Monday, November 12, 2012

Final Predictions, Part Two

With the benefit of a couple of extra days of dust-settling (to say nothing of one last, momentous call for President Obama in the Sunshine State), the postmortem on the 2012 election has hit its stride, with some pretty interesting results: Republicans, for the most part, are in less of a de-legitimizing frame of mind than I might have predicted, and not independently the White House seems poised to flex a little bit of its post-electoral muscle. Both outcomes are worthy of a few thoughts here.

To begin with, let no one make the same mistake we all made in 2008 of writing the epitaph of the modern Republican Party. I went to dinner with some local Democratic friends shortly after the 2008 race was over, and I listened politely as several of them took turns lamenting how poorly the country would eventually function without an intact Republican opposition. And the more I listened the more it felt like I was eavesdropping on a collective delusion. Bullies never go away, folks; they re-fight the exact same fight they just lost the very next day, with different ways of gaming the rules. (Just ask anyone who tried to tell Donald Rumsfeld that it would take half a million troops to win the peace in Iraq, or who tried to tell Dick Cheney that Saddam had no WMD.)

Of course, the vaunted "southern strategy" first pioneered by Richard Nixon's campaign in 1968 may well be in some pretty big trouble (more about this below). Thus, if the Republicans *are* going to successfully regroup, they're going to have to go about framing their approach differently. But just as a purely cynical and obstructionist stance in the wake of Mr. Obama's first term paved the way to a striking comeback for the Republicans in 2010, there can be little doubt that the K-street cabal is already dirtying-up a whiteboard in some basement conference room in Foggy Bottom on the subject of how best to set down the markers for the discussion moving forward.

Both Mitch McConnell and John Boehner had some pretty arresting things to say on election night about the supposed absence of a Presidential mandate, and it has also recently emerged that both men refused to accept personal telephone calls from the President in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Romney's concession (though in fairness Mr. Boehner at least seems to have walked back the tone of his rhetoric a bit in some of his subsequent comments on the record). Point being, whenever and wherever the Republicans think they can score points by digging in, they have proven and will continue to prove willing to do so at the expense of the well-being of the country. It would be a fool's errand to predict that this strategy isn't going to work, precisely because it's worked before.

Mark this, then, as my first post-electoral prediction: The rumors of the Republican demise will soon seem greatly exaggerated. The GOP will make small but substantive gains in both houses in the '14 midterms. For the Democrats to expect otherwise is to repeat a pretty calamitous recent mistake.

Now about that whiteboard. There will, of course, be some pretty difficult and in some cases reward-looking soul searching. Many Republicans, both inside the Congressional caucus and outside of it have suggested that a GOP comeback starts with improving the party's messaging to minorities. Others have suggested declaring a draw in the culture war before they can lose any more of its battles to a shifting set of national sensibilities. Some very smart people have suggested that the Republicans will need a ground-up reassessment of their entire platform, and still others have proposed keeping the platform just the way it is, and instead focusing on renewed efforts to field better candidates. (Whether this last suggestion is directed implicitly at the worst 2012 Republican candidate of them all, or just at the ones who *weren't* running for President, is for Mr. Barbour to explain and not for me to speculate.)

Few of these ideas are wholly mutually exclusive, but very few of them can be implemented without at least some blood-letting among the leaders--formal and informal--on the right. Already Steve Schmidt has made it clear that he believes Republican electoral competitiveness has been eroded by excessive deference to the "entertainment wing" of his own party. Pointless and perhaps racially tinged fear will hold the party's rank-and-file together for a few days and weeks, but in short order an emboldened President (who need do nothing to prevent the expiration of the Bush tax cuts) will soon seem to Republican radio listeners less like an empty anxiety about a hyperbolic future, and more like a cassus belli to find someone specific to blame. Already Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Rich Beeson (defender of Romney's calamitously under-performing turnout software called ORCA) have shared in the blame, together of course with the candidate himself.

This then is my second post-electoral prediction: the acidic postmortem will cause heads to roll at the highest levels of the GOP establishment. The trouble for the Republicans is, this easy-to-make prediction does not actually guarantee an outcome more conducive to their long-term prospects. The open revolt that has already ascended through the party of Lincoln in the wake of Mr. Obama's *first* victory certainly didn't, and if the TEA Party has taught us anything in the intervening four years, it's that neither facts nor electoral realities are much of an impediment to the thought processes of a highly motivated band of dim-witted crazies who think the only thing wrong with Dick Lugar is that he's too liberal. It will not have escaped most of the rest of us that Republicans didn't just lose with their slate of candidates, but on the issues as well. Four states approved gay marriage, two approved expanded legality of marijuana, and from coast to coast voters said they didn't agree with the platform of the GOP.

Demographics are destiny at least for now, and there can be no denying that the Republican platform has alienated the non-white vote in this country to a degree that cost them nearly every battleground state, including some that not even this columnist predicted they would lose. You can find these words written in a dozen other post-election roundups of every stripe, but the thing that's far less clear is exactly what a party of xenophobic racists is supposed to do to fix it. On election night I listened as respected Republican opinion leader Scott Murphy emphasized the need for improved Republican messaging to Latinos, and all I could think was, "HOW?" I mean, what--does Mr. Murphy propose to print up the flyers advocating self-deportation in both languages???

