Democrats have a right to crow this morning. President Obama won re-election with a narrow, yet decisive win in the popular vote and a large margin in the Electoral College, in which he won every tossup up state with the exception of North Carolina. Though they were expected to lose seats in the Senate, Democrats gained two. The Republicans did hold onto the House of Representatives, which means the status quo of the last two years in Washington is preserved. But those trying to diminish the scope of the Democrats’ victory are wasting their time. For an incumbent president to win re-election despite presiding over a poor economy and few accomplishments other than decidedly unpopular measures like ObamaCare, is an astonishing feat of political skill. It was also a reflection of the changing nature of the electorate that now skews more toward the Democrats than many of us thought. Liberal pundits like Nate Silver who insisted that the polls were right to show a Democratic advantage were right about that and I was wrong, as were most conservative writers.
But to assume, as some inevitably will, that this means the Republicans are more or less doomed to a cycle of unending defeats in the future is a mistake that neither party should make. Though talk about President Obama not having a mandate is meaningless since winning is the only mandate any president ever needs, Republicans are by no means painted into a corner from which they cannot extricate themselves in future contests. The 2012 election was about Barack Obama and preserving his historic legacy. Yet second terms are generally miserable affairs for presidents, and Obama will likely prove no exception, especially with a Republican House to investigate scandals. For all of the problems that this election revealed to the Republicans about Hispanics, women, and working class voters, they are still positioned to make a strong showing in the 2014 midterms and to take back the White House in 2016.
The big mistake most political analysts tend to make is to assume that the political landscape of one election will be much the same in future contests. It’s true that, much to the consternation of conservatives, the layout of the electorate this year was very similar to that of 2008. But the common denominator in those two elections was Barack Obama, and he won’t be on the ballot again. It bears repeating that many conservatives allowed their own dim view of his policies and personality to underestimate the president’s appeal to the voters. Americans were rightly pleased with themselves for electing an African-American and a clear majority was not prepared to make him a one-term president, in spite of his shortcomings. No possible Democratic successor will have the same hold on the public’s goodwill. Nor, despite the liberal tilt of the mainstream media, will any of them, including Hillary Clinton, be able to count on the kind of supportive press coverage that Obama got. Nor will they be able to run against the legacy of George W. Bush, the way only Obama could. At some point, even that well will run dry for the Democrats.
To state this is not to ignore the obvious problems that Republicans have with certain demographic groups.
As Seth wrote yesterday, the GOP has dug itself a hole with Hispanics from which it can’t completely extricate itself. Had the party embraced George W. Bush’s attempt to create a sensible program for immigration reform, that might have made things easier. But it wouldn’t change the fact that much of this community is solidly liberal on many issues. A candidate who would be able to make a credible appeal to Hispanics like Marco Rubio could undo a lot of the damage. That doesn’t mean the GOP is obligated to nominate a Hispanic in the next election cycle, but that it probably shouldn’t choose someone who chooses to make illegal immigration the issue on which they tack the farthest to the right, as Romney did.
It should also be pointed out that the Democratic effort to portray the GOP as the party of Tea Party extremism didn’t entirely succeed. The ideas of that movement are still powerful, but what Republicans must learn is to be more careful about the leaders it elevates from their ranks. More savvy operators like Marco Rubio will provide formidable opponents for the president and his successors. More Richard Mourdocks will produce more defeats. Ideological purity without common sense is a formula for political disaster.
For all the Democratic triumphalism that this election will produce, it will do the president’s party some good if they remember how close they came to losing, and that absent the president’s appeal they might not have prevailed. Though, as Ross Douthat wrote today in the New York Times, the Ronald Reagan coalition that led the GOP to victories in the past is no longer viable, the narrow margin for the Democrats in 2012 undermines any notion that a fundamental realignment has occurred. If Democrats tack to the left in the coming years, they will find that without a still charismatic and historic leader, their class warfare routine won’t play as well. Their party identification advantage will fade without Obama at the helm, as will the enthusiasm that only he can generate.
Just as important, in the coming years Democrats will be burdened by responsibility for all that the public doesn’t like about ObamaCare, which, thanks to the electorate and Chief Justice John Roberts’s cowardly vote switch, will now be implemented.
Fresh leadership (and the GOP has no shortage of bright young leaders) and the advantage of running against a Democratic Party that will have to take responsibility for the state of the country will put the Republicans in a good position to recoup their losses and to build on the nearly half of the country whose support they can already count on. Democrat who think yesterday’s results guarantee them anything in the future are setting up their party for a great fall. Any Republican inclined to despair today needs to take a deep breath and understand that the party’s future is actually quite bright.