The Case for Transformation
Shameless Commerce Division, as they say: Here you will find me in the new Democracy journal, and here, in the new New York Review, in different ways touting the possibility, which I also touted here in yet a different way, that the second term will be better than the first.
Obama didn’t win a Reagan-style landslide; such is not possible in our age for either party. But conservatism now feels a lot like liberalism did in 1984 and 1985, back when I was futilely shoveling away that snow. The ideas, such as they are, have grown awfully long in the tooth. The positions are not popular. The movement has gotten by on cliché and bluster and Scotch tape. The Tea Party tendency represents maybe a quarter of the population. It is overrepresented in Washington, which is unfortunate and a serious challenge for policy-making, but even with overrepresentation, America is not going to be headed in that movement’s desired direction.
If history is any guide, then, we’ll soon enough see a Republican variant on the Democratic Leadership Council, the group formed in 1985 to pull the party toward the center. We will have ringside seats for extended and highly entertaining battles between this new center-right and the hard-right. We can expect that the GOP will be riven for quite some time over the core questions of taxation, spending, culture, and demography that the 2012 election exposed as its weaknesses.
The Republicans may elect a President next time, or the time after that, as the reordered Democrats did with Clinton. Elections turn on a hundred small things as well as the big things, so who knows. But even if that happens, the strong likelihood is that that President will have run on a platform far more centrist and accommodating than Mitt Romney did, and that he or she will have to govern within broad parameters set by the other side and the majority that supports it. No huge tax cuts for the rich; no repeal of Obamacare; no opposition to same-sex marriage; no wanton unilateralism; and so on.
From the Review:
The 2008 coalition, it turned out, was no fluke. If anything, it grew, enabling Obama to become the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to carry more than 50 percent of the vote twice (Bill Clinton didn’t hit 50 either time). Even Karl Rove and Dick Morris will now have to accept that the white vote is aging and shrinking, the white working-class vote is disappearing, and the Latino and African-American voting blocs will both grow steadily. They and their ideological allies will also have to accept what a different country this is from the one they’d wish it to be. When voters in three states pass same-sex marriage referenda, and voters in two other states approve the legal use of recreational marijuana, a cultural switch of some sort has been flipped.
Yet for all that change, the past four years haven’t felt like a change in historical direction. It doesn’t feel like transformation because every single victory has been so hard won, so emotionally exhausting, and in some cases so compromised that it becomes difficult to imagine them as pieces of a vast puzzle that is changing the course of history. The health bill left many liberals unhappy, and Dodd-Frank, say most experts, will not prevent another financial meltdown.
But it could be that this is what transformation often feels like. Perhaps this is what the New Deal felt like; after all, liberals were constantly frustrated with Roosevelt in precisely the same ways today’s liberals wish more from Obama. Shortly into his second term, Roosevelt riled the left by wholeheartedly embracing deficit reduction. Obama has only halfheartedly embraced it, which is progress.
Gun control, immigration, and climate change are the remaining big domestic items on the president’s agenda. The clock ticks. Since the incumbent president’s party rarely gains seats in the sixth year of that president’s term, he may have only two years, not four, to try to tackle these issues. With the possible exception of immigration, he could well be stymied on every one of those. The debt-and-spending fight represents his best opportunity to overpower the Republicans and become the kind of president he wants to become. But he’ll have to develop more taste for combat than compromise.
I will keep emphasizing this general point: Liberals should certainly pressure Obama to go as far left as is reasonably possible, but when he comes up short, as will inevitably happen, liberals really should try to look at the good rather than the bad, keep blaming the reactionaries, and move with optimism and swagger on to the next fight. Whining becomes self-fulfilling so quickly.