The Republicans can't change the question of who considers themselves members of their party, any more than they can change the inexorable surge in minority participation in our national dialogue. They can't talk about amnesty without being primary-challenged, they can't talk about Head Start without being primary-challenged, and they can't peel the Latino vote with trumped-up social issues like gay marriage and abortion anymore, either. If Mr. Murphy has a brilliant idea beyond stating the obvious problem, he certainly didn't share it on TV.

Meanwhile there are some very big issues to deal with, and the disposition of the highest-ranking Republican lawmakers moving forward will tell a large part of this story. No one on either side of the pundisphere expects a repeat of the profound intransigence that Messrs. Boehner, Cantor, Ryan and McConnell visited upon the country during the debt ceiling "negotiations" of last year, but on the other hand all four of these individuals are standing for reelection in '14 and none of them can withstand a TEA Party revolt in response to any perceived supplication to the President's wishes.

Mr. Obama has done some things in his first term well, and others not so well, and I am far from being a lone voice in wishing he'd been better at framing narratives and using his Bully Pulpit as a bully pulpit. But with this past Tuesday's results the ability of the opposition to "shoot the hostage" in preparation for an electoral changeover at the end of his first term is now just a bad memory. Anyone who thinks this won't inform the White House strategy moving forward isn't watching the same President get the same education, as I have over these past months. The public is with Mr. Obama on increased taxes -- at least for the rich -- and the diminution of the country's most popular social programs (ACA soon to be among them) would seem unpopular enough to overcome any misleading ad campaign and disenfranchisement put together.

I've made the mistake of betting this way before, but as a loyal Democrat I'm happy to make it again in the form of my third post-electoral prediction: The progressive agenda will be advanced by President Obama in a far less ambiguous way, at least in the first few months of his second term. Quite apart from the negotiating leverage the White House enjoys in the wake of the election, and quite apart from the added leverage attendant in their ability to inflict massive ideological damage on the other side by simply refusing to accept anything unacceptable and allowing the tax cuts to expire, there is also the matter of all those settlement checks that insurance companies will soon be forced to pay their subscribers for excessive administrative costs, and all of a sudden the ACA won't look like such a terrible pinko conspiracy after all.

And then there is the wobbly economic recovery, which stands to benefit dramatically from the increased confidence that the financial markets will attribute to having settled the electoral question for a time. It's a myth that Wall Street likes Republican Presidents better than Democratic ones; what they like is stability.

At all events, if this administration plays its political capital right (always a big if with these guys), the next few months could be a watershed moment for the progressive cause. I wouldn't bet on cap-and-trade, to be sure--especially with an even more conservative House makeup, in character if not in numbers--but the fear that has rippled through the Republican leadership on both sides of the capitol will not be without legislative consequences, either. Low-hanging fruit will pass both houses, and the Republicans, at least for a while, will look rather like the Democrats did in the mid-1980s: More loyal and less oppositional. At least for a while.

The biggest question of all is of course how the President's second-term performance will translate to a longer-lasting historical legacy, and as always there is no sure guarantee in such questions. The aforementioned recovery has been a long, slow burn, but it's showing signs of picking up momentum even now. And with interest rates historically low and much investment pent up and waiting for a more definitive signal, it seems clear that the easy down-side money in the markets has already been made. This is my fourth major post-election prediction: The macroeconomic recovery will gain momentum dramatically, with a bottoming of the residential real estate market and a significant uptick in business expansion resulting at last from borrowing costs so low as to be effectively negative in adjusted dollars. Better still, a swiftly and structurally recovering economy will further empower the Administration, and further erode the stature of a GOP caucus presumably still dedicated mostly to obstructing the President.

Forty-eight months is of course a long time. Heck, even six months is a long time: The European monetary crisis is far from over, and volatile situations in the Middle East, Africa and even east Asia could easily derail White House mojo. But these are qualifiers that would have been more-or-less equally true at any time, past or present, and could befall any Administration, Democratic or Republican. Predicting such high-variance outcomes is the purview of lifetime professionals working in Langley (most of whom regularly get them wrong anyway). What we know, and what we can safely forecast from what we know, points in a direction so optimistic that it almost bespeaks giddy overconfidence.

This, then, is my fifth and final post-election prediction: The Democrats will have an even larger built-in advantage in 2016 than they had in 2012. The demographic trends will obviously favor a progressive candidate even more than they did this time -- at least presuming that the Republicans don't find a better platform to sell to non-white voters in the meantime. Together with a robust economy and an additional four years' of forced perspective on just how non-socialist this supposedly socialist Democrat has turned out to be, the Republican party will have even more trouble galvanizing an angry white electorate behind a candidate who pledges to undo the course the country will have stayed gamely and successfully on for what will then have been the best part of a decade. As always, candidates will tell a big part of destiny too, of course, but if the current short-list of Republican Presidential successors is any indication there would seem to be few personality-driven trump cards (or Trump cards, either one) waiting patiently in the right wing. If you had to place a bet today, there would be no reason to bet with comparative peace of mind that the Democrats will hang onto the big chip yet again.

And that, friends, is the most delicious prediction of them all.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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