Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

A Victory Lap For Obama

A Victory Lap For Obama

Photograph via Bloomberg

Editor’s note: After President Obama’s late-night victory speech, Construction political writers Ben Hoffman and Anthony Resnick spent the day exchanging emails. This is their conversation.

ANTHONY: So . . . that was fun! I was expecting to feel relief Tuesday night, not jubilation. And my joy comes not just from the unexpectedly large margin by which President Obama won, but from the sense that Tuesday night reflects a lasting shift in American politics. The last decade has been tough to read. After the 2004 election, there was a lot of consternation on the left about how the exurbs were getting redder and redder (every Republican’s favorite stat was that Bush won 97 of the country’s 100 fastest-growing counties), and how Karl Rove was plotting a durable Republican majority. (Just two years earlier, however, Democrats were expecting an “emerging Democratic majority“ based on shifting demographics.) The next few cycles saw wild shifts: big Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008, then a Republican landslide in 2010. A long-term trend was difficult to draw out: were the ’06 and ’08 elections more about George Bush than the parties themselves? How much was the ’10 election about the enthusiasm gap and hysteria over Obamacare? This year’s election was just as dramatic as these past elections in its rhetoric, but was calmer in its result. The two sides of our political spectrum spent billions of dollars of trying to convince us that a vote for the other side would mean doom for the country, and a slight but clear majority of Americans sided with the Democratic vision for government.

The most encouraging part of Tuesday night’s results, for me, was the victories in the Senate. The landscape was terrible for Democrats: 23 seats to defend (including left-wing independent Bernie Sanders) versus 10 seats for Republicans to defend. Democrats successfully defended 21 or 22 out of 23 seats (pending North Dakota), while Republicans only defended 7 out of 10. Fitting this back into the larger narrative, the Democrats defended their gains from the ’06 Democratic landslide and regained some of the ground lost in 2010. The Democratic wins in the Senate help foreclose any arguments that Romney was just a weak candidate or that President Obama only won because of Hurricane Sandy. Most importantly, the Democrats won Senate seats with actual liberals. Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin were elected in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, while Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown were re-elected in Vermont and Ohio; each is about as liberal as a winning candidate could hope to be in those states. Yes, the Democrats benefited from (to be generous) weak Republican candidates in many states, but when you are nominating that many bad candidates, it’s a sign that something is dysfunctional and unsustainable in your party.

[pullquote_right]What if Karl Rove’s hissy fit was what I liked best about Tuesday’s results?[/pullquote_right]

For any liberals looking for more reasons to be happy about Tuesday night, I recommend re-reading this Jonathan Chait article from February. Chait’s thesis is essentially that the Republican Party recognized that this was the last election where a coalition relying heavily on white, rural voters without a college education could conceivably prevail in a national election, and had decided to maximize its advantage with those voters rather than begin building a new coalition. We now know that the GOP went all-in with a losing hand. Watching them attempt to pick up the pieces will be fascinating.

So, with that extended preamble, I throw these questions to you: what did you like best about Tuesday night’s results? What do the results say about the political state of the union? Where does the GOP go from here? (And don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to get to Karl Rove’s on-air hissy fit and the clear triumph of math over hackery and wishful thinking).

BEN: But what if Karl Rove’s on-air hissy fit was what I liked best about Tuesday’s results? Seriously, Fox News was must-watch TV for about a solid hour on election night. Brit Hume accidentally suggesting America wasn’t a center-right nation, Megyn Kelly playing cattle-herder to a bunch of angry old white men, Robert Gibbs getting interviewed before the results were in and not even trying to contain his shit-eating “we all know what’s about to happen” grin. It was all some sort of surreal gift on the part of the universe, I think.

Anyway, I share your joy on more important matters, the Presidential and Senate results, but not necessarily your belief in the long-term trends. Oh, demographics seemingly favor the Democrats, of course. But nothing is permanent and nothing is irreversible. Almost immediately, every conservative talking head capitulated on immigration and agreed that some version of the DREAM Act would be a great idea they could get behind (though as Slate’s Matt Yglesias pointed out, conservatives’ problems with Latino voters go far deeper than immigration).

But part of what makes politics so maddening and, at times, illogical, is that different factions can take away just about any lesson they want from an electoral win or loss. We will hear that Romney lost because he was too conservative, or not conservative enough, or because of the hurricane, or the auto bailout, or the mainstream media. Republicans will sort this out, but how long will it take? I’d predict they’ll do it sooner rather than later, except that the opposition party often gains seats in the midterm election, and I’d say the GOP is likely to do just that in 2014, given that A) they already hold the House and the economy will be on the upswing; B) the midterm electorate turnout will be older and whiter than in Presidential elections; and C) Republican state legislatures have carved up districts rather, um, advantageously. I’m dubious of Republicans taking a pro-moderation lesson from Tea Partiers finding modest success in 2014. Is there compelling evidence in either direction I’m missing?

