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Works and Days

Learning from the Election

November 27th, 2012 - 12:00 am

1. Populism

The Republicans have only won the popular vote since Ronald Reagan’s presidency on two occasions: 1988 and 2004. In both instances, even the patrician Bushes were able to paint their liberal opponents as out-of-touch Massachusetts magnificoes. Lee Atwater turned Michael Dukakis, the helmeted tank driver, into a bumbling Harvard Square naïf.  Karl Rove reminded the country that John Kerry, the wind surfer, was a spandex-wearing, wetsuit-outfitted yuppie who lived in several of his rich wife’s mansions, as he jetted around in her plane and sailed on her boat.

Otherwise, it was the Republicans who always ended up reduced to plutocratic grandees. Since 1960, and with the exception of Barack Obama, the Democrats always lost when they ran northern liberals — George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and John Kerry — so great is the American distrust of both old money aristocrats and Northern tsk-tsk scolds. Apparently southern accents — LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore — were necessary fides to win the popular vote, a sort of implicit reminder to voters that liberal Democrats could be just folks rather social engineers and redistributionists. Wealth apparently is not the key as much as an impression of familiarity with the working classes. Liberals laughed at Reagan riding horses, chopping wood, and chainsawing on his ranch, but voters liked what they saw. Neither party apparently can nominate a Massachusetts governor or senator and expect to win. Mitt Romney is a good man who would have made a very good president, but by June he was no longer a good Mitt Romney. Instead, millions of dollars in hit ads and free media assaults reduced him to a hideous caricature of a greedy, heartless Scrooge.

2. Barack Obama Was a Special Case

Barack Obama broke the 50-year rule of a successful northern liberal failing to win the presidency. It was not just that Barack Obama was the first African-American president, but rather that he was young, charismatic, half-African-American (on that characteristic, see Harry Reid and Joe Biden circa 2008), with an exotic multicultural name and a chameleon ability to be (and speak) all things to all people — a combination that enthralled white liberals and minorities alike. A new black candidate with a Jesse Jackson accent named Tyrone Wilson would not have won with the identical platform and teleprompted eloquence. I don’t think even a Cory Booker or Deval Patrick would have a chance.

Liberals wanted to vote for someone they could live next door to, chat about the Ivy League with, play golf with, and feel, well, very liberal about — and thereby never have to put their kids in a public integrated school, go into the ghetto or barrio, or live next to a household on public assistance — and again yet still feel very liberal about their tony apartheid. Barack Obama offered them that deal — and the added attraction of white liberals being complimented abroad when they jetted to Venice, Munich, or London as being international, cosmopolitan, and European if you will. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or any other Democrat will have no such special appeal in 2016. In terms of just getting elected (rather than governing), Obama did for the left what Reagan did for the right — and both are hard to follow. The truth is that in both the House of Representatives and statehouses the Republicans have never been stronger.

3. Racial Preemption Works

For most of 2012 the media created a preemptive charge that Republicans were racists, as everything from mentioning golf or the word “Chicago” was declared prejudicial. Romney was supposedly the new Andrew Johnson who would wreck civil rights in the way the latter undermined Reconstruction. The point was not that Democrats believed any of this racialism, but that it prepped the campaign battlefield to prevent Romney, as it had prevented McCain, from running the sort of bare-knuckles campaigns that Ronald Reagan had run against Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush had run against Michael Dukakis, and George W. Bush had run against John Kerry. The fact that “Racist! Racist!” is now a broken record — Eric Holder gets into hot water over his knowledge of Fast and Furious and suddenly his auditors are racists; Susan Rice misleads the country and suddenly her critics are racists and sexists — does not mean that it does not work in deterring critics. A white liberal can all but destroy Condoleezza Rice or Alberto Gonzalez and feel very liberal, but a peep about Barack Obama or Susan Rice from a white male is akin to a KKK slur. The next Republican candidate must be ready to reply to all sorts of false charges and to make them rebound on the accusers. When the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who gave the 2008 inaugural benediction, right before the election announces in a public speech that white people belong in Hell — and no one dares challenge him (why not just a “Mr. President, do you object to Rev. Lowery’s  racist remarks?”) — these preemptory charges of racism have proved effective. Tribal politics must be questioned not encouraged: the black vote, the Latino vote, the Asian vote — all this leads to the Balkans or Rwanda. Better to play the long-term strategy, deplore racial tribalization, and remind the country at large that we simply have too many disparate groups with too many conflicting agendas and too many claims against a shrinking majority to continue the present spoils system.

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