What It Means

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. — Martin Luther King

The Weekly Sift is taking a two-week post-election vacation. The next Sift will appear December 1. In the meantime, if you happen to be in Quincy, Illinois, you can hear Doug Muder preach at the Unitarian Church on November 23.

In This Week’s Sift:

  • The Republicans. They’re working their way through the stages of grief, but most haven’t made it past denial yet. Eventually they’ll have to accept the reality that their jock/cheerleader ticket couldn’t beat a nerd. That’s a problem.
  • The Democrats. Is it “overreaching” to do what you told the voters you’d do? Pundits seem to think so.
  • Short Notes. I congratulate myself on my election predictions, then thank Nate Silver. The Constitution is back on top. Activist administrators in the Treasury Department hand bankers $140 billion Congress never intended. Why Obama is a headache for Iran. And more.

The Republicans

[I posted a snarkier version of this to DailyKos.]

As soon as the competition for votes ends, a new battle begins: The struggle to define what the election results mean.

To hear Republicans talk about it, Obama’s victory doesn’t mean much. They immediately began chanting “This is a center-right country” as if the Constitution said so and mere votes can’t change it. Most of these same people had been telling us (until Tuesday) that Obama is a socialist, so you’d think seeing a socialist carry states like Indiana and North Carolina would shake their world. But something about losing messes up your ability to draw logical conclusions.

The Kubler-Ross stages. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross called that something denial. It’s the first-stage reaction to extremely bad news, like Montana becoming a battleground state. So, for example, Christine Todd Whitman: “One pollster I heard zeroed in on people’s obsession with Barack Obama the person, not necessarily Obama the ideology, and I have to agree. When the dust settles, I don’t think we’ll find a liberal recalibrated nation on our hands.” (Somehow, Obama the person also elected at least six new Democratic senators and close to 20 new representatives. Maybe they’re just great people too.) Robert Novak: “[Obama] neither received a broad mandate from the public nor the needed large congressional majorities.”

Another form denial takes is to attribute losses — this is the second straight Republican thumping, remember — to one-of-a-kind causes that have no long-term consequences. So Charles Krauthammer can believe that the 2006 loss was all about Iraq, and 2008 was just the economic meltdown. And since the Iraq War and the meltdown are random acts of God, unrelated to Republican policies, nothing needs to change.

The folks inside McCain’s campaign probably knew weeks ago that they were going to lose, so they’ve moved on to the second stage, anger. How else to interpret their anonymous sniping at Sarah Palin? McCain aides charged the most incredible things about Palin: that she thought Africa was a country, didn’t know which countries were in NAFTA, spent even more than $150,000 of expense-account money on clothes, and lacked knowledge of basic civics. (That last one I had already figured out from her statement about the First Amendment. She thought it was supposed to protect her from criticism by the press, not free the press to criticize politicians like her.) Apparently an RNC lawyer has been dispatched to Alaska to retrieve Palin’s clothes. (No, that’s not a scene from Nailin’ Palin. It’s a news story. Really.) For her part, Palin charitably attributes the criticisms to “a small, bitter person” or to “jerks“.

Like most expressions of anger, these are appallingly self-destructive. If half this stuff is true, those same McCain aides have been lying through their teeth for the last two months about how qualified and capable Palin is. And their guy is the one who picked her to begin with, so they can’t sling mud at her without hitting him — and themselves.

The other odd thing here is that Fox News, the conservative movement’s version of Pravda, broke the story. And some folks on RedState.org, the flagship conservative blog, are so incensed that they are calling for a boycott of Fox News. Seriously. This can only mean a Republican civil war is starting, which you can expect more people to join as they get through the denial stage and move on to anger. (Should I make popcorn? With butter?)

