The 2012 election was the perfect status quo event. On November 6 Americans by the millions went through a massive exercise of going to the polls and voting, only to awake the next morning to find that nothing had changed—other than a welcome respite from the incessant phone calls from the campaign headquarters. There was the same president, the same majority party in the House of Representatives, and the same majority party in the Senate. John Boehner was still Speaker of the House, and Harry Reid Majority Leader of the Senate. Above all, the election offered no feeling of renewal, no sense of a new direction for public policy.
Yet because of this very sameness, it was not hard to discern that the country is now a different place. If America had been set on a path of fundamental transformation in 2009—with a form of nationalized health care and a dramatically higher level of government involvement in society—then the mere fact of maintaining the status quo became one of the most important "decisions" in American history. The 2012 election consolidated what Barack Obama and the Democrats had already put in motion four years earlier. For Republicans, who ran promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to reduce government's scope to pre-2008 levels, failure to win the White House spelled defeat. By not losing, Obama has safeguarded the measures passed during his first term, something that Speaker Boehner acknowledged after the election: "Obamacare is the law of the land."
A status quo result means the maintenance of a new baseline of government activity, a change not dissimilar to what took place after the New Deal and the Great Society. Politics in America will revolve around the consequences of this new order, but the order itself will not be undone. The shape of American politics now resembles more the model of "blue" states like California, Illinois, and New York, which are trying to cope with the huge new demands built into a larger government, than "red" states like Indiana, Kansas, and Ohio, which have been seeking to hold the line or scale back on what government is asked to do. The main examples of the blue model—the United States of America now included—all have executives elected by the same coalition, have promised or locked in benefits that are well beyond the current capacity of government to fund, and have dramatically altered expectations of what citizens regard as entitlements. Every new benefit is meant to create a new supporter, one who will be resistant to any cutbacks.
Finally, a status quo result means everything to Barack Obama personally. Even if he were to accomplish little or nothing in the next four years, his re-election has assured him of a featured place in the progressive pantheon of consequential leaders. Like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Obama will be remembered as a president who, by taking a huge political risk, expanded the size and scope of American government. This fate surely beats the prospect of being tucked away in the sinecure of a university presidency, watching the other party trying to dismantle his most cherished achievements. In a strange way, too, this election further helps his image, relieving him of the absurd and impossible burden of living up to the standard of being a messiah. Obama is now a new man who can be measured as a politician. Only a few diehards will waste their time drudging up the old "hope and change" quotes on Google in a futile effort to embarrass the president.
Yet when it comes to enacting a governing program, the 2012 election is hardly favorable to Obama. He won no mandate for a new major agenda—indeed, he hardly bothered to ask for one, except for raising taxes on the wealthy. The aim of his campaign was to retain the keys to the presidential office, virtually at any cost. He succeeded by hanging on. Obama made history in 2012 almost as much as he did in 2008. For the first time, an incumbent won re-election to a second term while receiving fewer votes than in his first election. All other victorious incumbents—most recently Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—gained electoral strength, Obama lost it. This singularly unimpressive result was obscured on election eve by his singularly impressive victory in every state in which the two candidates had actually engaged: Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Watching these states fall one by one on election eve was like witnessing a juggernaut.
The drama of Obama's victory does not, however, change the basic facts. The 2012 election leaves unsettled the question of which party can claim to speak for a majority of the American people—a dispute that has been going on for the past two years. For the Left, contemporary politics properly begins with the 2008 election, which signaled a break from the old politics and launched a new era of progressivism supported by a political realignment. For many on the Right, the starting point is the 2010 midterm election, which produced a majority for Republicans in the House of Representatives and brought a huge shift in the GOP's favor in gubernatorial seats and in state legislatures. Each side pressed its case, and in the aftermath of 2010 both camps seemed prepared to wait for another election to decide the contest between these two conflicting mandates.
Now that election has taken place, but it produced no definitive victory. The results are closer to a standoff: a narrow presidential win for the Democrats, a House of Representatives that remains Republican, and a Senate that is Democratic.