[pullquote_left]A sensible, more moderate Republican Party is good for the country.[/pullquote_left]

With regard to the Senate, Democrats not only maintaining but adding to their majority is great—and would have been unthinkable a year ago—but Republicans probably lost themselves at least five seats. Akin and Murdock this year and Angle and O’Donnell in 2010 are the oft-cited examples, but had the GOP not obstructed Warren’s appointment to the Consumer Finance Protection Board, Democrats would have run a lesser opponent against Scott Brown, who maintained extremely high approval ratings while losing a close race. There is a sweet bit of karma in that, no?

Okay, a second term (a second term!). What should we expect? What are you excited about, what are you nervous about? Bush tax cut predictions? Fiscal cliff predictions? Gridlock predictions? Filibuster predictions? Benghazi impeachment predictions?

ANTHONY: Before getting to your questions, I don’t think we’re as far apart as it may appear in terms of the long-term trends. When I say last night reflects a lasting shift in American politics, I’m not necessarily talking about party politics. The Republican Party will adapt, and the Democratic coalition will start to crack as various factions start to disagree over priorities. I do think, however, that due to a combination of changing demographics and shifting views on social issues, the the country is getting more progressive. My preference is for an increasingly progressive Democratic Party to win election after election, but a sensible, more moderate Republican Party is good for the country.

What to expect from a second term is a fascinating question. I don’t doubt that the all-out obstructionism of the first four years, at least from the standpoint of Republican Congressional leadership, was never anything more than a cynical political posture. As Jonathan Chait explains in the two pieces I linked to earlier, that strategy made some sense at this time: the demographics haven’t yet completely turned against the GOP, and the bad economy provided an opportunity to cast President Obama as a failure. And, that strategy came dangerously close to working. Now, however, the economy is bound to improve, and the demographics are only getting worse for the GOP. Continuing to stonewall an increasingly popular president while continuing to alienate minority voters, women, and young people is a lose-lose proposition. The wise course for Republicans during President Obama’s second term is to find strategic places to expand their coalition and find ways to bargain with a still desperate-to-compromise president so that they can share credit for the coming economic growth (and decrease in the deficit). But, can the leadership corral members who have to go home and face primary voters they spent the last four years whipping into a fervor? I think it will take quite some time to sort itself out, especially with the 2014 midterms coming so quickly and the fundamentals of midterm elections generally favoring both opposition parties and the older, whiter demographics of the Republican Party.

[pullquote_right]Republicans will cave on Bush tax cuts, but will wring concessions on spending and entitlements.[/pullquote_right]

I guess I’m more excited for the second term as a political spectator than as someone expecting good policy. Watching the GOP try to get its house in order—expect an epic power struggle between Boehner and Cantor—will be fascinating. There will likely be Supreme Court seats to fill, and how good of justices we get out of that will depend largely on how successful Harry Reid is with filibuster reform. I’m also excited to see what kind of mark the liberal senators I mentioned earlier make on that body and on policy as a whole. I’m nervous about what kind of welfare reform-style compromises President Obama will be looking to carve out with what I expect to be a more conciliatory GOP.

As for the more specific questions, I think Republicans will have to cave on the Bush tax cuts, but will wring greater concessions on spending and entitlements than you or I would like. I hope, though I’m not terribly optimistic, that President Obama will be aggressive in leveraging fear over the fiscal cliff to take the government in a more progressive direction, though I fear that he will strike an unfavorable bargain both because A) he’s more sensitive to the opinion of elite centrist deficit hawks/bipartisanship fetishists than his Republican rivals and B) has more credibility with his base to sell a less-than-optimal deal than the Republican leadership. Benghazi will continue to be a cause célèbre on talk radio, and Darrell Issa and Peter King will continue to be jackasses, but the issue will never regain mainstream interest, and the Republican leadership will have no interest in elevating it.

What am I missing?

BEN: Yes, that makes sense. To illustrate: At some point down the road, Democrats will no longer have an advantage with young voters on gay marriage, because most Republicans will be for gay marriage. (Also, a guarantee: at some point in our lifetimes you’ll see a GOP House candidate run an ad accusing his Democratic counterpart of cutting funding for Obamacare.)

I think you’re on point with most of your second term predictions, especially—and unfortunately—on the Bush tax cuts and entitlements. One place we can definitely expect to see the GOP throw up every possible roadblock is Supreme Court nominations (especially if it’s a conservative judge who’s retiring), but I suspect they’ll find plenty of smaller issues on which to compromise. We can probably dream on when it comes to filibuster reform, even if, as Kevin Drum noted, an era of divided government, like we’re in now, would be a logical time to enact it.

[pullquote_left]Climate change will reenter public consciousness partly because Sandy spooked media members in the D.C.-NYC corridor.[/pullquote_left]

Okay: climate change. I’m not so crazy as to think House Republicans are going to be part of any such legislation to ease that liberal fiction we call global warming. But I think we’ll see the topic begin to reenter public consciousness, both because Sandy spooked media members living in the D.C.-NYC corridor and because Obama, freed from the burdens of reelection and not wanting to be remembered as presiding over inaction on this issue, will at the very least talk about it a hell of a lot more than he did on the campaign trail. (Why battling climate change could not have played a central role in a successful presidential campaign is not a question I have the heart to answer, but if you can muster up the energy, feel free!)

