Saturday, November 10, 2012

Obama ... or, was I right?

I concede that I was hardly alone in predicting that Obama would win the US election. What this victory means for Canada is another question that I will address another day. There have been some interesting treatments of the Obama administration's approach to Canada, which deserve to be assessed. What I'd like to do in this blog, however, is gloat … just a little bit even though what I said was really not all that radical or daring. Moreover, in thinking about it … I'm not at all certain that I have much reason to gloat. Ultimately, in looking at the election, I'd suggest I was right for the wrong reasons, which amounts to a fluke win. Moreover, the reasons I was off base are important. Let me look at a couple of these reasons and then conclude with some thoughts about what this election might mean.

In an earlier blog, I argued that Obama would win because the different social groups that came together to support Obama were caught flat footed in the Congressional midterm election and outflanked by Tea Party Republicans. This would not, I argued, happen again. Worried about the implications of a Republican victory, Democrats would -- whatever their concerns about Obama -- take it easy. They would get their vote out, suggest disaster if the Republicans won, and remind everyone what the previous Republican administration was like. Women, blacks, Latina/o and working class constituencies (particularly organized labour) along with youth would again come together and secure Obama's second term.

Here is where the gloating ends. I was right in what actually happened but wrong in how it happened. Let's look at a couple of important examples. First, Republicans made big mistakes with specific constituencies. For instance, Obama clearly appealed to Hispanic voters because they worried about the implications of a Republican government regarding immigration and naturalization policies. But, even more important, Republicans were behind the times. Obama did not really have to appeal to Hispanic Americans because the Republicans made no effort to appeal to them and some efforts to chase them away. In effect, they surrendered this constituency to their Democratic opponents. The old Cold War anti-Castro rhetoric kept Cuban Americans in the Republican party for a long time, particularly in Florida. This rhetoric no longer works and does not appeal to other Spanish speaking constituencies or perhaps even the second generation of Cuban Americans.

Republicans held out hopes of winning the Hispanic vote. They argued that devout Catholic Hispanic Americans might embrace an Evangelical Republican Party because it constituted itself as the Party of Christianity. This is not outlandish but it was a miscalculation and an important one. It involves Evangelicals believing (and, I think, by and large, that they believe this) that there is only one route to God and only one politics for a Christian: theirs. The Party that declares its Christianity the loudest (the Republicans) came to believe that they were the only Party of Christianity in this election. With grassroots Catholic priests and nuns complaining loudly about projected Republican budgets and their effects on the poor, this was a case that, I suspect, for the ordinary Hispanic Catholics, just was not there: a Christian party ignoring its obligations to the poor? In effect, the idea that a true Christian votes Republican was shattered by Republican policy (in fact, I suspect that for some it became a question: how could a true Christian vote Republican?)… the Republicans had nothing else with which to appeal to Hispanic Americans.

Second, this was a dirty campaign even by recent standards but I was surprised by the relatively respectful tone of presidential campaign advertising. Sure, Romney told a … well … let's put it like this, said something he had strong reason to believe was not true in the dying days of the campaign but the presidential advertising I saw was pale in comparison to the outright attack-filled lies that populated Senate and House of Representative races. When we look at Obama, I think that the Democratic hierarchy decided that they did not need a "full court press." What they needed was for Obama to look presidential, stay "on point" and give people a reason to not change to the Republicans. In other words, they spent a lot of money but they believed (rightly, it turns out) that they were the front runner and the political rule of thumb if you are in front is "don't fall down": run the race, turn yourself into as small a target as possible, and fill your speeches with platitudes. And, avoid policy if at all possible.

Your opponents, those looking to overtake you, are the ones under pressure.  They have to talk policy to convince people to change the way they voted last time. This gives frontrunners an opening because you can then attack your challenger's policy without having to explain your own. For instance, Romney had to talk about immigration, Obama simply had to demonstrate that their problems with Romney's views.

This is not a radical approach to politics. Indeed, it does not really rely on a the new politics (in particular the use of the internet to communicate and raise money) that Obama's team used last time. Instead, it is old-fashioned politics, aided, in this case, by the vicissitudes of the Electoral College. If you have New England (33 votes), NY (29), California (55) in your back pocket at the start of the race, you are a long way to victory before the election has begun (117). Now, I concede that the same thing works in reverse. Romney began the race with most of the South -- including Texas -- and the west in his back pocket (153). It seems like more than Obama, but the Mid-Atlantic and old northwest (110 all told) were already leaning Democrat and so just needed reasons -- perhaps with the exception of suburban Ohio -- not to change. Obama's team played it amazingly safe because that was the smart political thing to do.

What do we learn from this election? We learn that my powers of prediction might not be as great as they seem. But, we learn something more important: a potential turning point in American history has been missed (and, it has been missed for electoral success).  Instead of working to really forge together a long-lasting electoral coalition, the Democrats did what politicians do: they developed a strategy to ensure that they would win this election. The real question for them is this: is this strategy strong enough to last? The short answer is: we don't know, but politics as usual is not necessarily a winning formula. It works well when one is in front; but next time we'll have two new candidates so no one will be in front. I suspect that it will work a lot less well and that the next Republican candidate will do better the Romney.

What we learn, then, is that the US, particularly the centre/left (which is not very far left) has not yet built its anti-Republican coalition and its had four years to really weld this one together. I wonder if time is running out and this is the dark cloud in the silver lining. In opting for the safest way to ensure victory in 2012 … have the Democrats passed up the opportunity to win 2012 and 2016 and 2020, etc.? My prediction was based on the assumption that they would get back to the business of creating a long-term electoral coalition that would help them win not just this election but future ones. I concede that it would have been risky to do this. Playing it safe is a much better guarantee of winning if you are the incumbent. Unfortunately, if the Democrats really wanted to change the US, they needed to take this risk. They didn't … what what does that tell us?
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