But though the configuration of political forces has not changed, the sentiment that the nation can wait for another election has. The public consensus is that certain decisions must be made now, by the government that we have, not by a government that either side might wish to have. For the near term, the pressure of opinion will not allow divided government to produce stalemate. As Montesquieu, the father of the separation of powers system, explained: "as there is a necessity for movement in the course of human affairs, they are forced to move, but in concert." This necessity naturally favors the stronger parts of the arrangement, which lie with the Democrats who hold the presidency and the Senate.
The relative position of the two parties nevertheless remains very close, and the nation evenly divided. Democrats have the edge "horizontally" at the national level, while Republicans have a large advantage "vertically" at the state level. The GOP holds 30 of the 50 governors and has full control (both houses of the legislature and the governorship) in 23 states compared to 12 for the Democrats. The United States is far from being anything like a pure blue nation. Republicans have both a legitimate claim and the power to exercise a significant role in governing.
Under the commentators' sacred rule that to the victor goes the spoils, some analysts have already been busy mining the exit polls to weave a renewed progressive narrative. The argument is that the voter groups that are growing in relative size—minorities, unmarried women, the more secular-minded—are all parts of a liberal coalition. By contrast the Republican base, relying chiefly on dying white males, is consigning itself to the dustbin of history. This shift in demography is certainly one reason why the GOP, despite high hopes, failed to capture the presidency. Beyond that, however, the progressives' optimism seems premature. It is a stretch to see a robust majority coalition in 50.4% of the population, especially for an incumbent president who had all the advantages of his office, faced no competition for the nomination, had more money to spend (without fear of being accused of buying an election), and had four years to build a formidable organization.
What's more, the Republican alternative, Mitt Romney, suffered from being a rich person defending capitalism (which hurt him among the working class), and he stumbled into a hard position on immigration in the primaries in order to defeat Texas governor Rick Perry (which hurt him with Hispanics). He proved to be a very good candidate—close to the best Mitt Romney that Romney could be. But one can certainly imagine other Republican candidates having greater appeal, in terms both of personal rapport and sensitive policy positions, to some of these expanding demographic groups. And one can imagine other Democratic candidates having less appeal to these groups than Barack Obama.
A party that loses a presidential election is in need of self-examination, and this is all the more the case today in light of some of the changing demographic realities in the country. Yet that examination needs to avoid trying to score imaginary points at the expense of make-believe adversaries. From one side of the Republican Party, there have been rumblings that the party lost again in 2012 because it chose a moderate candidate who wouldn't stress certain social issues and attack Obamacare. Even if there were merit in these criticisms, the point is entirely moot. Moderates never imposed Mitt Romney on the party—that's pure fiction. Romney became viable in large part because the most important conservative alternatives chose not to enter the race. The conservatives who did run were never really plausible options.
On the other hand, some are claiming that the 2012 election was lost because Mitt Romney had to make peace with extremist forces in the party who prevented him from going more quickly to the center to attract more swing voters. To become viable, it is suggested, the party will need to reinvent itself. Again, the point is moot. There would be no Republican Party unless it contained a large conservative component. A party dominated by moderate Republicans would quickly be absorbed by the Democrats and cease to exist. In any case, these factional labels are often arbitrary. The best strategy for the GOP lies in selecting conservative candidates credible enough to convince their more enthusiastic supporters to forgo promoting positions in national politics that would destroy the chances of achieving a majority. Constructive self-examination means looking in that direction.
The Explanation Industry
Political analysts alternate between two ways of studying elections. Narrative accounts, in the mold of Theodore White's The Making of The President series, are based on the premise that the election campaigns—what the candidates do and what happens during those few months—decide the outcomes. "Scientific" models hold that pre-existing conditions, mostly economic, are what matter. A sensible person recognizes a measure of truth in both approaches. In some election years, like 1984 (Reagan's re-election) or 1996 (Clinton's), conditions render the outcome almost inevitable. It is a testimony to either the patriotism or the folly of the certain-to-lose candidates that they go through the motions at all. In other years, like 1976 or 2004, conditions do not tilt sufficiently one way or the other to allow for much confidence in predictions. The campaign can make the difference.
