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Saturday, October 18, 2008

A new era?

I am too cautious to make a firm prediction, but every indicator increasingly suggests that Barack Obama is going to win on November 4. Two key states, Florida and Ohio, remain maddeningly close, and I still cannot quite trust the Senator's 7-point lead in Virginia, but even without any of those Obama would secure 289 electoral votes from states in which he has an established lead of five points or more. The nation's press is rallying behind him (perhaps because of the constant Republican attacks on its integrity), and most remarkably of all, he disposes of more than twice the financial and advertising resources of his Republican opponent. Behind that lies two huge stories: the incredibly successful Obama grassroots fundraising operation, to which I have modestly contributed myself, and McCain's decision to accept public financing and the limits that went with it. Given the presence of long-term Republican operatives high in his campaign, I do not believe that he made that decision simply out of public spirit. For some reason--and I would like to know what it is--the millions that twice put George W. Bush into the White House were not going to be available for him. A little less than four years ago I pointed out that the blue states were overwhelmingly wealthier than the red, and this time around they have made that difference count. In addition, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin has lopped off an intellectual segment of the Republican coalition, exemplified by Christopher Buckley, who have finally become alarmed by the company they have been keeping. (Bill Kristol, on the other hand, feels that Republican hate-mongering has not gone far enough.) On another front, Colin Powell (who to date has refused to endorse either candidate) will appear on Meet the Press tomorrow, and rumors have it that he will endorse Obama, putting the Republican foreign policy realists firmly into his camp. Thanks to the American people, better-educated and better-off Americans will perhaps be able to stop being defensive about their beliefs--including their belief in reason itself.

Obama, however, will if he wins take over the government of the most divided country since 1860--in some ways, more polarized even than at that time. Current polls suggest that the Democrats will win 249 House seats, making a gain of 46 since 2005, and 59 Senate seats. The threatened Republicans, moreover, are largely in blue states (although some of them are also in the South.) The Republican Party has reduced itself to a rather narrow, and frightening, slice of American opinion. The McCain campaign reflects this, because McCain has not deviated in the slightest from the orthodoxy of its three main branches--tax-cutters, neoconservatives, and angry evangliecals--on any major issue. He is losing above all, in my opinion, because the country has at last grasped the truth about the Republican mantra of the last 30 years: upper-bracket tax cuts do not stimulate the economy as a whole. It is a symbol of McCain's and his party strategists' isolation that he actually believes he can win votes by quoting Obama's wish to "spread the wealth around" as if were equivalent to "promoting homosexuality" or "supporting terrorism." Most Americans now realize that the wealth needs to be spread around more, thank you. On foreign policy McCain was already firmly in the neoconservative camp in 2000 and has never wavered, and his campaign and Republican supporters are now relying largely on race-based appeals to resentment (see their latest robocalls, or listen to Rush Limbaugh for an hour or so next week and you will see what I mean.) John McCain was reduced yesterday to reviving a shibboleth from the past, accusing Obama of promoting "welfare" as if Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress had not taken that venerable whipping gal off the table a dozen years ago. Yet these ideas, while at long last repudiated by the American people, will come January dominate the Republican Party to an even greater extent.

The Republican Party will remain after November perhaps the most rigidly disciplined and narrowly based party in American history. Even the opposition crises in the two previous great crises in American life included a much broader range of opinions than today's Republicans. The Democrats in 1861-5 included quite a few firm supporters of the Union and the Northern side of the war (including Andrew Johnson, whom Lincoln unfortunately put on the ticket in 1864.) The Republicans in the New Deal era included great progressives like George Norris of Nebraska, Hiram Johnson of California, and William Borah of Idaho, who voted for a great deal of New Deal legislation at home even though they were isolationists abroad. But having spent 30 years building a constituency by railing against the federal government (except, of course, the Department of Defense), the Republicans have literally nothing to offer now that we need a government again. Many of them remain in denial regarding the necessity, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, of a large national government. Several times in the last few weeks I have heard Republicans railing that George W. Bush was not a true conservative, and that he should have been able to drastically restrain federal spending and cut taxes even further. In fact the difference between the parties over the last 40 years has not been about the need for a large federal government--that has been a given. The Democrats have recognized the need to pay for it--the Republicans have not.

Newt Gingrich in 1994 was right: he was the real revolutionary, eager to undo the work of the last 60 years (a campaign already undertaken under Ronald Reagan, the conservative hero to whom McCain appeals again and again in vain) and return us to the late 19th century. But because his revolution--like so many others in the past--was built upon false premises, its success led almost at once to its failure. Thirty years of lower taxes and de-regulation did lead us back to the 1920s, but with the same consequences. (I recall that Reagan had learned from his conservative intellectual mentors to revere those tax-cutters of an earlier age, Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Mellon. He did not live to see his work turn out like theirs.)

Just yesterday the Wall Street Journal editorial page lamented that the Democrats may be stronger than they have been since 1933 (they should have said 1935) or 1965, and suggested that the country would not vote them back if they realized this. In fact they will not be that strong--their majorities were much larger then--but in any case we will not be going all the way back either to the beginning of the last crisis (when 25% of the population was unemployed) or to the end of the last High. Obama is winning above all because he wants to usher in a less ideological age. That is a gamble, but so far he is winning it. But if he succeeds as President it will be with new measures, new men and women, and new rhetoric. No past, however glorious, returns--because the new generations that make the future do not remember it or revere it. The great crisis will lay the old order to rest and create a new one. That is the way of all organic life.


Matthew E said...

I had an idea earlier about what could be going on here. Let's say that the deep thinkers who are at the wheel of the Republican Party have concluded that the next four years are going to be terrible no matter what happens. Therefore the Democrats might as well take the blame for it. So the Republicans run McCain, who they don't really care if he ever wins anything, and Palin, who is nothing in particular to them. The Democrats fall for it and use up their best candidate on an election that, if they win it, will do nothing for them but make sure Obama will never be able to win another election after this sure-to-be-disastrous term. And then in 2012 the Republicans sweep back in behind a real candidate.

Anonymous said...

The economic crisis, already underway, hit during Dubya's watch, but is still so new that it's a given: the next President runs the risk of being this century's Herbert Hoover if he isn't able to handle it. (Note: even FDR flailed around for a few years, and even Hoover was starting to cope with it. Timing is all?)

Perhaps they're hoping the Hoover mantle falls on Obama and thus discredits the Democrats. Unfortunately, that won't bring back the Republicans, who so thoroughly discredited themselves this past 8 years, that nobody knows what will happen in this case. Only that it won't be pretty.