2008: The Critical Election That Wasn’t (Part II)

This is the conclusion of a two-part article.  For Part One, click here.

Looking back on it, what’s striking about the 2008 election is the shallowness of Obama’s victory.  It was a great victory for a man and a race, but not a great victory–a transforming event–for the Democratic Party or the party system more generally.  This lackluster outcome surprised me, because, going into it, I had expected that a lot more would happen.  The departure of George W. Bush from the presidency without any obvious successor had thrown the door wide open to real newness.  I had firmly expected to see, not just new candidates, but real ideological innovation on one or both sides.

Bush’s departure not only created an opportunity for a new cadre of leaders to rise; it also invited the introduction of new political paradigms that would reinvigorate or replace the tired ideas on which both parties have been coasting.  The country hasn’t had a critical election since Reagan’s in 1980.  Yet, since then, our circumstances have greatly changed.  Issues that have since become important include the rise of China, disturbing changes in finance and American industrialism, growing commodity scarcity, green issues, immigration, the diminishing power of nation states in the face of globalism, and changes in the quality and character of life for American citizens.

For Republicans, the challenge is to refashion the worn-out elements of Reaganism on which the party still relies.  As the election cycle of 2008 made plain, the Republicans face two central difficulties.  The first is that of continuing to integrate the various blocs of voters that have sustained Republican party power since Reagan’s ascendancy.  The religious and socially conservative bloc of the party tends to pull the party in a different direction than the purely economic one, and that direction is not in accordance with the American mainstream.  Now that the party has become so thoroughly associated with conservatism, its second difficulty is articulating an ideology palatable to an America that is increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan.

The triumph of McCain over competitors like the evangelist Mike Huckabee demonstrated that the power of the Republicans continues to rest principally with the more moderate elements of the party.  But the phenomenal popularity of his running mate, the provincial and anti-modern Alaskan Sarah Palin, and her polarizing effect on the electorate point up how problematic the more extreme yet energized elements within the Republican Party can be.  How can it move itself away from reliance on this base in order to maximize its appeal to the mainstream?  No one emerged in 2008 who was capable of weaving together the right combination of themes.

As for the Democrats, let’s face it: the old ideas that have galvanized the Democratic Party are frightfully tired; they’re used up, exhausted, and have been for decades.  The Democratic Party has not had a redefining era since the late 1930s, and by now we’ve gotten all the mileage we can out of New Deal Democracy and Keynesianism.  Forgive me, Paul Krugman.

Bill Clinton realized this back in the eighties when he began moving the Democratic Party toward the center.  His campaign and presidency marked a departure from the kind of ideological high-mindedness that the ineffectual Jimmy Carter had embodied.  Clinton, though not chiefly an ideologue,  recognized that the traditional New Deal beliefs of the Democratic party boxed him in.  So he practiced a kind of pragmatism that enabled him to capture the votes of more people in the center of the political spectrum.  No wonder old-style liberals hated him: in many ways, he was indifferent to their core beliefs.

Tone-deaf as an ideologue, Clinton was an outstandingly effective problem-solver.  His great political skills and grasp of presidential power enabled him to accomplish a great deal even in a fractious political environment.  Because Clinton was pragmatic, he was comfortable following through on and appropriating several landmark initiatives–including NAFTA and welfare reform–that his Republican predecessors had initiated.  He likewise eagerly backed legislation to liberalize the banking industry, making it easier for more Americans to qualify for mortgages and buy homes.  These measures helped lay the groundwork for the 2008 financial crisis, but at the time they were popular and contributed to the great economic boom associated with Clinton’s presidency.

Clinton supplied his party with a winning style of leadership that continues to influence Democrats today.  Within the party, a general stance of moderation, coupled with a benign, can-do mentality, is more important than any principle or ideal.  This was evident in 2008, in the narrow contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential nomination.  Both were highly educated, attractive, moderate candidates who are good problem-solvers.

In the end, the contest hinged on tactics and personality, not ideas.  Shrewd tactics on the part of the Obama camp enabled him to win a few crucial primaries, and he beat the Clintons at their own game by winning former Clinton supporters, notably Caroline Kennedy, to his side.  In the debates, Obama excelled at hewing closely to Hillary’s positions while qualifying them.  His style in the debates was responsive and has remained so ever afterward.  In the end, Obama’s nimble campaigning captivated voters, swaying them with vague slogans like “Yes We Can” and “Change You Can Believe In.”  Sadly, this contest never amounted to a struggle for the soul of the party.

Isn’t it strange to look at a political scene full of people constantly opinionating and editorializing, that reels with up-to-the minute coverage, “political action,” and political advertising, where voters are constantly being appealed to dramatically–only to realize that nothing’s happening?  Particularly in the Democratic Party, ideological work that needs to be done simply isn’t getting done for some reason.  In the meantime, popular movements like the Tea Party and Occupy express the discontent and frustration that many citizens feel.

13 responses

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this essay. Like the others, it was very well written. I need to differ, however, with your claim that “no new philosophy or ideas” have come from either party in a long time. A new faction of the GOP–if we can call it a faction–but I would definitely call it a new philosophy–emerged in the 2008 election with Sarah Palin. As much as I find her repugnant, she did bring to the forefront a conservative and evangelical movement–and she successfully wove Tea Partyism and evangelicalism together. This philosophy (and I would call it new) has become very popular among many folks in the GOP, successfully pulling together a hugely diverse group of people.
    To say that the Dems have not come up with anything new since FDR is a radical and wrong statement. The right of a woman to choose, national health care–a Clinton idea at first and too radical then–these innovations are now law. Environmental protections have been established, the tax code has become more equitable, wildly tossing money at defense has been curtailed to an extent, minimum wage has been passed, the list goes on and on. . . .True, many of these are “social” issues, but the Dems have ALWAYS had what I consider to be a dedication to the country’s “common cause.” Moving it forward–not settling for stagnation, as often the GOP does. I especially like that the Dems have tried to have some type of controls on guns in this country–this has not proved very popular, but at least one can no longer hunt a deer with a machine gun.:)

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  2. What would be the needed circumstances to set-up a “critical election”?
    A deep depression brought on by the total collapse of the world wide banking system?
    A disintegration of one or both of the primary American political parties?
    Where would a “critical election” spring from?

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    • Good questions. I think of a critical election as a constructive act that results from leaders of a party choosing to adopt a group of new ideas, but historically critical elections have also followed in the wake of key events, as when FDR was elected and the Democratic Party morphed into something new (i.e., more activist) in the wake of the Great Depression. I’d like to publish a brief recap of the critical elections in US history but it’s a little daunting (and would make for a pretty long post, too long maybe).
      But here’s a hypothetical to get the basic point across: Suppose other Republicans decided that Ron Paul’s positions on domestic and foreign affairs represented a better ideology than the one most Republicans espouse currently. The Republicans would then change many of their major positions and objectives, and they, as a group, would then begin trying to appeal to voters differently as a party. Were their efforts to be victorious this would represent a critical election, because the Republican party would have been transformed from within. Similarly, the Democrats could decide to shift their appeal to voters onto a different basis–they could decide to become a party of green, of small government, and (say) of protectionism. They could change their spots, in a word. . . . It’s happened in the past, and it could happen in the future. . . .Parties should espouse workable ideas, and they have many choices when it comes to cobbling together ideologies that are productive and relevant to the times.

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