Reflections on a Defeat

So we lost. I don’t like it a bit, but it’s not exactly a surprise, and there it is. What is one to make of it all?

The Historic Moment
A great many people have commented on the historic nature of a black man being elected president of the United States — when in some states he would not have been served at many lunch counters fifty years ago.

I’m glad that those who are deeply inspired by that are having their moment — people should realize that skin color is not a barrier to achievement in the US and if this helps people (black, brown and white) realize that, all to the good. I must admit, as a 29-year-old who grew up in the working class suburbs of Los Angeles, I’ve figured for basically all my life that it was simply a matter of time till we had our first black president, our first hispanic president, out first female president, etc.

And I can’t help feeling a certain cynicism about this because I can’t imagine that if a Clarence Thomas type figure had been running for the GOP and won, there would be all this rejoicing at “barriers coming down”. Sure, I’d consider it an extra bonus if a candidate whom I supported and who belonged to a once-oppressed minority won the presidency, but I’d care a lot more about him (or her) being someone I thought would be a good president than about the color of his skin. Call me colorblind, but there it is.

Divided We Remain
I’m already very tired of hearing people tell me what a wonderful day it is for America and how we can now all come together and heal the divisions of the last eight years. I hate to disappoint those who imagine that we’re standing on the brink of some sort of brave new world in which all is peachy and keen, but the fact is that elections are pretty much a zero sum game. The fact that you won means that slightly less than half the country lost. Those of us who did are in no more mood to come together and rejoice over the result than you were in 2000 or 2004. So stop telling us you’re looking forward to rejoicing in the dawning of Obamerica with us — it makes us cranky.

That said, for those of us who do find ourselves sorely disappointed with the country’s leadership for the next four years (and especially the next two) perspective and even a little bit of graciousness is in order. We lost. We know how incredibly annoying, offensive and stupid people looked who couldn’t stop shouting that Bush-chimp was Hitler for the last eight years. We must not be those people.

And if we can avoid the excesses of shrillness and conspiracy theorizing that some conservatives fell into during the Clinton years, we stand a much better chance of keeping our time in the wilderness short.

Obama-voting Pro-Lifers
Some professed pro-lifers seem to think this is exactly the moment when Obama could be persuaded to reach out to them for some kind of middle ground:

“Now is the time to dialogue with Obama on the issue of life. Now that he is victor, the next stage is to work with him. This also means to be critical, to be sure, but also to engage what he has said. I think a petition or letter which quotes ALL that he has said positive about working with pro-lifers for removing the causes of abortion, and even of his support for restrictions on late-term abortion, needs to be made, before he is in office, and somehow got to him. It needs to suggest that 1) FOCA and his quotes do not go hand and hand, and 2) better postpone FOCA and let the dialogue happen and see what comes from it, especially since it would contradict his notion that abortion can be restricted. The time is now. “

Yeah, well, good luck with that.

I strongly suspect that Obama has now heard all that he wants to hear out of his pro-life supporters until around August, 2012. If Obama takes any positive act specifically towards reducing abortion (other than coincidental factors like the economy starting to improve in late 2009 — which is roughly when I would expect a recovery regardless of who won) I will happily eat a hat of your choosing.

Where Obama Finds Himself
He won, and won convincingly. Given that the stock market is down 40% for the year, unemployment is rising, the incumbent’s approval ratings sit under 30%, and the Republican brand is rocked by scandal and corruption over the last few years — it would have been pretty pathetic if he’d lost. And indeed, that the fact the election was even competitive underscores that the Obama candidacy was very nearly an over-reach for the Democrats. They bet their best chance since Watergate that they could get in their ideal candidate rather than a compromise centrist, and their bet paid off.

Obama now finds himself a president elect with a strong majority in both houses of Congress and a very, very enthusiastic base. However, he’s run as a sort of hybrid candidate, promising a few goodies for the political and cultural left (card check, Freedom of Choice Act), promising a big give away to the broad center (you can keep your current health care and I’ll make it cheaper — or if you can’t get any I’ll give you something great from the government), and even making traditionally conservative promises which are popular with the wider population (a broad tax cut for most Americans, reducing spending, balancing the budget). His problem now is that his promises are mutually contradictory, especially given that the current recession will probably not level off in terms of safety net expenses for another year, and tax revenues will plummet as the rich (who provide most of the tax dollars) take a hit in their earnings.  (Not that they’ll be poor, but the capital gains and end of year bonuses won’t exactly be flowing this year.)