The Wall Street Journal — always one of the most advanced conservative bastions — has made it all the way to the third stage, bargaining. They’ll accept that Obama has won on the condition that he agree never again to talk about racism in the present tense: “One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth
of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country. Mr.
Obama has a special obligation to help do so.” (The best answer I’ve seen to this point is from Episode 12 of Elon James White’s This Week in Blackness: “I hate that people are using the Obama presidency as a get-out-of-jail-free card.” He mentioned newscasters talking encouragingly about how white voters “looked past” Obama’s race and “still” voted for him. “If you have to work past it,” White said, “it’s still a problem.”)

It’s hard to tell when the fourth stage, depression, has begun, because the depressed tend to hide from public view. Personally, I hope it holds off until Obama’s first bills arrive in the Senate. I picture Mitch McConnell getting up to start the filibuster, then saying, “Oh, never mind. It’s all hopeless.”

Eventually, though, nearly all the Republicans will reach acceptance. (Around 2016, most of them.) Here’s the reality that they will need to accept if they’re ever going to get back to power: The 2008 results are even worse than the 53-46 gap between Obama and McCain shows, because of who voted against them and why.

Neither black nor white. The worst news for Republicans is that Hispanics have started to identify with the Democrats. Obama won them about 2-1, and that made the difference in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada — three states that used to be reliably Republican. (With a candidate other than McCain, Arizona might well have gone blue too.) Republicans wrote off the black vote when Nixon adopted his “southern strategy” in 1968; if the Hispanic vote (and the Asian and Arab vote, which also went heavily for Obama) hardens against them as well, they’ll start every campaign with a quarter of the country lined up on the other side. And that quarter is growing.

Worse, the racism-friendly (if not overtly racist) atmosphere of the Republican Party is precisely what energizes the conservative base. McCain had to back off of his reasonable immigration-reform position (to the point of saying he would vote against his own bill) because the electorate in the Republican primaries was so inclined to villainize Hispanic immigrants. Technically, candidates like Tom Tancredo only railed against the illegal immigrants, but they definitely appealed to the more general sentiment that there are just too many brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking people in America today. And when Republicans talk about “real America” or Sarah Palin tells lily-white rural crowds that they are the “pro-America” parts of the country, Hispanics (as well as blacks, Arabs, Asians, and Jews) all get the message that they’re not wanted.

Young people. The second piece of Republican bad news is the under-30 vote, which also went 2-1 to Obama. If the under-34 vote goes 2-1 Democratic in 2012 and the under-38 vote does the same in 2016, Republicans are toast. I’m not saying that will definitely happen, but what’s going to stop it? Again, current base-rallying issues are a huge part of the problem. Scapegoating gays and lesbians, for example, turns off young voters, who have grown up in a much less prejudiced world than their elders.

Another Republican tactic that is ineffective among younger voters is the elitism attack. To Republicans, elitists aren’t trust-fund kids like George W. Bush or Cindy McCain, they’re people like Obama, who worked his way up by getting an education. An elitist, in other words, isn’t somebody born to privilege, it’s somebody who’s smarter than you are. In high school terms, the 2008 elitism attack amounted to this: McCain and Palin were a jock/cheerleader couple ridiculing the idea that a nerd could be president.

It didn’t work this time, as Nicholas Kristof notes: “Yet times may be changing. How else do we explain the election in 2008 of an Ivy League-educated law professor who has favorite philosophers and poets?”

What changed? Well, pop culture for one thing. When 50ish people like me were young, action heroes were jocks. If the jock-hero needed smarts, he’d have a nerd sidekick. (Think Kirk/Spock in Star Trek.) But things started to flip around in the 80s. The second generation of Star Trek had Picard/Ricker — a nerd with a jock sidekick. In the 60s, Stan Lee created the comic-book Spiderman to be a hero for nerds. Now he’s a mainstream hero, the most successful movie action hero ever.

In the 21st century, in other words, smart can be cool. So when aging jocks and cheerleaders point to their opponent and jeer “He’s a nerd!” voters who were kids in the 80s (or later) say “So?”

