The Ground Shifted Beneath Them

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

That was the most significant line from the Obama speech yesterday for Republicans.

The ground has shifted beneath them.

Five years ago, when I first heard about an ambitious legislator from the Illinois state Senate who wanted to be president, a guy with a strange name whose father was from Africa, I scoffed. No way that was going to happen, I said.

I thought the first African-American president was going to be someone like Colin Powell, not a guy whose middle name was Hussein.

But the ground shifted beneath me.

The reasons Barack Obama won this last election are routinely cited. He ran a good campaign. He raised a lot of money. He gives a great speech. People hate Republicans and George Bush and they are tired of the Clintons. John McCain ran a lousy campaign.

All of these are valid, but the real reason is that the ground shifted beneath us.

John McCain and top Republicans campaigned as Ronald Reagan, pushing for smaller government, more tax cuts, free trade, free markets, exportation of democracy and victory in wars against terrorism.

That playbook won election after election from 1980 to 2004 (including for Bill Clinton), but then the ground shifted beneath us, and none of those issues seemed to work well in the last two elections.

Republicans moved steadily away from their founding principles as the party of civil rights to a party of states’ rights. They were founded as a counter to the Know-Nothings in the mid-1800s, but they have moved to become the party that hates immigrants.

And the Republican vote totals among African-Americans and Hispanics dropped precipitously among those groups because of those policy shifts.

McCain ran campaign commercials that made him look like a latter-day John Wayne. He was the war hero, the alpha male, the maverick, the tough guy.

Obama danced on “Ellen” and was endorsed by Oprah. Predictably, McCain got killed among female voters.

Part of Obama’s appeal is that he listens to the questions, thinks and then thoughtfully answers them. He doesn’t do talking points.

McCain didn’t do talking points either, which freaked out his campaign. Any time he went off the reservation in a way that would piss off his base, the campaign feverishly tried to steer him back.

But the base can be overrated. We are not a conservative country. We are a centrist country with conservative leanings. And if you don’t appeal to the vast middle, especially that part of Middle America that lives in the suburbs, your party loses seats, influence, access to money, and perspective

The center revolted against the partisanship of the last 20 years. They threw their lot in with Obama because he talked to them, appealed to them, excited them and promised them a post-partisan world where all would work together for a more perfect union.

Who could possibly be against that ideal?

Well, the Republicans were, and they got beat — and got beat bad.

The ground shifted beneath them and it still shifts beneath them.

It may take a while before they get steady again.




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