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The Truth About the Election

The nature of Obama’s triumph will be significant to his governing. His victory was across the board, and was aided by gains among almost all voting groups. He made a large advance among Hispanics (it was said during the primaries that they, too, wouldn’t vote for an African-American), who voted for him 67–31; he won among voters under thirty by thirty-four points (Kerry had won them by nine points and Gore by two). He also gained markedly not only among African-Americans but also among Catholics, midwestern voters, and, notably, suburban voters. He did far better than McCain among highly educated voters.

The only age group that went for McCain over Obama was of people over sixty-five, among whom Obama did better than he was expected to. On election night, the most perceptive of the television analysts this year, Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director, said that Obama owed his victory to no particular segment of the population, that “no one group put him over the top.” Todd added that Obama could have won without a single vote of young people, Hispanics, or blacks.

Running an aggressive campaign strategy—placing staff and volunteers even in heavily Republican states—Obama expanded the Democrats’ electoral map to include states that hadn’t voted for his party in decades, and pushed up his popular vote. He broke into the Old South with his victories in Virginia and North Carolina, and won for the Democrats some western and southwestern states, such as Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. The Republicans were reduced to a party of the Deep South and the plains states, as well as parts of Appalachia. Virginia had not voted Democratic since Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964, and upon the election of our first black president one could not help but think of Johnson, who had pushed through landmark civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965. Upon doing so, Johnson said, “There goes the South.” A generation later, his honorable deed was more than vindicated.

Already, some Democrats are speculating that the younger voters who supported him overwhelmingly might become the “Obama generation,” akin to the “FDR generation” and the “Reagan generation,” forming a bloc that could help keep the party in power for a long time. But it’s too early for talk of “realignments.” Until not long ago, Karl Rove was still boasting of having created a “permanent Republican majority” (and journalists were writing books about it). The coalition that Ronald Reagan first formed, and Rove built upon and catered to—joining traditional conservatives with the religious right—carried the seeds of its own destruction. Rove’s advice to George W. Bush to govern from the right, in order to keep the conservative base aboard, was a major mistake. The party became too rigid, too insular, and too out of touch with mainstream America.

The Republicans have now suffered significant losses of Senate and House seats two elections in a row—in the latest one they lost, by last count, seven Senate seats and twenty-two House seats. (Some races are yet to be decided.) Combined with their 2006 losses, these are the worst results for the Republican Party since its Depression-era losses of 1930 and 1932. The congressional Republicans are now in their weakest shape since the post-Watergate elections. (So much for George Bush’s and Karl Rove’s political genius.) Republican voters have become overwhelmingly white, rural, and elderly, a difficult base from which to rebuild a majority party. Republicans are now engaged in the same internecine warfare and agitated strategizing that the Democrats used to do after they lost elections in a big way.

The 2008 election may mark the end of Rovian politics, the strategy of dividing the country over cultural issues, such as abortion; of trying to scare voters into fearing for their security if the opposition candidate won. It may also mark the end of the culture wars that had been with us since the Sixties. Obama, the first post-baby-boomer presidential candidate, made those issues irrelevant. For the first time since it happened, the Vietnam War wasn’t a topic. A growing part of the population is too young to remember Vietnam or the conflicts of the Sixties.

Moreover, in part because Obama offered a muscular policy toward Afghanistan, including a willingness to consider bombing in northern Pakistan where al-Qaeda has established an enclave (this became administration policy), and in part because of a growing consensus that the war in Iraq had to end soon (even the Bush administration had moved toward the position, leaving McCain a lone voice), he avoided being painted by the time-worn Republican brush as being “soft” on national security. Because the economy was such a towering issue, affecting so many people directly, and because people have moved on, the old divisive tactics didn’t work. The public is sick of them—as Obama understood, and capitalized on by running as the candidate of change, staying above the fray as much as he could. Sarah Palin’s charges that Obama “palled around with terrorists” seemed to most voters antique and irrelevant. (With the exception of her fervent followers, McCain’s reckless selection of Palin put an end to the wisdom, much favored by pundits, that the choice of the vice-president doesn’t matter in an election.)

It is now settling in as accepted fact that the economic crisis gave Barack Obama his victory. The wisdom has it, and it may go down as “history,” that Obama and McCain were running fairly even in the polls, with McCain slightly ahead in some, when the financial crisis struck on September 15. (This was when Lehman Brothers went under, other financial institutions were in deep trouble, and the market fell 504 points—the first of numerous heart-stopping drops.) The story line continues that the economic collapse did McCain in, and he never recovered.

