Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's Watershed Victory

President Barack Hussein Obama made history for the second time on November 6, 2012. The first time, in 2008, he became the first non-white to win the American Presidency. But that was mostly due to the appalling situation that George W. Bush had created – endless war and economic catastrophe – and the eagerness of the American public to change course. This time Obama won election on his own, by putting together the first winning coalition built upon the tremendous diversity of American society. Romney won the white vote. But Obama won the vote of blacks, hispanics, women, gays and the young, and of big city/suburban dwellers and the “47%” that Romney mistakenly wrote off early in the campaign.

Clearly, many Obama supporters were also white, just not the older, rural, male and richer ones that were the core of Romney's support. Obama won the election because he gained the votes of the diverse, urban America of the 21st Century. He did so because he is clearly in tune with that diversity and because of a sophisticated (and unfortunately expensive) political machine that was able to target and enthuse the many and varied slices of our social, economic, cultural and regional complexity.

The Republican Party clearly understands none of this. Instead of seeking to embrace this emergent diversity, the Republicans made war on it by targeting the black man elected in 2008. Unspoken racial fears still present in much of that section of the white electorate that remains solidly Republican allowed the small government, no-tax-increase fundamentalists to appear to have a solid political base. The rich, white “one-per-centers” making up the Republican elite of office holders and donors sought to build upon this by frightening just enough additional voters to unseat the President they sought to demonize with charges he would make the US into “Greece.” It turned out that this was not enough to win over all those real people with real concerns and hopes not addressed in such simple terms.

The Republicans instead should have sought to seize at least some of the new ground before it became more solidified for the Democrats. In a way, they were fortunate to have finally settled on Mitt Romney – former governor of Massachusetts, a northeastern “blue” state – as their candidate. After his nomination, the ever-mutable Romney could have used his fabled “etch-a-sketch” to begin redefining his party in the more moderate direction it needs to go to remain competitive. Romney is a rich man but Americans don't automatically hold that against anyone. Rich Republicans used to remember that the economic system that made them rich and keeps them rich doesn't, by itself, ensure the fairness and equal opportunity that alone produces majority support for that system. The Republicans needed to find an updated version of someone like Nelson Rockefeller, a true moderate who could project compassion and understanding of the social compact necessary to sustain democracy and yet also be rich.

Romney could have become the new and improved Rockefeller. This would have meant resisting currents that have been building since Goldwater and that eventually undid the moderate wing of the Republican party. Difficult, but a start could have been made, especially running with the incumbent facing strong economic headwinds. Instead, Romney chose to play it safe and instead solidify his (white) base by choosing to move to the extreme right and to pick as his running mate a poster boy for Republican fundamentalism. If Romney had moved earlier and more consistently toward the center, the Republican base would have had nowhere else to go. It still really, really wanted to get rid of Obama. Other Republican leaders could have fallen in line in the interest of winning this and future elections. But none of this happened. Romney's lack of political courage and his choice to run to his “base” led to his defeat and that of the party that jumped with him into the demographic wilderness.

Shed no tears for the Republicans. They have sought since 2008 to lie, bully and scare their way back into power without offering anything beyond fears about debt and big government. Twenty-First Century America is too large, diverse and complex to be governed with a simple no-new-taxes, small government catechism.

President Obama and the Democrats don't have have all the answers either and did not offer any new, big vision in this campaign. But Obama seems to understand that while government cannot and should not try to do everything, it must be a major part of the effort to manage our complexity. Government must help keep our society within the bounds of fairness and justice by providing our free-market economy the political structure (and infrastructure) necessary to empower it to continue to fuel our American way of life for all Americans.