Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Sea Change Election?

Probably not

[I know. The day after the election I said I’d write a post titled “10 (or so) Reasons Conservatives Shouldn’t Move to Australia”. But as Luther said to the parking garage attendant in 48 Hours, “I Been Busy!” In the meantime, I’ll write this, yet another post demonstrating how people say all kinds of stupid things when they are unfamiliar with history…]

There has been much commentary these past few weeks about how the 2008 election may represent a political realignment – meaning, the Democrats have assembled a coalition of voters that could make for a sustainable majority. Among Democrats there is hopeful rejoicing while Republicans gnash their teeth and rent their garments*.

* to whom? Libertarians?

But we’ve been here before, haven’t we? In 2004, Bush won a relatively comfortable victory (at least compared to 2000) and a library’s worth of articles poured praise on Karl Rove, who had seemingly discovered the key to lasting Republican dominance: a passionate organized base. But only four years later, the Republicans are in disarray. So much for lasting Republican dominance.

In 1992 Bill Clinton supposedly changed the game. A sax-playing Southern baby boomer who could name all four Beatles beat an old Washington hand who’d fought in WWII, ending 12 straight years of Republicans in the White House. A new era had begun! But by the time a quite tainted but still-popular Clinton left office, the Republicans had taken the House, the Senate, the White House, and the majority of governorships. So much for new eras.

Even the Reagan Revolution wasn’t quite as revolutionary as it’s made to seem. Yes, he won a 49 state landslide in 1984. But remember, Nixon won by similar margins in 1972, and Reagan’s own Veep couldn’t win reelection 4 years after the Gipper left office. So much for revolutions.

True Game-Changers
Only 3 elections in American history have been truly game changing, in the sense that the victory represented a political realignment that was sustained for decades after. Two of them, Lincoln in 1860 and FDR in 1932, I talked about here.

The other – the first, in fact, was Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

Now that was a messy election. First of all, as brilliant as the Founders were, they hadn’t quite figured out all this electoral college stuff yet, so when Jefferson’s running mate Aaron Burr technically had as many electoral college votes as Jefferson, he made a play for the White House. It took a while to sort out, but Jefferson eventually took the oath and went on to create a sustainable majority that lasted for decades.

(VP Burr went on to shoot the former Treasury Secretary, attempt to crown himself emperor of Mexico, and get arrested for treason, all while in office. And people think Cheney is a pushy bastard.)

Jefferson’s Republicans (not the same as today’s) had so thoroughly destroyed its political competition, the Federalists, that his hand-picked successors (Madison and Monroe) took the White House for 16 more years, and by the time John Quincy Adams, the son of the last Federalist President, took office, even he was a Republican. The Federalist Party was dead.

That was a sea change election.

Is Obama’s Win Sustainable?

Have the Democrats won that kind of election? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

When analyzing whether an election has created genuine political realignment, you need to see if the conditions are easy to duplicate. It’s fair to say, I think, that two conditions existed in 2008 that will be nearly impossible to duplicate in future elections.

The first is Obama’s charismatic hold on the electorate. People went absolutely wild for this guy. Not for his ideas, not because of his experience – but something about him personally moved a big part of the electorate.

Can Joe Biden duplicate that in 2016? Hillary Clinton? If you’re thinking Al Gore, remember that while he may be the world’s most improbable movie star and the winner of the increasingly ridiculous Nobel Peace Prize, he’s already failed in the role of filling the shoes of a charismatic predecessor.

That kind of star power comes along very rarely. Reagan had it. Kennedy had it. Its a wonderful thing for a particular candidate to possess, but it is not a quality to build a sustainable majority on.

The second thing the Dems can’t duplicate is the stunning unpopularity of George W. Bush. John McCain may have been the Republican nominee for President, but Barack Obama made it very clear that he was running against some guy named Bush Cheney. Bush Cheney is not running again, together or alone, so that dog can’t hunt again.

So, what will it take for Barack Obama’s election to be the beginning of a great electoral run? Well, success. Obama’s campaign was built on personality and opposition, but it will have to govern with ideas and performance.

And all but the most partisan Republicans hope he succeeds.

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