Sunday, November 09, 2008

It could have been worse

The day after the election the media talked about Obama’s landslide. Some spoke about Omaba’s “mandate.” Many are talking about this election as being a repudiation of the past and a political realignment.

In 1936, FDR beat Alf Landon and won 61% of the popular vote and 98% of the electoral vote. That was a landslide. LBJ beat Barry Goldwater, winning 61% of the popular vote and 90% of the electoral vote. That was a landslide! In the election of 1972, Richard Nixon beat George McGovern winning 61% of the popular vote and 97% of the electoral vote. In 1984 Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale winning 59% of the popular vote and 98% of the electoral vote. That was a landslide! Barack Obama won 52% of the popular vote and 67% of the electoral vote. That is not a landslide.

Obama won by a comfortable majority. He did not win a broad mandate from the public. Democrats increased their lead in both houses of Congress but did not win the super majority necessary to ram through a radical legislative agenda. It could have been a lot worse. Republicans must use it judiciously and rarely, but the ability to filibuster can moderate the Senate Democratic majority.

In the House, the Republicans lost seats, but the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats increased their number. Together the Republicans and Blue Dogs can block a lot of the most irresponsible Democratic spending proposals.

I do not see that there was a major ideological shift this election. I think President Bush has been such a poor President that many people simply were voting against the Republican Party as a means of showing their displeasure with Bush. The American public did not suddenly wake up and renounce all they had previously believe and vote for a far left agenda. Certainly, Obama advocated, “spreading the wealth”, but he also promised tax cuts for 95% of the public. Middle class tax cuts is hardly a left-wing agenda item. Despite Obama’s liberal voting record and radical associations, he did not present himself as a revolutionary figure. He presented himself as a steady, moderate, pragmatic, centrist. That is what the public was voting for.

Obama talked about “change” but offered no radical proposals and never defined change. Even his health care proposal is not that radical. He does not call for a single-payer system or nationalization of health care. His health care proposal is to build upon the same system we have now. He would expand health care coverage but would continue the current system of employer provided insurance. While I think he is going to take us further down the wrong road, the public was not voting for a radical departure from what we have now.

His position on the war was not that radical. He promised to be out or Iraq in sixteen months. Unless there is reversal of current trends, most American combat roles would have been completed in sixteen months anyway. The Obama position on the war is a much less radical position than what some of his Democratic primary opponents were offering. Obama did not run on a peace platform. He promised a more aggressive war in Afghanistan, has said he would violate Pakistan’s national sovereignty by pursuing Al Qaeda across the border, and has said he would not permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

While part of his agenda is certainly radical, such as re-imposing the anti-free speech “fairness doctrine”, ended the secret ballot in union votes, and passing several gay agenda provisions, these issues received little prominence during the election. Most people probably did not even care about these issues and were not even aware of Obama’s position.

Given the low popularity of the sitting Republican president, an unpopular war, and the economic meltdown, it is a wonder that Obama did not win by a massive landslide. Prior to the economic collapse in Mid September, McCain was actually leading in the polls. I found that amazing. Obama ran a brilliant campaign and out-raised and out-spent McCain by almost two to one. The surprise in this election is not that Obama won, but that he did not win by the biggest majority in history.

If Obama actually governs as a centrist, I suspect that he will have a successful term in office and his popularity will remain relatively high. However, I suspect that even if he governs as a centrist, his popularity will never again be as high as the day he takes office. I also would not be surprised if Republicans do not retake one or both houses of Congress in two year or at least substantially cut into the Democratic lead.

One of the reasons Obama won by the margin that he did is because of all the newly registered Black voters and young voters. They were swept up in the enthusiasm of being part of a movement and electing the country’s first Black president. They turned out to vote for Obama in large numbers, and a Democratic Congress was elected on the strength of Obama’s coattails. Two years from now it will be difficult to get these new voters back to the polls to reelect the Democratic Congress. It will simply not be as gratifying to vote for your boring congressman as it was to make history and vote for the charismatic Barack Obama.

The other reason, I suspect that the Democratic lead will not hold is that many people voted the way they did because they blamed current office holders for the country’s economic woes and just wanted “change.” I do not think we will have a miraculous economic recovery. The country’s economic problems will not be solved in two years. The President is not Commander in Chief of the economy and the economy does not turn on a dime. I suspect things will get worse before they start getting better and in two years we will probably be in an economic recovery period. However, the public will not be satisfied by the modest improvements and will again blame current office holders. The “throw the bums out” sentiment will again be in play in 2010.

This election was certainly a defeat for Republicans and while there is little to be happy about, I think things could have been much worse. Republicans have a challenge ahead to rebuild the party but I do not think this election spells the end of the Republican Party and I do not think this election represents any kind of radical political sea change.

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  1. I recommend you go study the theory of realignments again, most realignments don't happen in one election. Also the eleciotns you mention, in 1964, 1984 and 88, those were at the end or middle of previous realignments, not realignments in themselves. A realignment represent a change in the issues that define the seperation of the major parties. The previous realignment was based on vietnam, civil rights and social/cultural issues. Which is why it was termed the culture wars realignment. Its the main reason social conservatives gained power.

    However that era is fading, and new issues are cropping up in their place, first off much of the electorate was too young or not even born during vietnam, in addition they aren't as divided over things like race, gays and Lesbians,and are turned off by the theocons, in addition the war that has defined their lives is Iraq, a very unpopular war. Finally is the economic crisis, an event seen as the fault of the GOP, whether fairly or unfairly is beside the point. They hate Bush, but they love Obama, if Obama succeeds these next four years there will be no success for the GOP in 2010 0r 2012, it will be a realignment, people will be voting for Obama and against Bush for the next few decades, long after both are out of office.

  2. Obama is a much more reasonable, moderate person than he was portrayed as by his opponents, no surprise there. The things that he wants to do are all necessary actions that, in fact, John McCain proposed to do also, in a different way.

    The Republican Party is going to have to take a close look in the mirror, though, if it wants to be competitive. Sure, people were mad a Bush, but Bush was just the reductio ad absurdum of Republican political thinking since Ronald Reagan.

    Go back to the idea of a lean government that does the necessary for the country and keeps out of people's personal business and you've got something.