So we lost. I don't like it a bit, but it's not exactly a surprise, and there it is. What is one to make of it all?
The Historic Moment
A great many people have commented on the historic nature of a black man being elected president of the United States -- when in some states he would not have been served at many lunch counters fifty years ago.
I'm glad that those who are deeply inspired by that are having their moment -- people should realize that skin color is not a barrier to achievement in the US and if that helps people (black, brown and white) realize that, all to the good. I must admit, as a 29-year-old who grew up in the working class suburbs of Los Angeles, I've figured for basically all my life that it's simply a matter of time till we had our first black president, our first hispanic president, out first female president, etc.
And I can't help feeling a certain cynicism about this because I can't imagine that if a Clarence Thomas type figure had been running for the GOP and won, there would be all this rejoicing at "barriers coming down". Sure, I'd consider it an extra bonus if a candidate whom I supported and who belonged to a once-oppressed minority won the presidency, but I'd care a lot more about him (or her) being someone I thought would be a good president than about the color of his skin. Call me colorblind, but there it is.
Divided We Remain
I'm already very tired of hearing people tell me what a wonderful day it is for America and how we can now all come together and heal the divisions of the last eight years. I hate to disappoint those who imagine that we're standing on the brink of some sort of brave new world in which all is peachy and keen, but the fact is that elections are pretty much a zero sum game. The fact that you won means that slightly less than half the country lost. Those of us who did are in no more mood to come together and rejoice over the result than you were in 2000 or 2004. So stop telling us you're looking forward to rejoicing in dawning of Obamerica with us -- it makes us cranky.
That said, for those of us who do find ourselves sorely disappointed with the country's leadership for the next four years (and especially the next two) perspective and even a little bit of graciousness is in order. We lost. We know how incredibly annoying, offensive stupid people looked who couldn't stop shouting that Bush-chimp was Hitler for the last eight years. We must not be those people.
And if we can avoid the excesses of shrillness and conspiracy theorizing that some conservatives fell into during the Clinton years, we stand a much better chance of keeping our time in the wilderness short.
Some professed pro-lifers seem to think this is exactly the moment when Obama could be persuaded to reach out to them for some kind of middle ground:
“Now is the time to dialogue with Obama on the issue of life. Now that he is victor, the next stage is to work with him. This also means to be critical, to be sure, but also to engage what he has said. I think a petition or letter which quotes ALL that he has said positive about working with pro-lifers for removing the causes of abortion, and even of his support for restrictions on late-term abortion, needs to be made, before he is in office, and somehow got to him. It needs to suggest that 1) FOCA and his quotes do not go hand and hand, and 2) better postpone FOCA and let the dialogue happen and see what comes from it, especially since it would contradict his notion that abortion can be restricted. The time is now. “Yeah, well, good luck with that.
I strongly suspect that Obama has now heard all that he wants to hear out of his pro-life supporters until around August, 2012. If Obama takes any positive act specifically towards reducing abortion (other than coincidental factors like the economy starting to improve in late 2009 -- which is roughly when I would expect a recovery regardless of who won) I will happily eat a hat of your choosing.
Where Obama Finds Himself
He won, and won convincingly. Given that the stock market is down 40% for the year, unemployment is rising, the incumbent's approval ratings sit under 30%, and the Republican brand is rocked by scandal and corruption over the last few years -- it would have been pretty pathetic if he'd lost. And indeed, that the fact the election was even competitive underscores that the Obama candidacy was very nearly an over-reach for the Democrats. They bet their best chance since Watergate that they could get in their ideal candidate rather than a compromise centrist, and their bet paid off.
Obama now finds himself a president elect with a strong majority in both houses of Congress and a very, very enthusiastic base. However, he's run as a sort of hybrid candidate, promising a few goodies for the political and cultural left (card check, Freedom of Choice Act), promising a big give away to the broad center (you can keep your current health care and I'll make it cheaper -- or if you can't get any I'll give you something great from the government), and even making traditionally conservative promises which are popular with the wider population (a broad tax cut for most Americans, reducing spending, balancing the budget). His problem now is that his promises are mutually contradictory, especially given that the current recession will probably not level off in terms of safety net expenses for another year, and tax revenues will plummet as the rich (who provide most of the tax dollars) take a hit.
There's no question that Obama is a very smart guy, and I'm sure that he doesn't want to repeat Bill Clinton's mistakes by overreaching in his first two years. He'd probably like to stick with fairly popular ideas for the first couple years. However, his most popular ideas are all very expensive. That leaves him the option of either doing fairly little during his first few years in office (and goodness knows, he's proved himself adept at looking good while doing very little indeed) or else appeasing his base by signing a bunch of highly partisan liberal priorities. If he does the latter, I suspect that the mid-term elections will go hard for him.
Perhaps he could just tour Europe for a few years? They're supposed to love us now.
Is This The End of Center-Right America?
One thing is for sure, come January we shall have a government somewhere between center-left and just plain left. And yet in the same final Pew poll that showed Obama sailing to victory, far more Americans described themselves as "conservative" than as "liberal". Add to that the fact that Obama ran, on paper, a hybrid left/right campaign in which he consistently hammered the Republican nominee for not cutting enough people's taxes or having the right approach to balancing the budget, and it seems hard to argue that the outcome of the election represented a significant shift to the left.
And yet, while Obama did not run as a leftist, his actual record certainly suggests that he actually is one. And there's no question but what the Democratic congress at his back will be eager for left wing legislation -- though we've been spared the embarrassment of having Al Franken in the Senate making things even more absurd there than they normally are.
So clearly the US is in for a period of center-left rule, though I think the country is arguably still clearly center-right now. The question is, will the country come to like center-left rule over the coming years, and thus become a center-left country, or will it remain essentially center-right in orientation?
I think it's rather early to start imagining that the US will become a Sweden or even a France any time soon, though. Recall that in the thirty years since 1980 the right has managed to define the viable political spectrum on a number of issues: taxes, welfare to work, gun control, capital punishment, etc. Other areas are hardened into seemingly permanent strife: abortion, gay issues. Few issues have settled into a leftist status quo.
Well, that's the question, isn't it, and one probably addressed in future whole posts than in the last section of this long one. However, one thing seems clear to me: While the country is still clearly open to conservative ideas, the old standards which have been milked for the last eight years are running out of steam.
Taxes have already been cut to the point where they can't go down much more until America kicks its addiction to government programs -- something which is still very much in the future at this point.
There is still a constituency (even in "blue" states) for social conservatism, but a significant number of those who hold traditional views on social issues are Hispanic or African American. The GOP would be especially wise to find a way to appeal to socially conservative Hispanics. The best way of doing this would probably be getting behind an agenda of massively simplifying the immigration process, increasing immigration quotas (especially for Central and South America), and at then enforcing the law rigorously.
Conservatives need to find a way to seem like they care (and the amounts of time and money conservatives put into social issues show that they do care) without advocating big government solutions to local problems. Bush simply went the big government route, with programs like No Child Left Behind and the Prescription Drug Benefit. What we need is instead an approach to a range of "safety net" issues which, like charter school and vouchers have done for education, can be a national issue yet a force towards localization.
As Reagan said after losing the primary in '76: It's time to get to work.