Things I’m nervous about: a terrorist attack and a scandal. Jonathan Bernstein suggests that one of the “fundamentals” driving Obama’s reelection was his scandal-free first term. Our last two presidents both had scandals in their second term (though at this point, after Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Solyndra, and the 3048 other things before that I’ve forgotten, would people even be able to tell a real scandal from a fake one?)

Before we start making can’t-fail gut predictions about 2016, and since hopefully we will never speak of him or think of him until the next time the Olympics need rescuing, closing thoughts on Willard? Where did his campaign err? Is there any mystery left to unwrap?

ANTHONY: Totally agree that we will eventually see Republicans running ads attacking Democrats for cutting Obamacare. Judging from the GOP’s civil rights revisionism, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we saw ads reminding people that Obamacare was originally the creation of a Republican governor.

I find Willard Mitt Romney to be both a fascinating and loathsome figure, and now that he has failed I can remember his shamelessness and his entitlement fondly rather than with horror. I’m unashamed to admit a juvenile glee in seeing a man so assured of his ability and worthiness to manage the rest of us so thoroughly repudiated. This might be my bias toward wanting to believe that the Republican Party has worked its way into a structural disadvantage against the Democratic Party, but it’s hard for me to see any errors by the Romney campaign as being determinative. He was dealt a tough hand, never able to stray too far from the lunatic fringe of his party, only able to feint toward the center without ever offering anything of substance to the “coalition of the ascendant“ that makes up a majority of the electorate. He often played that hand poorly—clumsily playing politics with Libya, allowing the tax return story to drag out too long, being a little too honest behind closed doors, constantly reminding us how much wealthier he is than the rest of us—but it was a loser nonetheless.

[pullquote_right]Christie could be in 2016 what Clinton was in 1992—the moderate his base tolerates because it’s sick of losing.[/pullquote_right]

The one prediction I’ll make for 2016 is that the Republican nominee will be a governor. The economy is bound to improve, and while Republicans in Washington will be in the tricky position of currying favor with Republican primary voters without entirely opposing the agenda of what I predict to be an increasingly popular President Obama, governors will be able to claim the economic growth in their state as their own. I’m tempted to predict Christie as being for Republicans what Clinton was for Democrats in 1992—the moderate they’re willing to tolerate because they’re sick of losing. Like Clinton, Christie has the appeal of being a partisan (the last two weeks notwithstanding) but not an ideologue, giving him more appeal to his party’s base than his positions would otherwise warrant. But, without knowing how responsible conservatives will hold Christie for Romney’s loss and whether he’ll be forgiven for his embrace of the president, I’m not willing to make a prediction on who will be running against Hillary. (See what I did there?)

Before I let you wrap this up, I want to share some thoughts on the Nate Silver Wars. Reflecting on how thoroughly vindicated Silver was, it strikes me what a silly fight this was for conservatives to pick. Usually, when the conservative movement spits in the face of facts and empiricism—climate change is fake, voter fraud is real, apology tours, death panels, etc.—it’s in service of some policy or political goal. But while there’s some advantage to a candidate being perceived as the likely winner, I don’t think Silver had any traction with people who were still making up their minds about whether and for whom to vote, and the rest of the media had its own stake in shutting Silver out of the narrative about the state of the race. Instead, the conservative attack on Silver had a knee-jerk quality to it—a liberal is telling a story we don’t like, and so we must tell the opposite story. Unfortunately for them, they applied their myth-making machine to a question where an undeniable reality was soon to be revealed, and in doing so revealed the wobbliness of their entire constructed reality.

All right Ben, the last word is yours.

BEN: Good Romney analysis. I think if ever there were a time for a candidate to refuse to bend to the base’s every desire during the primary, this would have been it. What was the base going to do if Mitt didn’t pretend to be sufficiently conservative? Nominate Santorum or Gingrich? But hindsight is 20/20.

Foresight, on the other hand. Christie will be an interesting case, mostly reliant on the state of the GOP: the same qualities that might make him appealing in a general election would have doomed him in the 2012 Republican primary. And first he has to get through a 2014 gubernatorial race against Cory Booker (which is probably what all his post-hurricane posturing was really about). Since it seems obligatory to mention Marco Rubio when discussing 2016, I’ll throw in this negative take from Daniel Larison, a great conservative writer I discovered and then read regularly during this campaign.

As for the Dems, the interesting (terrifying) question is: what if Hillary doesn’t run? I’ve heard Andrew Cuomo (bleh), Martin O’Malley (bleh again), Michael Bloomberg (LOL), and Liz Warren, which I’d like to kibosh right now. You love her, I love her, everyone loves her, but A) she needs to spend some time in office first, and B) I don’t care how populist she is, she’d be waaaay too easy to caricature as a Massachusetts liberal. What about Sherrod Brown? How could we not vote for this? As a commenter says, “White boy don’t got rhythm, but he does have the middle class’s back.”