A few weeks ago my wife and I visited Bob Novak who, while he is no longer writing regularly, was following this year’s campaign very closely and still keeping in touch with many of his legendary sources. And while we were discussing the closing days of the campaign he began chuckling about the fact that, as he put it, “Democrats I’m talking to think they’ve died and gone to heaven.”
He then made the point that we should all bear in mind in the days ahead: “If they’d been around as long as I have, they’d realize it won’t be heaven and they may not be there for an eternity anyway.”
As usual, Novak was exactly right.
The contest Barack Obama won was not about race. It was about the economy and the performance of Republicans in power. The public turned to Obama not because he is an African-American, but because he is a talented politician who ran a flawless campaign, promised to deal effectively and in a bipartisan way with the challenges that will face the next President and came across as an optimist in the mold of Reagan or Kennedy.
Without in any way denigrating his talent or the genius of his campaign, it must be acknowledged that, in becoming only the second Democratic presidential candidate in half a century to break the 50% barrier, Obama, like Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Jimmy Carter in 1976, benefited greatly from the atmosphere in which the contest was waged.
This year’s race most resembled the 1980 election that pitted Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter. That race involved an unpopular incumbent who was perceived to have mishandled foreign challenges and was presiding over an economic crisis. The public was desperate to send him and his party packing, but voters didn’t know if they could risk voting for Reagan. Eventually, they developed a comfort level with Reagan that allowed them to vote for him regardless of whether they agreed with everything he wanted to do.
The same thing happened this year as voters got to know Obama and, risky or not, decided they could vote for him rather than the GOP nominee. Obama benefited from popular disgust with Republican performance over the last few years and from the fact that when an incumbent party has been in for more than eight years, people tend to look for new leaders.
All of this has happened before. After the 1964 and 1976 elections, experts asked whether the Republican Party could survive or whether conservatives were the problem. And, following the 1974 and 1976 elections, GOP officials considered changing the name of the party, believing the Republican “brand” had been so damaged it could never recover.
And yet Republican candidates won the White House in 1968 and 1980. Indeed, after the 1980 Reagan election many of those same analysts who had wondered four years before whether the Republican Party could even survive were writing about a supposed GOP “electoral lock” that could permanently keep Democrats out of the White House.
The political fortunes of candidates, parties and movements can change quickly as this nation’s history proves. Democrats are riding high today as they were after the 1964, 1976 and 1992 elections, but in each case they got into trouble quickly as Republicans and conservatives bounced back by going back to basics and taking advantage of the mistakes that victory at the polls seems to breed.
Which Obama Will Govern?
It is hard to say just what mistakes an Obama Administration is likely to make, but history tells us that winning candidates are prone to two fundamental mistakes. The first is that they tend to assume that those who voted for them want them to do all the things they in their hearts would like to do (Remember Bill Clinton’s extrapolating from a passing reference to health care reform during the campaign that everyone wanted him and his wife to nationalize the U.S. healthcare system).
The second is that winners tend to overreach, to move too fast and further than the voters really want them to. (Remember Newt Gingrich’s belief after the 1994 election that voters wanted his Republican majority to change the world overnight.)
This happens regardless of whether the winner says he or she wants to unite and develop a public bipartisan consensus on problems facing the country and it’s likely to happen once Obama is sworn in.
His problem and ours is that no one really knows how he will govern. He has virtually no executive experience and we don’t really know if the man who will take office in January as our 44th President will be the young radical follower of Saul Alinsky, the cautious Illinois state senator who avoided controversy by voting “present” 130 times to avoid taking positions on various issues, the most liberal member of the United States Senate or the conciliatory centrist who ran against John McCain.
Exit polls reveal that many voters thought they were voting not for a liberal, but a tax-cutting opponent of national health care who wants to reach out to all Americans to deal with the problems we currently confront. His campaign ads in targeted states portrayed him in this way in part because he and his managers recognized that while voters were upset with the performance of the Republicans in whom they had placed their trust, they weren’t prepared to reject the values that led them to elect those Republicans in the first place.
Some commentators, like the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne are suggesting that this year’s results signal a fundamental change in American thinking, that we are now living in a left-of-center rather than a right-of-center nation. Obama’s managers knew better. Had Dionne been a principal campaign advisor, we would have seen a far different campaign and Obama would have lost.
Now that he’s won, however, his natural beliefs and the demands of his core supporters are likely to push him far to the left. The decision to name Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, for example, is a signal that we will face a hard-edged, leftist administration likely to do anything necessary to get its way. It’s a clear signal that, now that he’s won, the conciliatory talk will either end or be ignored as the Obama of old re-emerges.
Obama began revealing his true plans as soon as it became obvious that he would win. Just before the election he told an NPR reporter that while he believes in the 2nd Amendment, he intends to seek a federal law that would repeal state “right to carry” laws, thus letting leftist anti-gun groups know that he is with them. This was no doubt a promise made to these groups secretly far earlier and we can expect similar promises to be made public now that he’s won.
Conservatives are likely to face a series of early initiatives that could alter the playing field in a way that will make it far more difficult for them to win in the future. These initiatives are likely to include “card check,” which would deny workers the secret ballot and allow union organizers to pressure them into unions, D.C. representation in both the House and Senate to give the Democratic Senate majority two additional reliable Senate votes, a return of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” to close down or cripple conservative talk radio, a direction to allow the Census Bureau to utilize estimates rather than actual enumeration in the next census with real impact on redistricting, and citizenship for currently illegal aliens with a view to expanding the Democratic electorate.
But, opposition to these efforts will unite conservatives and spur the rebirth we will need to make a political comeback in 2010 and 2012.
Over the course of the next few months, conservatives will be meeting to develop strategies that will lead to a reshaping of the Republican Party, the election of GOP leaders willing to stand up for conservative free market, defense and social positions. This is what happened after previous electoral disasters and it will happen again.
At the same time, new leaders will develop and emerge. Liberal analysts tell us we have a weak “bench,” but that is demonstrably untrue. Sarah Palin in Alaska, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Mark Sanford in South Carolina are outstanding conservative governors as are surviving conservative congressional conservatives like Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and John Shadegg and senators like Arizona’s Jon Kyl and South Carolina’s Jim DeMint.
On the outside, the conservative support network and political infrastructure is much deeper and more sophisticated than in the past. Those who think we lost the war on November 4 should not make the mistake of confusing a battle, no matter how important, with a war. The war for freedom goes on and conservatives are better positioned to win future battles than our enemies believe.