There’s no question that Obama is a very smart guy, and I’m sure that he doesn’t want to repeat Bill Clinton’s mistakes by overreaching in his first two years. He’d probably like to stick with fairly popular ideas for the first couple years. However, his most popular ideas are all very expensive. That leaves him the option of either doing fairly little during his first few years in office (and goodness knows, he’s proved himself adept at looking good while doing very little) or else appeasing his base by signing a bunch of highly partisan liberal priorities. If he does the latter, I suspect that the mid-term elections will go hard for him.

Perhaps he could just tour Europe for a few years? They’re supposed to love us now.

Is This The End of Center-Right America?
One thing is for sure, come January we shall have a government somewhere between center-left and just plain left. And yet in the same final Pew poll that showed Obama sailing to victory, far more Americans described themselves as “conservative” than as “liberal”. Add to that the fact that Obama ran, on paper, a hybrid left/right campaign in which he consistently hammered the Republican nominee for not cutting enough people’s taxes or having the right approach to balancing the budget, and it seems hard to argue that the outcome of the election represented a significant shift to the left.

And yet, while Obama did not run as a leftist, his actual record certainly suggests that he actually is one. And there’s no question but what the Democratic congress at his back will be eager for left wing legislation — though we’ve been spared the embarrassment of having Al Franken in the Senate making things even more absurd there than they normally are.

So clearly the US is in for a period of center-left rule, though I think the country is arguably still clearly center-right now. The question is, will the country come to like center-left rule over the coming years, and thus become a center-left country, or will it remain essentially center-right in orientation?

I think it’s rather early to start imagining that the US will become a Sweden or even a France any time soon, though. Recall that in the thirty years since 1980 the right has managed to define the viable political spectrum on a number of issues: taxes, welfare to work, gun control, capital punishment, etc. Other areas are hardened into seemingly permanent strife: abortion, gay issues. Few issues have settled into a leftist status quo.

Whither Conservatism?
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it, and one probably better addressed in future whole posts than in the last section of this long one. However, one thing seems clear to me: While the country is still clearly open to conservative ideas, the old standards which have been milked for the last eight years are running out of steam.

Taxes have already been cut to the point where they can’t go down much more until America kicks its addiction to government programs — something which is still very much in the future at this point.

There is still a constituency (even in “blue” states) for social conservatism, but a significant number of those who hold traditional views on social issues are Hispanic or African American. The GOP would be especially wise to find a way to appeal to socially conservative Hispanics. The best way of doing this would probably be getting behind an agenda of massively simplifying the immigration process, increasing immigration quotas (especially for Central and South America), and at then enforcing the law rigorously.

Conservatives need to find a way to seem like they care (and the amounts of time and money conservatives put into social issues show that they do care) without advocating big government solutions to local problems. Bush simply went the big government route, with programs like No Child Left Behind and the Prescription Drug Benefit. What we need is instead an approach to a range of “safety net” issues which, like charter school and vouchers have done for education, can be a national issue yet a force towards localization.

As Reagan said after losing the primary in ’76: It’s time to get to work.

22 Responses to Reflections on a Defeat

  • I think your last paragraph was particularly on target. Conservatives can tailor their message to the middle class without necessarily giving into Douthatism and the whole party of Sam’sClub, big government “conservatism” ideal. One thing we do need to keep in mind is that while we need to return to traditional conservative principles, doing so without also educating the electorate as to why these ideals work is pointless.

  • Progressives will now have more opportunities to put their ideas to the test. The near future of conservatism will be contingent on how well or poorly those ideas work out in practice and how well or poorly conservatives respond to their consequences. I’d like to think that we’ll learn from our and each other’s successes and failures, but that’s not likely to happen.

  • One thing we do need to keep in mind is that while we need to return to traditional conservative principles, doing so without also educating the electorate as to why these ideals work is pointless.

    Yes. And conservatives need leaders who understand conservative principles and can intellegently and effectively communicate the prudence of their principles to the public.

  • Bush simply went the big government route, with programs like No Child Left Behind and the Prescription Drug Benefit.

    Respectfully, McCain didn’t lose due to either of those issues. Neither issue is particularly responsible for Bush’s unpopularity.

    The GOP would be especially wise to find a way to appeal to socially conservative Hispanics.

    I don’t believe the GOP can be effective in doing so. Unlike some of their white counterparts, they at least aren’t voting against the GOP based on social issues. The issue the GOP has with Hispanics is that they are in the habit of alienating them. Given that Hispanics (like blacks) tend to be urban, they are often the “them” in the us v. them debates. This has been amplified in the foreclosure crisis. Until the GOP has an urban agenda, they will not be ‘relevant’ to Hispanics.