The 2012 election clearly falls into the second category. The political modelers' predictions were split between Obama and Romney. To many Republicans this assessment sounds strange since they had convinced themselves that the economy was so bad that it had to favor the GOP. But the models in some cases rightly consider the direction of change as well as the absolute movement, and by this standard, things were more balanced. The economy, as Obama pointed out, had improved from the nadir of 2008-09—nicely labeled for Democrats' convenience, "The Great Recession." (In addition, in a small but significant event during the campaign, the unemployment rate had broken below the 8% barrier.)
It seems that the structural factors at work in 2012 left the race close enough that it could have gone either way, depending on the campaign. This supposition is borne out not only by the closeness of the final result, but also by a shift in the lead between the candidates during the fall campaign. Obama was up in the polls after the convention, then slightly down as the election approached, and then on a par at the end (and evidently a point or two ahead of the polls' average).
Yet by the second day after the election, readers of the American press might be excused for believing that the campaign had nothing to do with the result. Analysis had shifted to visible, measurable indicators gleaned from exit polls, which purported to provide data-based accounts explaining the result. A few days later, it became axiomatic that the election could never have turned out otherwise than it did.
This understanding is supported by a massive explanation industry in America today. Specify an outcome, and this industry works backwards to manufacture an iron-clad account, squeezing all contingency from human affairs. The attraction of the industry's product depends in turn on the appeal of a deeper myth, perpetuated by modern science, that everything is regular and under control. This myth underlies the standard that is used for judging the different predictive models. If matters are fully knowable in advance, then it follows that the best model is the one that comes closest to predicting the actual outcome. Its creators become the envy of the industry, reaping the appropriate acclaim and rewards.
A field of inquiry known as counterfactual history has recently developed to challenge this way of thinking throughout the whole realm of historical writing. It proposes an outcome other than the one that actually occurred in order to provide a reminder that the explanations offered are often over-determined, in a way that eliminates chance from human affairs.
Following this approach, it might be useful to examine the scenario in which Barack Obama fell just short of being re-elected president of the United States. On the eve of Mitt Romney's election, before the explanation industry had churned out its product, commentators could still offer a narrative account. It would stress how Mitt Romney turned the campaign to his favor by his performance in the first presidential debate, and then by proving steady and presidential in the aftermath, eventually surged to a five-point lead in the Gallup Poll by the end of October. By contrast President Obama, following his crash in the first debate, went on, until the last week, to run a campaign of such remarkable pettiness and divisiveness—"Big Bird," "Binders," and "Bullshitter"—that more and more Americans began to wonder how he had ever merited the position in the first place.
By the next day, with the explanation industry fully at work, there would be an iron-clad account of President-elect Romney's victory based on deeper trends and exit polls. Pointing to the importance of an economy that remained in the doldrums, the commentators would go on to note Romney's appeal across the board to average Americans, other than minorities, while President Obama, falling short, showed in the end an inability to reach the main part of the American electorate. Democratic analysts of course found some grounds for consolation, noting that the president managed to score extremely well among expanding population groups; and they took a strange moral satisfaction in pointing to a victory that was tainted by its heavy reliance on white voters.
Yet the only way to appreciate how Obama nearly pulled the election off, losing by just over one point, is to turn to what happened in the campaign itself. Everything in his comeback hinged on an accident. Although the rise of the oceans had surely begun to slow during his presidency, this movement had evidently not yet progressed enough, as New York governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out, to reverse global warming and prevent Hurricane Sandy. The "Great Storm" provided President Obama a chance to recoup the dignity of his station that he and his incompetent advisors had until then so eagerly abandoned. Acting decisively, they rounded up a few figures from around the White House and positioned them around the table in the Situation Room with the president seated at the head. The official still photos were then released, showing this group watching—in real time no less!—the Weather Channel. The impact was stunning. Though the forces of nature were about to visit their wrath on the East Coast, though the thin veil of man-made infrastructure that protects us from the elements was under threat, there was reassurance in knowing that the president was there, monitoring the situation.
