By Mark Mellman - 11/18/08 06:48 PM EST
Though the last two election cycles have been very good to Democrats, President-elect Barack Obama and his team have assiduously avoided dancing in the end zone. While most Democrats have taken their cues from the president-elect, sounding just the right note, there is nonetheless a creeping triumphalism in some party circles. Discussions of innovations in campaign technology, new coalitions and newly “blue” states sometimes devolve into tentative talk of realignment and permanent Democratic majorities.
There are many versions of a story about King Solomon, who once brought together the wisest people in the world to tell him something that would be true for all time. They debated a series of aphorisms, the details of which I will spare you, but the wise king eventually found a single winner — one statement true forever — “This too shall pass away.”
Having made it the theme of his campaign, the president-elect recognizes that change is the only permanent feature of our politics.
Over the last two cycles, a variety of demographic, attitudinal and technological changes inured to Democrats’ advantage.
Colorado presents perhaps the most vivid portrait of the revolution now engulfing American politics. In 2002, Republicans controlled that state’s governor’s chair, the two U.S. Senate seats, five of seven U.S. House seats and both houses of the state legislature; and, in the presidential election of 2004, the state gave its electoral votes to George Bush. In January, Colorado will have a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators; Democrats will control five of seven U.S. House seats and both houses of the legislature; and Barack Obama picked up Colorado’s electoral votes on his way to the White House. That is dramatic, thoroughgoing and consistent change over six years in which Democrats can take justifiable pride.
Before considering such changes permanent, we should recall Solomon’s lesson — only change is permanent. In 1984, after Ronald Reagan swept 49 states and elected officials across the country switched parties, journalists wrote about the final demise of the Democratic Party and the GOP lock on the Electoral College. At the time, I responded flippantly to one saying there was nothing wrong with Democrats that 10 percent unemployment wouldn’t cure. Eight years later, the first Bush recession helped propel Bill Clinton to the White House.
In 2001, George Bush’s aides boasted that the president had permanently altered his relationship with the American people — a “permanent” change that lasted less than five years.
In truth, we Democrats owe our victories as much to American pragmatism as to changing ideologies and shifting alignments. Of course, voters are motivated by values and emotions and, as I have documented elsewhere, these are shifting. Nevertheless, on balance, citizens focus more on results than on means. In the periods between elections, the ideology that undergirds a platform is less important than whether it works. If our economy is humming and our position in the world secure, voters happily reward those who appear responsible for our good fortune. If not, we punish the incumbent party.
In the last two cycles, voters have given Democrats less a triumph and more an opportunity to perform.
Those opportunities are consequential. Had the Supreme Court not barred Al Gore from the White House in 2000, he would have been the one displaying leadership in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and this would have been a fully Democratic decade. President Bush and his Republicans squandered the opportunity they were granted in 2004, pursuing policies with disastrous consequences at home and abroad — and they paid the price.
Performance, or at least the perception of performance, matters. What the president-elect and the Democratic Congress make of this opportunity to perform, what Democrats deliver to the American people, will determine our fate.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.