So, have you heard the news? Everyone in the media with the exception of Fox has decided that Obama’s reëlection was a triumph of liberalism. Now that Romney, Ryan, and a host of Republicans who think that rape is a good thing have been defeated by a couple of percentage points nationally, the right wing is over and done with and we will never hear from them again. The Democrats are the new mainstream, and the only battles left to fight are how far to the left they will move things. (Fox is claiming instead that the Republicans weren’t white and right-wing enough, that the Democrats cheated — everywhere in the entire country at once, apparently — and that Hurricane Sandy was the only thing preventing a Romney landslide.) Isn’t that great?
If it turns out to be true, I will be ecstatic. But I am not so sanguine as the people (such as, apparently, every single writer for Salon.com) who are declaring victory.A few things to remember:
1. Nothing has changed
Even ignoring the fact that there is still unfinished business for Congress and the President before the newly-elected Congress members take their places, the elections did not make any significant changes to the composition of the national government.
The president is still Obama. No change since the previous election cycle.
The Democrats still hold a majority in the Senate, but not enough votes to form a supermajority. No change since the previous election cycle.
The Republicans still have a majority in the House, where a supermajority is not needed. No change since the previous election cycle.
Unless the Democrats change the entire way they operate, the only model for how they will behave is the way they have behaved during the previous election cycle, which is to say: self-censor every single bill in a mistaken attempt to try to prevent right-wing criticism, allow the Republicans to propose anything or stop anything, and never take any positive steps to change the status quo (such as public addresses by Obama pointing out flaws or asking for changes).
2. Democrats are chickenshit.
Right now, Obama has made a big deal about how he was going to stand up to the Republicans over the budget, which is the aforementioned unfinished business for the sitting Congress (and Obama). The Republicans are demanding no new taxes on the wealthy and cuts to public aid programs and Social Security. Obama is insisting on at least slightly raising taxes for the wealthy (although not to the levels of 30 years ago or more). At least one Democratic spokesman has announced that there will be no cuts to the military budget (which is, according to the 2012 Death And Taxes poster, now 63% of the discretionary budget — the thing which is bankrupting us, in other words).
There is a longstanding precedent in these cases. Glenn Greenwald recently described it here, but in essence: Obama will force the Democrats to back off, and anyone who objects will be ridiculed and ostracized for being out of touch.
There is no reason to doubt that this will happen. Obama no longer has to fear any backlash from voters, since he will never face another election campaign. Furthermore, this election proves that this tactic can be used by the Democrats without any sort of fear of backlash from the majority of their base. They can do whatever the Republicans want, and then throw up their hands and say “we had no choice because the Republicans wouldn’t accept any other terms”, and most Democrats will still obligingly trot to the polls to keep them in office. And, of course, the Republicans have no reason to change, because the last four years have shown that the Democrats can always be stared down.
And, of course, there is only a very brief period in which the Democrats can actually demonstrate that no, this tactic will not work any more. If they continue to back off, the Republicans will see that simply refusing to budge is still a viable tactic, and keep using it.
And the Democratic leadership still believes in bipartisanship, that if they just do what the Republicans want this time, then the Republican noise machine will finally stop badgering them. This has never worked; the Republican noise machine can never be satisfied, and will make things up if necessary (as anyone who has been paying attention knows very well). Since the Democrats are going to be accused of Communism, Dictatorship, and goodness only knows what else anyway, if they were smart they would go ahead and force through as much good policy as they can. But they are still too scared of a few blowhards on cable to do that, so they allow themselves to be cowed.
(Incidentally, I had to rush this post a little, because there are already signs that the Democrats are caving in on the budget. I wanted this to be predictive, so I had to hurry before they officially sold us all out!)
3. The next election cycle is always already on us.
In the previous election cycle, Democratic partisans were adamant that everyone on the left had to band together to vote Democratic because Romney would be so terrible, and “we can’t let Rommey appoint the next Supreme Court justice”.
In the next election cycle, the Democratic Party has vastly more to lose in the Senate than the Republicans — enough that if they lose one third of their contests, they will lose their majority. Furthermore, there is no particular reason to believe that they will take the House — if voters aren’t willing to vote out the Republicans now, they probably won’t be in another two years. And don’t forget that it’s a midterm election — a lot of people don’t bother to show up for them, and Republicans tend to be more willing to make the effort.
All of which adds up to say: the Democrats are going start worrying about the 2014 elections almost immediately, and will be walking on eggshells the entire time. As usual, they will mistakenly believe that moving to the right will get them more votes, and act accordingly — this despite the current proclamations that the right is finished forever. And their partisans will demand with even greater vehemence that people give up any notion of voting for a third party.
