. 15, 2008, the economic structure of the U.S. imploded. Lehman Brothers, a synonym for the American financial bedrock, filed for bankruptcy. On June 1, 2009, General Motors, once a synonym for American economic primacy, filed for bankruptcy and was effectively nationalized. In the nine months between these two iconic events, the American people were riveted to news of economic distress.

The signal event of the 2008 presidential election was the day in September when Sen. John McCain "suspended" his campaign to deal with the financial crisis. Within 48 hours, his candidacy stood naked. Mr. McCain's instincts were right; The American people wanted leadership. But he didn't have a clue how to provide it. The restless herd ran toward Barack Obama.

Now they're ready to run toward someone else. They just did in New Jersey and Virginia.

This is not normal. A new American presidency, especially this one, should not be in this much trouble 10 months into a four-year term. Nor would it be if not for the economic events that fell out of September 2008.

Absent the immediate need to steady the credit markets and deal with a deepening recession, the Obama White House would have introduced--and passed--its restructuring of the U.S. health-care system in early spring. Instead, voters watched Congress create and pass a nearly trillion-dollar "stimulus" bill, and then erect the world's tallest national budget--a towering $3.5 trillion. They watched the Obama Treasury, now hard-wired to the Federal Reserve, intervene massively in the structure of the private economy. There was an attempted federal climate-control bill, an attempted expansion of union organizing rights (card check) and second thoughts on free-trade agreements.

Only then, in June, was this hyperactive government able to introduce its health-care proposal--the public option, the remaking of the insurance industry, a 5.4% tax surcharge, the expansion of Medicaid.

After his election, Mr. Obama's strongest attribute was limitless self-confidence. He was a man aglow with knowledge, control and . . . leadership. Now, with the scale and cost of Mr. Obama's ambitions so clear, the question many voters are asking is whether the Obama government's reach exceeds its grasp or abilities--or any government's.

The most acute voters know these are not normal times. The Obama vision so far looks a lot like the social-market economic model of Europe, where leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel give homilies about the "crisis" of capitalism. If American voters then look toward Asia, they see rising economies using capitalism to supplant Europe.

American voters know they've reached a long-term economic tipping point. Which way to go, old West or new East? They understand the challenges are growing while the politicians seem to be shrinking.

So the Republicans "won" Tuesday. Now what?

Just as the Democrats in 2008 ran mainly against "Bush," the Republican political model seems to be to let Democratic failure dump states like New Jersey and Virginia into their control. But I think most voters, no matter their party registration, know that in the past 12 months the stakes for them have suddenly become larger than political "control."

Unless leadership emerges equal to the new world voters see they have fallen into, volatility in America's election returns is going to be the norm for a long time.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
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