Now that the question has been answered — who will be the 44th president — there are seven more questions which will consume politicians, strategists, pundits, and voters for the next few years.
1. Will President Barack Obama govern as a moderate centrist or a liberal extremist? As the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, with a background seeped in far-left activism, he does not seem naturally inclined to head to the center without a looming election to force him to accommodate moderate voters. Certainly he now has every opportunity to push through the redistributive agenda he spoke about so fondly in his now-infamous 2001 radio address. He has healthy majorities in both houses of Congress and a wish list built up over eight years — with everything from universal health care to abolishing secret ballot union elections to the Freedom of Choice Act.
It would seem to require Herculean strength for a president, especially one relatively new to Washington and with a record of subservience to party orthodoxy, to resist the strong leftward pull. Certainly, Obama presumably wants not just one, but two terms and wants to retain that Congressional majority. And the lesson of 1994 when President Bill Clinton lost his Democratic Congressional majority remains fixed in Democrats’ memories. But it is hard to imagine, even with the financial crisis — and the resulting mound of debt and revenue shortfall — that Obama will now transform into a protector of free markets and balanced budgets and a bulwark against the phalanx of Democratic special interest groups.
Bottom Line: Expect Obama the liberal to trump Obama the equivocator.
2. Who will get blamed for the Republican wipeout? The list of potential culprits is long: President Bush, Treasury Secretary Paulson, John McCain, Sarah Palin, the entire McCain camp, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and, of course, the MSM. Those on the right with a specific agenda (e.g., less populism, more technocrats, and activist government) already have their guns pointed at the corresponding culprit (e.g., Palin). The conservative punditocracy got an early jump on the circular firing squad with many isolating Steve Schmidt as the tactician run amok. Others fingered their own candidate.
Bottom Line: After months of fighting, the conventional wisdom will be to blame Bush, banish the McCain campaign team, and conclude that the absence of any viable economic message was a significant factor in the loss. And expect conservatives in the base to rally around Palin in the face of an onslaught by the punditocracy which will label her selection as McCain’s biggest error.
3. What will the Republican Congressional minority do? They can’t do much given their reduced size. The argument will be over whether to accommodate the new administration or to resist at all costs. More importantly, the struggle will be to identify a new agenda comparable to the Contract with America which could re-energize the party and gain back lost seats.
Bottom Line: Look for a “Heck, no!” strategy while young Turks like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) strive to develop a comprehensive alternative agenda.
4. Will “continuity” or “change” be the watchword in national security policy? The deep, dark, and not very well-kept secret of the second Bush term was that it differed not very greatly from much of Obama’s campaign rhetoric — a preference for multilateral discussions, abandonment of strict nuclear verification requirements for North Korea, capitulation to Syrian domination of Lebanon, a business-like drawdown of forces in Iraq, and a redoubling of efforts in Afghanistan. Four more years of that may not thrill conservatives, but it will seem quite familiar to those following the evolution of Bush’s foreign policy.
Now Obama could certainly veer left, acceding to calls for a substantial cut in defense spending and making good on his pledge to meet directly with rogue-state dictators and to renegotiate NAFTA. But that would only invite unneeded risk and rekindle doubts about the new president.
Bottom Line: Aside from rhetorical flourishes, expect less change than promised. The rub however will come when, as Joe Biden predicted, the first test of Obama’s mettle comes. If he blinks, expect to hear a lot about “Jimmy Carter II.”
5. Who becomes the Republican frontrunner for 2012? Given the dearth of Republicans in Washington and the cloud of the Bush years, expect the most viable contenders to come from outside Washington: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Bobby Jindal. Palin has bonded with the base and gained the affection of many conservative pundits and activists. She has a ready outlet in the blogosphere and talk radio. Romney has the organization, experience, and knowledge — and perhaps some buyer’s remorse by GOP insiders that he would have been a better candidate in an election dominated by a financial crisis.
Bottom Line: Palin will work to round out her expertise while Romney will seek to redefine and soften his image. (Combined, they have the brains, charm, and experience for a fairly impressive ticket.) But if conservatives wish to obliterate any memory of 2008, look for Jindal to emerge as the newest outsider with a record of conservative reform.
6. Will there be a crack-up of the conservative punditocracy? Many conservative scribes inside the New York-Washington corridor were the first to jump on Palin and to shower Obama in compliments — “Oh, he knows philosophy!” “Ah, his temperament.” Others, horrified at their colleagues’ muddied thinking and abandonment of conservative principles, struck back. The danger for both is that their readers will lose interest in interpersonal fights and that politicians will figure out pundits don’t have much to do with winning elections.
Bottom Line: After a short period of hostility and some columnists “leaving for new opportunities,” pundits will settle down to the business at hand: fighting about the direction of conservatism instead of with each other.
7. What to do about the MSM? By virtually any objective standard — supported by statistical evidence — this was the most egregiously biased coverage ever seen in a presidential race. From the “tingle up the leg” in the primary to the never-ending slam pieces on Cindy McCain to the Palin feeding frenzy to the refusal to ask minimal questions about Obama’s past associations and policies, the MSM made clear they were an extension of the Obama campaign. With Obama firmly in power will he try to mount an effort to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, wiping out talk radio and maybe even the blogosphere?
While he contemplates that, conservatives will need to strategize on how to minimize and work around the MSM in future campaigns. It may be that you can’t run a presidential campaign without the MSM, but that you can make them far less important. If the candidates cooperate more with new media and less with old media, that’s where the viewers and readers will go. If Palin’s first interviews were with Chris Wallace, Hugh Hewitt, Powerline, and Politico, that’s where the public would have gone to learn about Palin. And a far different first impression would gave been formed.
The MSM remains important to the extent they are treated as independent reporters rather than spin doctors for Democrats. But Republicans needn’t play along. There is no rule requiring Republican campaigns to leak to the Washington Post — thereby helping to make news — or to go on Hardball.
Bottom Line: Technology, reading, and viewing habits and public disgust with MSM bias are powerful influences which will allow conservatives to find and bolster alternative outlets. But they shouldn’t kid themselves. Ronald Reagan got elected twice with no talk radio, no Fox News, and no blogosphere. The MSM is not the source of conservatives’ woes; it just adds to them.
Election 2008 has turned out to be a gloomy one for Republicans, but it could have been worse. They may manage to keep the Senate Democrats’ total below the filibuster threshold of sixty. And Republicans should do well to keep in mind that nothing is permanent in politics. Democrats who lost the Congress in 1994 and the presidency for the first eight years of the new millennium now reign supreme — until they won’t any more. Republicans would do well to cease the circular firing squad and get about the business of finding a message and impressive messengers to tout it.