This was Act I of the drama. Presidentialism is conveyed not just by a display of calmness in crisis, but also by engaging in resolute action. Act II was designed to show the power of the office. President Obama took Air Force One to New Jersey to inspect matters in person, donning a leather bomber jacket to project an image of command in a scene choreographed to remind voters of George W. Bush's appearance at Ground Zero. Still, a full restoration of presidential status could only be completed by recapturing the mantle of bipartisanship. For months the president had squandered this possession, while Mitt Romney had managed to pick it up during the first debate. Obama now planned Act III, the central act, persuading Governor Chris Christie, the keynote speaker at the Republican national convention, to serve as a theatrical prop. What led Christie at the crucial point of this critical campaign to go beyond the requirements of a decent and modest reception of the president to an enthusiastic display of affability may never be known. (Thanks to President Obama, however, Christie did get a hug from The Boss, which led him to go home and weep.)
Hurricane politics can produce a backlash. Scenes showing presidential concern and promises of help, followed by depictions of the reality of slow, inefficient delivery of services, can create a dissonance that wipes out the initial good will. Just ask George Bush after Katrina. But in this case, in the final acts of this drama, Obama could call on one of his strongest allies. Yes, after the president skipped out, thousands and thousands of people, many of them persons of color, were left to suffer and shiver, victims—or so it could have been portrayed—of a heartless and ineffective federal relief effort. But this time the national media's attention was directed elsewhere.
After the storm, Obama gained four points in the Gallup poll. It's no wonder that he almost won the presidency, the explanation industry would say.
In guiding political decisions, conservatism's general principles and themes may remain fixed, but its concrete positions must vary with time and circumstances. The political world is in constant flux, moved by events and developments that often cannot be foreseen.
The Right's opportunities and challenges in the years ahead may have far less to do with any lessons to be drawn from the 2012 election than many today are prone to think. Conservatism at its best seeks to offer at any given moment a general program and set of measures for what it believes will produce a common good. Its hope is that the effects of these measures, if they prove successful, will be appreciated and rewarded in the electoral arena. Liberalism may also think of itself in the same way, but there is this important difference. The liberal version of the common good—call it social justice or welfare clientelism—creates larger and larger constituencies, which, from the benefits they receive, are likely to feel locked into its electoral support. For some, this effect is not a byproduct of liberalism, but its purpose.
The Right believes that there will come a point at which liberal governance's ill effects will open the door for a conservative opportunity to govern. The Tea Party's sudden emergence in the 2010 midterm elections came about as a result of what citizens were experiencing themselves and as a consequence of what they were witnessing in some of the European welfare states. Many conservatives were expecting, or perhaps hoping, that the same spirit of '10 that was felt in many states would reach the national level in 2012. Perhaps the adverse consequences of Obama's policies were not great enough to galvanize the electorate across the board.
Anxious conservatives realize after the election that it will be increasingly difficult to squeeze out majorities from a smaller number of potential voters. They understand that the larger the constituencies receiving benefits, the worse the conditions may have to be before the door opens to a conservative opportunity to govern. Liberalism works politically on the downside as well as the upside, a factor that undoubtedly played a role in the election outcome. In an unsatisfactory situation, many persons receiving or counting on benefits fear that they have more to lose by liberalism's defeat than they would ever gain from conservatism's victory.
Yet in all human conditions there are limits. Conservatives in the next four years will have to bargain with liberals, but they must not become complicit in embracing liberal principles. If the blue state model falls flat—without George W. Bush to blame next time—there will still be enough Americans willing to give conservatives a chance.