Summing up. The Republicans face larger problems than just a bad candidate or a bad campaign. They can’t win in the future with the voters they currently appeal to, and the messages that best rally their current base turn off the new voters they need to reach. It’s not a hopeless situation, but it’s not going to fix itself.

If they’re smart — which they may not be — Republicans will run somebody like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in 2012. He’s a young non-white Rhodes scholar who did his masters degree in political science even though he’d been accepted by both law schools and medical schools. His conservative credentials are in order, and his biography alone would solve a lot of problems. Or they could nominate Sarah Palin and just underline everything they did wrong in 2008.

The Democrats
Related to the idea that “this is a center-right country” is the worry that the Democrats will “overreach” — go so far to the left that the country rebels and elects a bunch of Republicans in 2010, the way it did in 1994 after Clinton’s first two years. And I suppose I’ll even agree with this point if Democrats start talking about nationalizing the oil industry or confiscating all the guns. But so far “overreaching” seems to mean “doing what they promised the voters they’d do”.

Obama campaigned on these issues:

  • making the tax code more progressive by letting the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy and cutting taxes on everybody else,
  • doing something major to restructure how we pay for health care, with the goal of drastically reducing the number of people uninsured,
  • drawing down our forces in Iraq at a measured pace, until we have a much smaller “residual force” in about 16 months,
  • creating jobs by rebuilding infrastructure and pursuing green energy.
Trying to fulfill those promises cannot possibly be “overreaching”. He may or may not succeed, but he owes it to the voters to try.

BTW, Mike Lux on OpenLeft disputes the idea that the Democrats’ problem in 1994 was Clinton’s liberal overreaching. His interpretation says that the Democrats didn’t deliver for the working class, which then stayed home in the 1994 elections. Paul Krugman and E. J. Dionne give similar warnings: They worry that Obama will attempt too little, not too much.

One common opinion in the Washington establishment — a few months ago liberal bloggers started referring to it as “the Village” and establishment pundits as “villagers” — is that campaigns are meaningless because things really only work one way. And so the subtext of article after article is that Obama won’t really change things: Our troops will stay in Iraq. The middle class won’t get a tax cut. Health care reform will consist of a few modest changes, like expanding the S-CHIP program for children.

To hear the villagers tell it, Obama’s most important job is going to be to stand up to the Left. Obama’s real opposition, says the Wall Street Journal, will come from the Democrats in Congress, who foolishly will want to implement the policies that Obama campaigned on and the voters voted for.

The strangest part of this center-right fantasy is that Republicans have any interest in bipartisanship. Which Republicans will be receptive to Obama’s overtures? On which issues? What bipartisan solutions might they embrace? Bush’s attempt at bipartisan immigration reform was torpedoed from the right, not the left. Why does anybody think they’ll treat Obama’s attempts at bipartisanship any better?

Digby writes:

This is why this bipartisan fetish is so dangerous. It sets up an expectation among the villagers that actual politics can be like a DC cocktail part (or the CNN green room) where everyone has a spirited conversation and then pat each other on the backs agreeing that the only reason these things are so contentious is because the silly people out in the country just don’t understand how things really work. … All over television this morning the gasbags seemed convinced that Obama had been elected to stop the left from ruining the country. And when it turns out to actually be his supposedly cooperative new partners in governance — the right — that stand in his way, they will blame him for being too far left. It’s a trap.

Fundamentally, I think Matt Yglesias had it right the day before the election: Obama shouldn’t worry about whether his policies are perceived as centrist or leftist or whatever. He shouldn’t even worry about whether his proposals are initially popular. If they don’t work, the public will turn against them. If they do work, if people perceive the country as being in better shape, all will be forgiven. Gus Cochran: “The party that successfully gets beyond public relations and provides effective governance will be rewarded with a bright electoral future.”