4. We haven’t heard from everyone yet.
Obama appears to have won this election by a popular vote margin of about one million (at least as of the most recent time I checked the figures), and the electoral vote by a very decisive amount. That’s actually a pretty big margin for a post-Clinton election, although only in the post-Clinton era can anyone call it a “landslide” with a straight face.
But there are a lot of people who could vote in 2014 who didn’t vote in 2012, and we really have no idea of who most of them would vote for if they did. The 2010 Census data says that only 59.8 percent of people who are eligible to vote (that is, citizens who are of age) are registered to vote, and only 41.8 percent actually vote. (So, in fact, when you hear that there was turnout of around or over 60 percent, they are fudging a bit by only counting people who are registered, rather than the entire eligible population. Actual turnout is around 40 percent at best.)
To put it bluntly: for every person who voted for Obama, there is about one who voted for Romney and 3 who did not vote at all, and of the latter group we know effectively nothing. The usual claim is that they are not paying close enough attention to know what’s going on, or that they are too stupid, or disgruntled and bitter. Quite frankly, all three reasons would make them easy marks for Republican recruiting if only the Republicans made the right approach. Given that the Democrats have basically succeeded, in the last four years, in producing very little beyond the Affordable Care Act (which could have just as easily have been named “The A Bunch Of Small Reforms We Could Have Passed Individually With Ease Tied Inseparably To A Massive Gift To The Health Insurance Industry Act”). And, by allowing the Republicans to control everything, they have effectively allowed themselves to take the blame for Republican faults. The stupid and the indiscriminating won’t be able to tell the difference, and the disgruntled could easily be convinced that the Democrats are the problem, since the Democrats now own a lot of blame and very few achievements.
5. Even so, what difference did it make?
As pointed out repeatedly, the Democrats aren’t actually a party of the left any more. Since about 1998, they have defined themselves almost entirely as “Not The Republicans”. They have been responsible for a huge amount of mayhem around the global including our drone bombings which are sheer murder, they have shielded the Bush administration from retribution for war crimes, they have shielded Wall Street from the repercussions of the recent meltdown (I can’t find it now, but I recently read an article chock full of facts and graphs, showing that average bank profits are now higher than they were before the meltdown, even though the rest of us have essentially not recovered at all), they passed the stupid and useless Affordable Care Act, they have not done anything about global warming, they have not touched the overgrown military budget, and they have in general refused to stand up to the Republicans on any issue of substance. These are not the actions of a leftist party!
Most people who I know who voted for Obama in this most recent election did so because they hated Romney, not because they liked Obama. I may be atypical, but I don’t think that I am. Up until Akin started the Republican rush to political-suicide-by-rape-comments, the Republicans were actually ahead in the polls, and I doubt that the people who switched sides after that point were honestly interested in voting for Democrats. Very clearly, the Democrats and the Republicans are close enough to each other that people can happily change from one to the other over a single issue without much concern. When you consider what the Republican Party stands for, these days, that is not a reassuring statement about the Democrats.
In truth, that is one of the primary functions of the Democratic Party in modern America: to keep other parties like the Greens from providing a genuine left-wing alternative by making people think that the niche is already filled. That’s how come the national Democratic organization manages to draw in corporate money even from sources which you wouldn’t expect would ever donate to the Democrats — they’re paying to make sure there will never be a truly effective opposition to Republicans. This being the case, even a huge victory for the Democratic Party is not a victory for the left, or for anyone whose political sympathies fall on the left side of the political spectrum.
6. Remember last time?
Last but not least, remember 2008? The Republicans lost both houses of Congress and the Presidency and they had been responsible for massive failures on all fronts of government over the previous 8 years so everyone hated them terribly? At that time, we were told that the Republicans and the right wing were over and done with for a generation and everything would be fine. Obama managed to screw that up royally almost immediately by failing to use his political capital to prosecute and break up the financial sector, which would have been popular with just about everyone across the entire political spectrum other than the bankers themselves. After squandering that political capital (and actually digging himself into a hole by surrounding himself with bankers) he continued to make a mess by letting right-wing elements dictate limitations on his policy in exchange for nothing whatsoever. (Remember how all the things removed from the Affordable Care Act were going to bring it wide Republican support? Remember how that Republican support never actually happened? Catering to the right wing just does not work, but Obama never learns and the Democrats obey Obama every time.)
So in 2010, the Republicans actually managed to reduce the Democratic majority in the Senate and retake the House, and they had enough momentum that a pair of terrible candidates like Romney and Ryan — a man who couldn’t hold the same position for an hour and a running mate who fulminated against government spending after a life spent on government payrolls of one type or another — were close enough to winning the election that the Democrats actually had to worry. If Team Obama can make that much of a screwup once, they can certainly do it again.