  • Respectfully, McCain didn’t lose due to either of those issues. Neither issue is particularly responsible for Bush’s unpopularity.

    No, McCain lost to the economy totally tanking, Bush being widely unpopular, and McCain not having enough of a set of policy principles to differentiate himself from Obama. McCain is essentially an old-fashioned, honor-focused man, but he’s without political philosophy. Since he wasn’t able to make Obama’s positions look sufficiently dishonorable or scary, he didn’t really have much of a way to present an alternative vision to Obamas.

    I don’t believe the GOP can be effective in doing so. Unlike some of their white counterparts, they at least aren’t voting against the GOP based on social issues. The issue the GOP has with Hispanics is that they are in the habit of alienating them. Given that Hispanics (like blacks) tend to be urban, they are often the “them” in the us v. them debates. This has been amplified in the foreclosure crisis. Until the GOP has an urban agenda, they will not be ‘relevant’ to Hispanics.

    You’re right that when Hispanics vote against the GOP, they do so because the GOP is in the habit of alienating them.

    However, in the California and the Southwest (which is where this matters) Hispanics are most definitely not a strictly or even primarily urban group. A lot of Hispanic voters in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and many regions of California are rural and small town people. (Significant parts of the Mexican-American side of my family still live in small towns in New Mexico and Nevada.) Those Hispanics have concerns very much like rural and small town white voters — if it can be made clear that the GOP is not out to get them.

    Getting into the cities — I don’t think it’s necessarily as helpless as you’re painting it. Democratic big city politics are one of the clearest failure stories of the last 15 years. It’s well past time for Republicans to start seriously contending for those big city mayorships. And 2nd and 3rd generation Hispanics tend heavily towards the sort of blue collar small business/contractor lifestyles (pretty much describes my Ramirez relatives back in LA) which among white voters trend well towards the GOP much of the time. Those are the folks the GOP should be going for.

    Hispanics are far too diffuse a group to ever massively in one side or the other (and many of us stop listing ourselves as “Hispanic” after a few generations and a bit of intermarriage) and the GOP will certainly never have a lock on them. However, it does need to be able to get close to 50% of the Hispanic vote in key Southwestern states if it’s ever to get that region back in play again. And given how increasingly hostile to religion and traditional culture West Coast Democrats are, I don’t think it’s necessarily a stretch at all.

  • “I can’t imagine that if a Clarence Thomas type figure had been running for the GOP and won, there would [not] be all this rejoicing.”
    I seem to recall a Condi Rice-as-Prissy-from-GWTW cartoon that would indicate otherwise. BTW, I don’t think you intended that “not”; it makes for a double negative and counters your point.

    “I think it’s rather early to start imagining that the US will become a Sweden or even a France any time soon.”
    My DH proposes the slogan, “Obama’s America: Like France, only without the culture, wine, and cheese.”
    But you’re right; I wouldn’t expect it to take. We Yanks really don’t cotton to being told what to do.

    I have the impression that the Obama campaign did a fair amount of outreach to Hispanics. It’s a shame that McCain, whom one would think would have an advantage there as a Southwesterner, did not–the socially coservative Hispanic community would seem to be natural allies to the GOP.

  • BTW, I don’t think you intended that “not”; it makes for a double negative and counters your point.

    Fixed. Thanks. Two conflicting layers of edits…

  • I was heartened to notice that the Catholic Church did some outreach regarding the candidates’ abortion positions. I’m afraid churches may have to take up the slack in Hispanic outreach. Many of them are already doing it anyway, and I’m afraid the old guard GOPers can’t be relied upon.

  • “As Reagan said after losing the primary in ‘76: It’s time to get to work.”

    Yep. Losing in anything is always a painful experience, but it can be extremely useful if it is also a learning experience. This year has taught us many valuable lessons if we will only have eyes to see them. One lesson I would suggest is that it is foolish to write off any part of the country. Obama made early and strong efforts to take Red states that looked to be completely out of his grasp and it paid off. People are certainly not going to vote for a party if it doesn’t even ask. The Republican party needs to implement a strong rebuilding effort in every state in the Union. Next time we fight a truly national election and not give our opponents the luxury of not having to play defense.

  • Awk. I meant to say, “outreach to Hispanics.” Duh.

