Here's a note of caution for President Obama and the Democrats: "Begin
with the facts: A 51-48 percent victory is _not_ a mandate." Surprisingly
enough, the source of this warning is E.J. Dionne, the Washington Post's
perennial liberal triumphalist.
It gets less surprising when you realize he wrote that in 2004: "Two
nearly equal sides are engaged today, as they were on Tuesday, in a
long-term struggle to make inroads into the other's patch. . . . On
Wednesday [George W.] Bush told those who voted against him: 'I will do
all I can do to deserve your trust.' Mr. President, I truly hope you
realize how much work you have to do."
You won't be surprised to learn that Dionne is taking the opposite tack
today: "Now Obama will have the strongest argument a politician can
offer. Repeatedly, he asked the voters to settle Washington's squabbles
in his favor. On Tuesday, they did. And so a president who took office
four years ago on a wave of emotion may now have behind him something
more valuable and durable: a majority that thought hard about his
stewardship and decided to let him finish the job he had begun."
OK, that was too easy (but still fun!). We do have a point here, however,
beyond making sport of another columnist's inconsistencies and motivated
thinking. Let's stop and think about Dionne's 2004 comments with eight
years of hindsight.
Republicans would have been foolish to accept Dionne's contention that
Bush lacked a "mandate." After all, a win is a win, and this win, unlike
Bush's first, came with a popular-vote majority and without a dispute
over the vote in a decisive state. Republicans picked up seats in the
Senate, bringing their majority to 55, and they also expanded their
majority in the House.
With Obama having been re-elected with between 50% and 51% of the popular
vote and Democrats having extended their Senate majority to 55, Obama's
re-election looks remarkably like Bush's in reverse, except that the
president's party is a minority in the House. Dionne in 2004 wrote that
"an administration given to hubris will have to be checked by
institutions outside what is likely to be a compliant Congress."
If there is some objective numerical standard of popular support by which
a president can be said to have a "mandate," Bush in 2004 had, if
anything, a slightly stronger case than Obama does today. Yet it is hard
to argue in retrospect that Dionne was mistaken in denying he had one.
More to the point, he was wise to counsel fellow lefties against giving
up. He began that column: "Don't mourn. Organize."
The argument that Obama's slender re-election majority is better than
Bush's rests on demographics--on the observation that the Democrats do
better among racial and ethnic minorities and unmarried women, population
subgroups that are increasing as a share of the electorate. Assuming
these vote shares remain constant and the demographic trends continue,
the Democratic majority can only grow.
Even if one grants the latter assumption, the former is dubious. Megan
McArdle of what's left of Newsweek notes several reasons why, including
Ethnic coalitions are inherently unstable. It used to be a
sort of natural law that urban Catholics voted Democratic.
Then Reagan won them in huge numbers. And--contra those who
are saying that the GOP now has to move left--they didn't
win by getting more liberal. Rather, the Democrats got more
liberal, on crime and bussing [sic], and the white ethnics
who felt victimized by these policies fled. The more ethnic
groups you have, the more likely it is that you will eventually
find the goals of those ethnic groups in direct conflict.
And the Democrats sure do have a lot of groups.
How do you unite a collection of groups that have disparate and often
conflicting interests? By turning them against a common enemy. In an
early-morning postelection blog post, former Enron adviser Paul Krugman
revealed this ugly truth:
One big thing that just happened was that the real America
trumped the "real America." And it's also the election that
lets us ask, finally, "Who cares what's the matter with Kansas?"
For a long time, right-wingers--and some pundits--have peddled
the notion that the "real America," all that really counted,
was the land of non-urban white people, to which both parties
must abase themselves. Meanwhile, the actual electorate was
getting racially and ethnically diverse, and increasingly
tolerant too. The 2008 Obama coalition wasn't a fluke; it was
the country we are becoming.
And sure enough that more diverse and, if you ask me, better
nation just won big.
The lack of self-awareness here is something to behold. Krugman
identifies a racially defined out-group, excludes it from the "real
America," and declares the in-group to be a "better nation" than the
out-group (which is, in fact, part of the same nation). All this in the
name of tolerance.
McArdle cites a demographic reason to think the Democratic majority may
not be a durable one:
We're heading for a showdown between the recipients of old-age
benefits, and recipients of all the other kinds of benefits.
Even after we hike taxes, something has to be cut. I'm betting
on he oldsters to win this fight. They're motivated, and they
have a lot of time on their hands. And their middle-aged,
middle class children will also freak out if you cut their
benefits. They will not be nearly as upset if you slash Head
Start. But those kinds of decisions are going to set off a sort
of Hobbesian war of all-against-all within the Democratic
coalition. And the aging of our population is an even more
dramatic shift than its increasingly tan hue.
The aging of the population is driven in part by the decline in marriage,
which the Democrats have to thank for all those unmarried female voters.
As CNSNews.com reported last month: "The birth rate in the United States
hit an all-time low in 2011, according to . . . the federal Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. . . . More than 40 percent of all babies
born in the country last year, the report said, were born to unmarried
A politics built around racial polarization and competition between the
sexes--around revenge against "white males"--may win some elections, but
it cannot deliver a bright future. At best it portends a dissolution of
the Democratic coalition; at worst, the decline of civilization.
"Re-electing Obama is like backing The Titanic up and hitting the
iceberg a second time."