Short Notes

Scorecard: I have been annoyingly smug this week about the accuracy of my election night simulation, which predicted that Ohio would be called for Obama between 9 and 10, and that we could all go to bed at 11 when the networks called California. I was surprised that Virginia took so long to resolve and that Pennsylvania came in so early, but otherwise I had it about right.

Other bits of self-congratulation from the campaign: Catching on early (December 9) to McCain’s comeback in the Republican primaries, and realizing right away (September 8) that Palin would alienate more Republicans in the middle than she gained on the right. But let’s not talk about my prediction that Obama would do better than expected in the New Hampshire primary.

The reason I could have it right on election night was that the polls had it right. No Bradley effect. Nate Silver’s meta-poll projection was so accurate that a less enlightened age would burn him as a witch. He projected the popular vote as 52.3-46.2%, when it actually came in at 52.6-46.2%.

TPM has spotted evidence of true radicalism in the incoming administration: The Obama transition team’s org chart puts the President back under the Constitution, and returns the Vice President to the executive branch.

Speaking of executive power, the Treasury Department has learned a trick from those Justice Department memos that made our laws against torture meaningless. It “reinterpreted” the tax code to say the opposite of what it really says.

The law actually says that profitable companies can’t avoid taxes by acquiring companies with losses. But the Treasury has said, basically, “Oh, never mind.” The change is worth an estimated $25 billion to banking company Wells Fargo, which just acquired failing Wachovia. The overall benefit to the banking industry is about $140 billion, in exchange for which the public gets … well, nothing, actually. Think of it as a going-away present from the Bush administration.

This is the ironic part of all that conservative rhetoric about “activist liberal judges” who supposedly make the law say whatever they want. (I critiqued this myth back in 2005.) There are no activist liberal judges in that sense, but it is quite literally true that the Bush administration has been full of activist administrators, who make policy and then interpret the laws to fit.

President Bush has been fond of saying that his first duty is to keep Americans safe. But what the Constitution actually says is: “He shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” That’s what “executive branch” is supposed to mean.

It continues: AIG needs still more government money. Circuit City is bankrupt. GM stock hasn’t been this low since 1946.

On the environment, Matt Yglesias writes: “Simply declaring that the EPA is going to start following existing law … could make a huge difference.”

Relive the whole campaign in one big graphic.

A lot of conservative ink has been spilled raising the alarm that Democrats are going to kill right-wing talk radio by restoring the Fairness Doctrine, which used to require balance on the public airwaves. Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum have both tried to figure out what the conservatives are worried about and have come up blank. Talk on, Rush Limbaugh. It’s a free country.

The Carnegie Endowment’s Iran expert, Karim Sadjadpour:

If you’re a hard-liner in Tehran, a U.S. president who wants to talk to you presents more of a quandary than a U.S. president who wants to confront you. How are you going to implore crowds to chant “Death to Barack Hussein Obama”? … Obama just doesn’t fit the radical Islamist narrative of a racist, blood-thirsty America bent on oppressing Muslims worldwide.

Bill Ayers has finally spoken out on what it’s like to suffer the collateral damage of a negative political campaign.

Obama has continually been asked to defend something that ought to be at democracy’s heart: the importance of talking to as many people as possible in this complicated and wildly diverse society, of listening with the possibility of learning something new, and of speaking with the possibility of persuading or influencing others. The McCain-Palin attacks not only involved guilt by association, they also assumed that one must apply a political litmus test to begin a conversation.

David Letterman gets the last word with John McCain: “You don’t show up for me, America doesn’t show up for you.” Or maybe this was Letterman’s last word. Maybe.

The Onion News Network shows us the human cost of the Obama victory.

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  • David deMilo  On November 11, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    As far as I heard in the post-primary season, especially in the debates, Obama ran on tax cuts, redeploying troops in Iraq to Afghanistan to “finish the job there,” and economic growth. Sounds more like Barry Goldwater than Bill Ayers. And if he does those things, I’m sure voters will be grateful.

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