The advent of America’s first black president inexorably calls forth the word historic. Uttered so frequently last evening, as it will be in the days ahead, the adjective would have been drained of meaning but for the palpable momentousness of Barack Obama’s election. Gone was the pretense of post-racialism; revealed was liberal America’s pride in the often-unsung progress toward equality and toleration achieved in the civil rights movement’s aftermath.
Yet equally historic in its own way, albeit less widely noted, was the decisive victory of party. November 4 marked a resounding win for the Democrats just one election cycle after some panjandrums, seduced by Karl Rove’s Nixonian talk of a permanent Republican majority, prepared to consign the party of liberalism to an eon of darkness. Not since the early 1950s had one party seized control of the House, Senate, and White House in the space of two years—Eisenhower and the Republicans did it overnight in November 1952—but even after that trifecta, the incoming Republicans’ congressional margins (eight seats in the House, one in the Senate) had been too slender to give Ike a true mandate. To find another turnover as stark as the shift of 2006-08 requires spooling back to 1932.
But while 2008 represents an unmistakable repudiation of contemporary conservatism—not just of George W. Bush but also of the right’s chosen leaders in the Congress, the courts, and the media—this is not 1932 redux (financial crisis notwithstanding). Landslide, another word bruited about in giddy Democratic circles as the returns came in, does not, alas, apply. Franklin D. Roosevelt painted virtually the whole electoral map in a single color; so did Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. Obama, though he improved impressively on the performances of Al Gore and John Kerry, didn’t redraw the electoral map. On the contrary, the crude red state/blue state shorthand that came into journalistic favor after 2000 had always been a misnomer, one that obscured the memory of Bill Clinton’s geographically far-reaching victories, which netted 370 electoral votes in 1992 and 379 in 1996. Obama’s pick-up of “red” states such as Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico in fact merely returned them to the Democratic column.
It was Clinton’s election in 1992, in fact, that dethroned Reaganism. But Bush v. Gore allowed the Republicans to believe that their ideology still reigned supreme; then the rally-round-the-flag effects of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq let the new president sustain popular support in the face of foreign threats. Throughout the Bush years, however, America remained a 50/50 nation—a fact George W. Bush forgot, or ignored, at his peril.
Ironically, then, Obama is poised to continue, not to overturn, the Clinton legacy. In his hard-fought primary battle against Hillary Clinton, Obama galvanized the party’s leftist factions, as well as independents, by painting the Clinton and Bush years as an undifferentiated period of Washington decadence. But at the Denver convention he started citing, as Clinton used to, the statistics about job growth and poverty reduction in the 1990s that spoke to the efficacy, and not just the good intentions, of liberal economics and social policy.
That apparent peacemaking gesture to the former president soon became an important argument for the nominee’s election. When McCain surged in the late summer, even taking the lead for a spell in the polls, Obama realized he had to find a language to speak to blue-collar Democrats who, voting their interests more than their values, had flocked to Hillary in the spring. What he arrived at scarcely resembled the soaring oratory of the early primaries: a plainspoken version of Clinton’s “putting people first” rhetoric. If the language didn’t come naturally to Obama, it faithfully reflected his party’s ideology and usable legacy. Equally important, in the wake of the financial crisis, it proved vastly more reassuring than McCain’s erratic, incoherence on a subject that had always been his self-confessed Achilles’ heel. It was appropriate, then, that it was Bill Clinton who called the election outcome. “I predict that Senator Obama will win and will win pretty handily,” Clinton said with confidence in mid-September, after he received Obama at his Harlem office. “That’s what I think is going to happen.”