  • This is tangential at best (although Douthat was mentioned earlier in the thread), but this quote is priceless, particularly since it is given in the context of a panel discussion which includes Kmiec. I know Douthat comes in for a lot of criticism among small-government conservatives, but his willingness to write forthrightly about topics such as pornography and abortion in places like the Atlantic or Slate is certainly admirable:

    “I am sure that Kmiec is weary of being called a fool by opponents of abortion for his tireless pro-Obama advocacy during this election cycle, but if so, then the thing for him to do is to cease acting like the sort of person for whom the term “useful idiot” was coined, rather than persisting in his folly.”

    http://www.slate.com/id/2203800/

  • Ha! How true.

    I’d seen round one of that discussion, and Douthat’s piece struck me as pretty solid. Kmiec’s was, of course, totally idiotic — and verging on incoherant. Not sure why he was invited to participate in a forum on conservatism in this case.

    I enjoy reading Douthat, though I certainly don’t agree with everything that he says. He may get a somewhat overly hard rap on the big government question, though, in that although he’s certainly an advocate of “programs” for the middle class (and I think he _does_ go too far on that) I don’t think he’s necessarily a centralizer. My impression is that he’d be just as much if not more behind approaches such as charter schools that take what was previously a centralized program and open it up as a decentralized, locally run one.

  • “What is one to make of it all?”

    For a nation in which a large percentage of the population claims to be Christian and yet they asked for a pro-“choice king”, and for a good economy over the right to life, they were granted their desires. Why does the image of Saul come to mind?

  • I really don’t understand the repeated assertion that the choice of Obama represented desire for “a good economy” over the right to life.

    Obama’s stated policies will be disastrous for the US economy. Anyone who wanted economic sanity was out of luck this election, but McCain might have been marginally less disastrous.

    Neither party mounted a candidate with a sane approach to economics.

    So can someone explain how the “a vote for Obama is a vote for a good economy” meme got started?

  • The perception is out there, for whatever reason, that the Democrats are good for the economy. I think it is based on fond memories of the dot.com bubble which crested during the Clinton years, and a misplaced belief that George Bush and the Republicans somehow were responsible for the current financial crisis. There is not a solid basis for these perceptions, but one of the common features of democracies is that they act irrationally. Nevertheless, Barack Obama did well among voters who listed the economy as their top concern.

  • Thank you, fus01.

    I heard the sentiment several times from our parish priest, certainly no fan of Obama, but I haven’t had a chance to ask him about the rationale behind it.

    It frustrates me, due to what seems to me the evident falsehood of the assertion.

    I should get out more. :)

  • Obama’s stated policies will be disastrous for the US economy.

    Yeah, just look to Michigan to see how Obama’s stated policies will work out. There’s always the hope that once he’s in office he’ll take a little more sane approach to things, but alas, he just announced his economic team, in which Jennifer Granholm is a key adviser. Trust me, you don’t want Obama to do for the country what Granholm has done for Michigan.

  • Since you refer to me in a section of “Obama voters,” one thing I want to say — I did not vote for Obama, ok? Nonetheless, we are required as Christians to work with the situation as it stands; he is the candidate who won. So, instead of giving up hope, the Christian response is to have hope — as Pope Benedict has shown many times. Sure, we might not get what we want, but we certainly will not if we sit around just telling each other how bad Obama is.

  • I certainly agree, Henry, that Christians must never abandon hope. The future of Christianity does not rely on some particular party in some particular country winning. It’s always problematic when people identify their religion with their party so closely as to see that as being the case — though I flatter myself this does not happen terribly often among Catholics in our country.

    However, I don’t think that hope necessarily means making efforts to actively work with the Obama administration on some topics — at least in ways that betray our fundamental principles. Personally, I find place rather more help in taking the next four years to achieve a clearly articulated positive political philosophy — and then defeating the Democrats (or at least those who reflect Obama’s ideals in regards to life issues) at the executive and legislative levels.

    But to each their own.

  • Obama will now find that voting “present” is no longer an option. The ball is in his court now. It will be back in ours soon enough unless he performs much better than I expect. I think the election of 2008 is merely Act I in a new stage of the political history of the nation. The Democrats routed the Republicans in Act I. The curtain is now going up on Act II and the audience is leaning forward.

  • Genesis 1:27, “So God made man in his own image”.
    Genesis 2:7, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground.”
    Genesis 2:21-22, “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, …the Lord had taken from man, made he a woman, & brought her unto the man”.
    From the above verses, it is obvious that God formed man/woman from dust instead of transforming apes to human beings.

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