Monday, November 19, 2012
To the Future
This has been a campaign year to try the spirit of even the most perseverant fact-checkers. The Republican primary season featured a predictable slew of dubious claims, from the assertion that President Obama had "taken over" healthcare to the idea that unemployment was nearing 20 percent, and when a nominee finally emerged he led one of the most willfully dishonest races in modern presidential history.
Mitt Romney's plan to cut taxes for billionaires while raising taxes on secretaries wasn't popular? Then he wasn't for it after all. The public was angry over high gas prices? Why, the President was to blame for that, never mind that he increased domestic production to unprecedented levels. The auto bailout worked? Hey, guess what: Jeep is going to transfer its operations to China! Even though they're not, which the CEO of Fiat felt the need to clarify.
The GOP nominee may have sustained life-threatening whiplash from all the flip-flopping he did in this cycle, but in retrospect the biggest whopper of them all came after the votes had been counted.
"Status Quo Wins" the Wichita Eagle declared on the morning of Nov. 7.
"Barack Obama will remain president," the paper informed its readers. "Democrats will still control the Senate. Republicans will still control the House. Nothing changed."
And that's where they're wrong.
The voters decided last week to retain the current roster of political leaders, but in so doing they bucked--decisively--a series of long-established trends. Let's take into account two facts:
1. President Obama went into the election carrying the albatross of 7.9-percent unemployment, a major handicap given that no president since FDR had won reelection with unemployment higher than 6 percent.
2. President Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, won 59 percent of the white vote, comparable to what Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon won in their respective 1952 and 1972 landslides.
Why does any of this matter?
Because according to history, President Obama should have been doomed. Swamped. Obliterated. And instead he throttled Mitt Romney to the tune of 126 electoral votes.
So, yes, the American people voted to keep the same chess pieces in Washington. But they changed the board.
What we are witnessing is not the reelection of an incumbent president but the formation of a dominant political coalition whose inclusiveness renders the old models untenable. In a white, male America that breadth wouldn't matter--as evidenced by most of our history--but in a changing America it makes all the difference. Consider who this coalition is: women (55 percent of whom supported the President), African-Americans (93 percent of whom supported the President), Hispanics (71 percent of whom supported the President), Asian-Americans (73 percent of whom supported the President), and gays (76 percent of whom supported the President).
Then, of course, there's the biggest factor no one's talking about: the young. This one, mark my words, is the real sleeper threat to the conservative movement. Up until recently there was a good argument to be made against this idea. The 2008 election was exceptional, the conservative line went. Young voters' extraordinary support for then-Sen. Obama (66 percent of voters under 30 went Democratic four years ago) could be chalked up to naivete or enthusiasm or sheer frustration with the economic climate of the time. It couldn't last.
But it did.
On Tuesday voters between the ages of 18 and 29 went to the polls and, by 60 to 36 percent, voted to keep Barack Obama in office. That demographic designation, by the way, does not distinguish by any factor other than age; that means that of all American voters under 30, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, income level, or religious affiliation, six in ten went Democratic. Six in ten. We are looking at an FDR-level realignment, one in which progressives will enjoy major inherent advantages.
This is all the more impressive when you consider that the President's base, contrary to media analysis, was actually depressed this year.
Yes, you read that right.
To begin with, a difficult economy always weighs heavily on an incumbent and the Democratic base did erode, however slightly, between 2008 and 2012. Beyond that, the Hispanic vote, rightly hailed as key to President Obama's reelection, still comprised only 10 percent of the national electorate this year. That means that the 2012 landslide wasn't a landslide so much as it was a warm-up.
The Hispanic population is expanding rapidly--with Pew Research predicting it will double by 2030--and nowhere are the numbers more dramatic than in the swing states that are key to victory. Between 2008 and 2012 the number of Hispanic voters rose nationally by a single percentage point; in battleground Nevada, however, the cohort grew by 39 percent in the same four-year period.
Combine that demographic reality with an economy that will presumably be much recovered four years from now and you have a very favorable outlook for Democrats in 2016. Add in the GOP's generational crisis and the crystal ball gets even bluer. It's not just Nevada and Colorado that are in play now. It's Georgia. It's Arizona. By 2020 at the latest, it will be Texas.
That's not to say that the Republicans have no way forward.
The Democrats, who beginning in 1968 faced a situation comparable to what the GOP faces now, saved themselves from oblivion by dumping the Great Society progressives of the 1960s and embracing centrist candidates like Bill Clinton who promised a "third way." Hardliners fumed, but Clinton recognized an essential reality: that the center of the country had shifted and that the Democratic Party had to shift with it. If the Republicans can stand on a platform of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism they will at least be able to remain credible in an increasingly progressive environment.
Republicans like Susan Collins, Bobby Jindal, and even John Boehner appear to have absorbed that lesson, but they face the challenge of corralling a base significantly more inflexible and extreme than the Democratic core of the 1990s. Consider that the Tea Party movement rejects both evolution and global warming. Consider that they support (and managed to insert into the 2012 GOP platform) a total ban on abortion. Consider that they scorned electable Republicans like Richard Lugar of Indiana and in so doing lost the Senate. Then consider that their caucus, even after this election, still holds about a quarter of the Republican seats in the House.
This puts the Republican leadership in the ultimate Catch-22: they need the Tea Party's numerical support to achieve a national majority but because they are associated with the Tea Party's message can't achieve a national majority.
John Boehner and company have to resolve this. If they can't, the GOP will learn the hard way that there is a big difference between an inherent minority and a permanent one.