2008: The Realignment Election
Note: The following appears originally as an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal’s Nov. 6 edition —Ed.
Tuesday’s substantial victory by Barack Obama, together with Democratic gains in the Senate and House, appear to have accomplished a fundamental political realignment. The election is likely to create a new governing majority coalition that could dominate American politics for a generation or more.
But this realignment is unlike any of the previous ones in our history.
The previous five presidential realigning elections — 1800, 1828, 1860, 1932 and 1980 — typically resulted in a fairly decisive shift in demography and/or ideology. In 1800, there was the “Jeffersonian Revolution,” a swing towards states’ rights and away from the more centralized government policies represented by Hamiltonian federalism. In 1828, the “Jacksonian Democracy” resulting from the presidency of Andrew Jackson ushered in a ruling coalition based largely in the Western, rural poor and urban working class — replacing the Founding Fathers’ generation of gentleman elites. In 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln on a platform opposed to the expansion of slavery led to the Civil War and decades of pro-business Republican Party power. In 1932, FDR’s New Deal brought centralized liberal government in Washington for 20 years and majorities in the House for two generations. And then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan solidified the emerging conservative majority of Southern and Western fiscal conservatives by adding the fervent grass roots of the religious right.
But the Obama landslide victory Tuesday cannot be accurately depicted as another cycle, this time right-to-left. The new majority coalition seen in his victory is far more complicated than that — just as he is. Mr. Obama won in traditionally conservative “red states” such as Virginia, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Indiana and Florida (and possibly North Carolina and Missouri) not because of a clearly defined liberalism. Quite the contrary.
This is a man who defended the right to gun ownership under the Second Amendment; who arguably ran to the right of McCain on broader-based tax cuts for the middle class; who defied his left-purist base by supporting (with more controls) the president’s terrorist surveillance program; who talked of pay-as-you-go fiscal policies aimed at restoring balanced budgets; who insisted to black audiences that black men take more responsibility for their families; and who talked boldly of aggressive military action in Pakistan to take out al Qaeda and bin Laden.
One of Mr. Obama’s early speeches, the “Call to Renewal” in June 2006, was about the need for Democrats to speak openly about their own faith and to speak to people of faith. This speech moved my oldest son, Seth, to decide to support Mr. Obama for president well before he decided to run.
How do you ideologically pigeonhole this Obama ideological mix? You don’t, at least not easily.
One apt characterization, in the absence of anything better for now, is the Obama New Majority Center. Whatever its name, it has the potential to become a genuinely new governing coalition.
In fact, President-elect Obama presents an ideological mix of social liberalism, fiscal conservatism and cultural moderation that attracted a 20-point margin Tuesday among self-described “moderates” — including crucial crossover moderate Republicans from suburban and exurban areas previously considered safely part of the Republican/Reagan conservative base — as well as a majority of self-described independent voters.
The early seeds of this majority realignment were apparent during the two terms of Bill Clinton. He proved that a Southern moderate with progressive Democratic values and positions on social issues could win (albeit with less than a majority popular vote) by standing up to his liberal base on the three critical issues of balanced budgets/fiscal responsibility, welfare reform and free trade.
Beyond defining a new ideological center resembling Mr. Clinton’s, Mr. Obama has also successfully created a New Politics that seeks to rise above the partisan “gotcha” game that has stained our political culture over the last 20 years or so, for which both parties are responsible.
He appears to mean what he says and he says what he means: It is time to take a “time out” from the hyperpartisanship of the last generation, and to begin a new experiment in bipartisan government, getting government back into the solutions business. His is a fact-driven approach to politics that isolates the strident, purist voices of the left and right who demonize those they differ with rather than disagree and debate them.
For these reasons, it would be a mistake to assume that the Obama landslide victory and the appearance of this new majority coalition in Tuesday’s election results was a fluke — a result of a “perfect storm” of the Iraq war, the economic crisis, and George Bush’s unpopularity that made John McCain’s task of winning in 2008 almost impossible.
Rather, years from now we will probably look back at Nov. 4, 2008, the way we look back at the five previous realigning elections. Something fundamental has changed. In this case, not only has a unique majority coalition of liberals, conservatives, moderates and independents come to power, but a unique style of governance as well, as exemplified by Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday night.
If the future President Obama makes progress on solving the huge economic and social problems facing this country, and on securing the country from future terrorist attacks, he may well be viewed as the Democrat who created a long-term new political majority not seen since FDR.