President Obama has won a decisive victory, winning the popular vote by over 2% and winning all the states he won in the electoral college in 2008 except for Indiana and North Carolina. He has done so in the context of continuing difficulties in the economy, in the face of an absolute wall of dark corporate money facilitated by the Citizen’s United judgement, and despite some absolutely disgraceful voter suppression tactics adopted by some Republican run local and state administrations.
Democrats also made some gains in the Senate and House and won ballot initiatives in some states to permit same sex marriage and restricted use of marijuana. Some unapologetic progressives were elected: Notably Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin, the first openly LGTB Senator in Wisconsin, whilst Chris Murphy will be a big improvement on Joe Lieberman.
On the Republican side here has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Many seem in shock that they couldn’t defeat the “black, Muslim, terrorist loving socialist from Kenya” in the aftermath of a severe recession and continuing economic difficulties. Some have begun to realise that you can no longer build a successful governing coalition on the basis of the conservative white vote alone: that you cannot win if you alienate minorities to the point that 80% vote against you – not to mention the gender gap exacerbated by some truly extraordinary comments and policies on rape, abortion, contraception and equal pay.
But there are also lessons that Democrats can learn from the election results, and chiefly from their failure to make any significant inroads into the Republican majority in the House. What Democratic successes we have seen have generally been due to some truly awful Republican candidates such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock in the Senate and Alan West in the House. There has been little evidence of a systematic shift to Democratic candidates in the House despite 2010 being a high water mark for the Republican party. So why is this?
I alluded to one reason in my story SUN Voters to give victory to Obama?
The other concern I have is that there may have been insufficient linkage between the Presidential campaign effort and other, down ticket, races in this election. Obama will be able to do little in his second term if he has to deal with a Republican dominated Congress pursuing a scorched earth policy as in the past two years. I would have preferred an explicit and high profile “GIVE ME A CONGRESS I CAN WORK WITH” message from Obama – capitalising on the unpopularity of congress, and implicitly putting a lot of the blame for lack of progress on a “do nothing congress”. It would also help to undercut Romney’s message that he could work better with a Democratic Senate than Obama could with a Republican Congress.
That story, whilst warmly received, received some push-back from Obama For America activists on Daily Kos. There was excellent cooperation between OFA activists and local Democratic Party candidates on the ground, they stated – with OFA activists and local candidates often sharing data, call lists and knock list information. I do not dispute this, although I have no information on how widespread or uniform this practice was. It was not alluded to as an explicit part of the organisational strategy released by the OFA leadership team just prior to the election. My greater point is however that there was no systematic explicit linking of OFA messaging at the Presidential level with the need to elect House and Senate candidates who would work with the President and avoid legislative and budgetary gridlock.
I can understand OFA strategists being almost exclusively focused on their core task of re-electing the President under difficult circumstances, but one of the reason many voters were disenchanted with the President was because he had failed to overcome the culture of acute partisanship in Washington, and a feeling that the challenges facing the country could only be overcome with a President and Congress willing to work together. Indeed one of the themes of the Romney campaign was he would be better able to work with Democrats than Obama could with Republicans:
Krugman: The Blackmail Caucus
Lately, however, I’ve seen a growing number of Romney supporters making a quite different argument. Vote for Mr. Romney, they say, because if he loses, Republicans will destroy the economy.
O.K., they don’t quite put it that way. The argument is phrased in terms of “partisan gridlock,” as if both parties were equally extreme. But they aren’t. This is, in reality, all about appeasing the hard men of the Republican Party.
So, yes, there is a case that “partisan gridlock” would be less damaging if Mr. Romney won.
But are we ready to become a country in which “Nice country you got here. Shame if something were to happen to it” becomes a winning political argument?
So now we are back almost to square one, with the election changing nothing and effectively preserving the status quo: A Re-elected President and a hostile Congress determined to thwart his every move – because that was the strategy which paid off so handsomely for most congressional Republicans in his first term.
Whilst I am full of admiration for President Obama’s many personal qualities, the Government of the USA is not a one man show, and a personality cult is no substitute for having a strategy to build a winning majority in Congress and at State level. A key imperative for Democrats, therefore, will be to morph the outstanding organisational capabilities of OFA into a more general Democratic Party organisation capable of supporting Democratic candidates at all levels of Government. Politics isn’t just about the glamour of controlling the White House. It is about building a party organisation and candidate slate capable of winning right down to the local school board and local elected administrative and judicial officials. Because that is where corporate dark money can be much more effective, and that is also where many of the voter suppression tactics and gerrymandering is implemented.
If Obama succeeds in transforming the 700,000 volunteer army that is OFA into an ongoing trained community activist base capable of taking over and transforming local politics and administration at state level and in local communities, he may achieve something far more lasting than anything he can accomplish in the Office of the Presidency itself – especially one constrained by an unrelentingly hostile Congress – and, at least for the moment – a hostile Supreme Court.
Update: This video of President Obama post election speaking to his campaign staff indicates that he “gets it” in terms of what his real legacy might be. He actually tears up when he explains how he feels that his supporters will end up doing greater things than he will ever be able to in Office.