By David Smith
Barack Obama won yesterday with a comfortable margin, sparing us all the hideous spectacle of another election being decided in Florida. It was a big enough win that Republicans are not blaming Hurricane Sandy (understandably, since this might imply blaming God) or resorting to claims that the Democrats stole the election. Republicans are accepting defeat. How they interpret that defeat could play a major role in determining what Barack Obama’s second term looks like.
The American people have collectively chosen to return to the fractious configuration of the last two years—Democratic president, Republican house, Democratic senate. None of these results, in relative terms, was close. But even though everything has remained in the same column, there have been some notable changes.
Congressman Allen West was deposed yesterday by 29 year-old political novice Patrick Murphy. West, the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was the most menacing presence in the 2010 Tea Party wave that brought his party to power in the house. He had been forced into retirement from the army after discharging a firearm next to the head of an Iraqi detainee during an interrogation. As a Congressman he was distinguished mainly by his constant warnings that the United States was in danger of succumbing to Sharia law, and his famous pronouncement that 81 Congressional Democrats were members of the Communist Party. Illinois Tea Partier Joe Walsh was also defeated and Michele Bachmann only just survived, resulting in a severe blow to the Congressional Holy War Caucus.
On the other side of the ledger, Democratic congressman Alan Grayson is back. In his previous stint from 2008 to 2010, Grayson made headlines for remarking on the floor of the house that the Republicans’ plan for sick people is “die quickly,” and that Democrats at least believe that the right to life continues to apply after birth. He became a hero to progressives who wished that Obama would say things like that, but lost in the rout of 2010. Last night he was re-elected from a different district, and we can expect him to be unapologetically loud in the next congress.
For the second election in a row, the Tea Party may have cost Republicans control of the senate. A few months ago, Missouri was seen as a near certain pick-up for Republicans and no one would have contemplated that they would lose a seat in Indiana. But in the Indiana primary, Republicans cast aside six-term senator Richard Lugar (too moderate!) in favour of Richard Mourdock, who said he believes that pregnancies resulting from rapes are the result of “divine will.” Such a statement would be utterly extraordinary in any other year, but it was overshadowed by Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin, who said he had been reliably informed by doctors that in cases of “legitimate rape” women’s bodies do not allow pregnancy, thus invalidating the argument that abortion should be legal in cases of rape. Both men lost large numbers of appalled conservatives.
In 2010, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said if he became the majority leader his number one priority would be making Barack Obama a one-term President. Throughout Obama’s first term it appeared many Republicans were fighting the next presidential election campaign by obstructing everything Obama tried to do. In a lot of cases they were struggling to maintain their own party’s nomination in the face of militant primary challenges from the Tea Party. Obama’s victory gives some Democrats hope that the next Republican congress will be more conciliatory. The electoral repudiation of Obama has failed, and there are now huge questions about the electoral viability of the Tea Party brand. However, this could have the opposite effect.
The right of the Republican Party may well switch from the delusional majoritarianism of being the “real America” (Sarah Palin in 2008), to the even more paranoid status of oppressed minority, no longer trusting the majority with self-government (Sarah Palin last night). Remaining Tea Partiers in congress may now see themselves as the only thing standing between the constitution and socialism. This will not make congressional Republicans more cooperative.
Mitt Romney promised something much better than this. He got within striking distance of the presidency by coming across in the first presidential debate as a reasonable, old-fashioned Republican who only really cared about restoring business confidence. Crusades against social change held no appeal for him, and his foreign policy consisted of not being the next George W. Bush, at least according to the third debate. He had to speak the language of Ayn Rand to keep the wealthy donors onside, but he knew that to get elected he would have to be a moderate. There is a danger now that Republicans will interpret his defeat as a sign that they should have gone with a more red-meat conservative. That would be a mistake. If Newt Gingrich had received the nomination, we would be wondering this morning about which way the closely-fought contest in Alaska would go.
When Gingrich was campaigning for the Republican nomination, he invited conservatives to contemplate “how dangerous and radical” Obama would be when he didn’t need to get re-elected. We actually have very little idea of what Obama’s second term agenda will be, given how much of the last two years he devoted to yesterday’s election. But it almost certainly won’t be radical, any more so than the first term in which he was the most conservative Democratic president since Truman.
The first thing Obama has to deal with is the looming “fiscal cliff.” If he cannot reach an agreement with congress on how to reduce the deficit within the next few months, the United States will face an automatic barrage of tax increases and spending cuts designed to be painful to both sides (this was the final deal worked out during the 2011 stand-off over the debt ceiling). If Obama can’t get a deal this year, the fiscal cliff might become an early test of how the new congress interprets political reality.
Comprehensive immigration reform may come up in the second term. Obama has indicated he wants to provide more paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants, an idea Republicans have bitterly opposed for the last four years. However, the Republican Party previously enjoyed considerable success with Latino voters under leaders like Reagan and George W. Bush who did not demonise “illegals” and were open to more forgiving approaches. Latinos, who are often socially conservative and business-oriented, should not be a homogeneously Democratic-voting bloc. The fact that more than 70% of them voted for Obama this time is because Republicans appeared to hand over their immigration policy to the vigilante wing of the Arizona branch.
Neither party in America is ever permanently doomed after an election, despite the predictions that seem to arise nearly every time. Republicans have now lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, but the forces of political gravity—voters in the middle—will eventually drag them back to national viability. In the meantime the internal struggle could get ugly, and so could the second term of Barack Obama.
An edited version of this story appeared in Crikey online.