But even if one accepts the argument that public opinion was strongly affected not just by the financial crisis itself but by the sharply contrasting ways that McCain and Obama handled it, it is by no means evident that McCain could have won had it not been for the crisis. On September 15, McCain, still benefiting from the effect that the choice of Palin had had on the Republican base—his convention “bounce”—was behind in the electoral college count. According to NBC’s electoral college map, the one most professionals relied upon, even then Obama continued to maintain a slight edge. And according to NBC’s Chuck Todd, Obama had many more routes to the needed 270 votes than McCain did.

In fact, the NBC electoral college map, far more relevant than the daily polls, never had Obama behind McCain in electoral votes from the time it began measuring the electoral vote count in May. But Todd does believe that the continuing economic crisis widened Obama’s margin of victory. Andrew Sullivan, in his blog The Daily Dish, argues that McCain’s fallback had already begun several days before the financial crisis, following Palin’s disastrous first television interviews, with Charles Gibson, on September 11 and 12.

Moreover, the fundamentals of the race favored Obama all along. The objective facts were that he had a far superior campaign organization, with more people on the ground and more money to spend on campaign workers and ads: McCain was saddled with the most unpopular outgoing president, of his own party, since Lyndon Johnson didn’t run again in 1968 because of his unpopularity over Vietnam. Even before the economic meltdown, by one poll 81 percent of Americans believed that the country was on the “wrong track.” (Later numbers were even worse.)

Beyond those facts, Obama simply ran the better campaign. Well before the election contest, McCain had demonstrated the erratic and impulsive characteristics that ended up causing him so much trouble, and his embrace of the right (arguably a mistaken calculation) and fealty to some of the worst Bush policies suggested that he wasn’t the highly popular McCain of 2000, and perhaps not even a man of principle. Both Clinton and McCain misread the mood of the country, which was overwhelmingly for change; the economy was in bad shape before the crisis, and was already a campaign issue—and McCain had confessed his weakness on that subject. (And he’d been badly hurt by then adviser Phil Gramm’s comment that the country was in only a “mental recession” and was “a nation of whiners.”) So the idea that September 15 was a “turning point” is a myth.

Like most of the rest of the country but even more so, Washington, a heavily Democratic city, was euphoric over Obama’s victory. It’s too simple to say that we were celebrating the election of a black president; the country had also elected someone who is smart, moral, and appealing—a serious young man who is also attractive, cool, and has a sense of humor. The election of Obama meant that the fashion of dumbing down the public discourse was over. Being overtly brainy, simply being oneself, was back in style. Not since John F. Kennedy has there been an incoming president who stirred as much excitement. And not since JFK’s time has there been such an eagerness to go into public service.

Résumés are pouring in. My impression is that these people want to go into the government for the right reasons—not for the lucrative careers that might follow. They want to be part of something with large meaning. Many Democrats and also some Republicans feel that so difficult are the times and so significant is Obama’s election that they are willing, even eager, to help him govern. It’s been a while since people thought that government service was an honorable, even exciting thing.

But Washington has been taking in Obama’s victory in its own idiosyncratic way. Hostesses are angling to be the first to entertain the Obamas at their first private dinner in Washington. Elite private schools that fifty years ago would have barred them because of their race are competing for the Obama daughters. The intense jockeying for jobs, and the fevered speculation about who will get them, preoccupy the town. John Kerry’s open lobbying for months for the job of secretary of state has been deemed by many as unseemly; he’s been crowding Obama. Yes, Kerry helped Obama at crucial moments, but the times are too serious, and the stakes for Obama’s success too high, for the concept of “owing” to determine the filling of cabinet positions. A certain candidate for a key cabinet position has called someone close to the Obamas three times each day.

Obama’s thrilling election—something not long ago many wise heads said wasn’t possible—also made more imminent the prospect that the dark night of the worst administration in history was ending. The American people had overwhelmingly rejected the Bush regime’s stupidity, cupidity, its wars, its lies, its torturing and its secrecy, its ineptitude and its power grab that threatened constitutional government. The relief was palpable. Washingtonians were simply smiling as they hadn’t in years. Something new was coming, and it was to be looked forward to. People felt cleansed.

—November 20, 2008

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