And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T.S. Eliot, Four QuartetsIf you listen to the pundits, you'd believe that the marathon, knock-down brawl that ended last night with Barack Obama's election as President of the United States left us exactly where we began: A Democratic President and Senate, and a House controlled by Republicans able to block every Presidential initiative.
When you look beneath the surface, however, things are different, in a number of interesting ways.
1. Does spending matter? Jesse Unruh once described money as "the mother's milk of politics". You can't run a campaign without it. Yet one of the lessons of this election is that there appears to be a point where more money simply doesn't matter. This isn't a new discovery - think Jim Oberweis - but this Wednesday morning finds a litter of emptied wallets washing up one the shore with little evidence they had any effect on the tide. Sheldon Aldelson's $100 million, Linda McMahon's $100 million for two losing elections, the billions of Super Pac disbursements. Exactly where did it produce victory?
2. Are voters simply tuning out Negative ads? Aligned with massive spending was the tsunami of increasingly vile attack ads, by Republicans and Democrats alike, that carpet-bombed the airwaves. In most cases they demeaned and degraded the candidates they were designed to advance. And they were spectacularly unsuccessful. In Illinois, they couldn't save Joe Walsh, or Judy Biggert, whose ads suggested her opponent Bill Foster was a tax cheat, ruthless capitalist and - gasp- a millionaire. (Yeah, I know, those qualities would make a Republican candidate a hero in the eyes of the right wing, but that's a story for another time.) They couldn't even save Bob Dold, who lost a squeaker to an opponent his ads attacked as a secretive, phony businessman. And there's no evidence that the attacks ran by the Democrats were any more effective.
As with money, it now looks like a little negativity goes a long way. Broadcasters may love how wall-to-wall media buys boost their bottom lines, but the evidence is that, after a certain point, viewers simply treat attack ads like any other obnoxious commercial - they ignore them.
Somewhere, someday, a viable candidate will test-drive the strategy of fictional Presidential hopeful Jimmy Smitts and eschew slickly produced, voice of doom commercials in favor of using their spots to talk directly to voters. My bet is that they'll prove massively effective in cutting through the clutter, and the era of massive buys of mass-produced boiler-plate negative ads will draw to a close.
3. Is Tea Party Jacobinism a road to nowhere? In state after state, Tea Party activists, fronting for right-wing corporate interests, seized Republican nominations by bumping off conservatives judged insufficiently pure, including Indiana's long-time Senator Richard Lugar. What worked for winning primaries, however, proved disasterous in general elections. Once voters got a chance to see the extreme ideologies, they took seats being contested by Tea Party acolytes away from the Republicans - in Indiana, in Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan, and more.
There's a more ominous parallel for general elections, looking forward to 2014. It's always been a pattern that the party out-of-power makes gains in off-year elections. What may be even important is how the lower turnout in off-years is what allows more extreme candidates to lead their smaller, but highly motivated base to victories that, in general election years, a far larger turnout of moderate voters would make impossible.
What Do We Do Now?
That was the plaintive question asked by Robert Redford in the saavy political film, The Candidate. The exhausting, un-ending campaign has actually resulted in victory. Where do we go from here?
In the case of Barack Obama, some of the unresolved issues - the deficit, cutting spending, fixing Medicare - are obvious. Others, liable to alienate potential supporters, were kept in a lockbox for the duration of the campaign. Obama's victory speech was the first time he mentioned global warming or same-sex equality in a very long time. The campaign to reverse healthcare reform and dismantle financial regulations has been arrested, but transitioning both to the next level has yet to begin. Similarly, the use of drones by the United States, with massive civilian casualties, is a critical public policy matter that has yet to have a true public discussion. It is not enough for those of us who supported Barack Obama to celebrate our victory and return home. The President's feet must be held to the fire to make sure he carries through on his promises - on the environment, to equal rights under law, to forging a just and effective foreign policy.
And how does the President deal with the present political reality? This morning, Republicans are all over the airwaves spinning how the perceived lack of a "mandate" means Obama should basically do nothing but "compromise" (i.e., adopt right-wing policies) for his second term. The historical fact these same operatives helped George W. Bush fabricate a "mandate" out of losing the popular vote in 2000 appears to have conveniently faded from their memories.
George Bush was able to do this because Democrats give him the benefit of the doubt and went along with his disastrous schemes like the war in Iraq, tax cuts, out-of-control spending ("deficits don't matter"), and a deregulation of the financial sector that enabled the worst economic crash since the Great Depression.
Republicans have proven far less co-operative, including nearly 250 Senate filibusters. Speaker Boehner is on the air this morning proclaiming that continuing Republican control of the House represents a mandate from the American people to continue their obstruction. That's for public consumption. But those same Republicans are looking at the election returns. They're looking at all the elections they lost when Tea Party extremism triumphed. And they know how to count.
With the veto and control of the Senate, Obama knows he can already stop Republicans from doing really bad things. In his second term, the challenge is make the rhetoric of his acceptance speech a reality. Obama has to work with the opposition find those areas of common interest - deficit reduction, Medicare and Social Security reform, to name just a few - and use working together to help moderate Republicans extract themselves from the hammerlock of their party's extremists. That's the lesson of New Jersey, where a crisis made the usual poisonous rhetoric unaffordable, with Obama and Republican Governor Chris Christie working together closely to overcome the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy.
The word "gridlock" needs to be banned from any statements coming from the Obama administration. Let the Republicans keep it for their own. For Obama, it must be all about resolve and determination, about never doubting that solutions will be found. It's about never stopping talking, never ceasing probing and poking until the points of vulnerability are discovered, and a new consensus is forged.
This is a case where it is brain surgery. It's a far more subtle, fine-tuned procedure than the vomitorium of inflammatory rhetoric we've just survived, but in the long term, it's what will determine the future character of our Republic.