Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Elephant


In the aftermath of the election, and Barack Obama's solid victory, there is a great deal of speculation about the future of the G.O.P. There is a widespread consensus that the Republicans lost the presidency, and lost seats in congress, because they deserved to lose. This comes not just from the places you'd expect -- the Democrats, the Libertarians, the Greens, the, um, whatever Naderites call themselves these days -- but also from a large number of Republicans -- perhaps a majority. So many people are saying it, indeed, that it has become quite the cliche and it is with some reluctance that I admit that I am one of them.

Conservative pundits have looked at the demographics of the recent vote and are feeling quite glum. This is not so much because they lost -- the Republicans were sailing into a sizable headwind this election and nobody was offering even money that they could win it -- but because they lost votes in all the demographic segments where they usually do well. It wasn't just the Democrats get-out-the-vote program that whelmed them, they were leaking votes in the demographic compartments that were supposed to keep them afloat.

The popular meme in the mainstream media is that there may have been a sea-change in the country, precipitated by war-weariness and the bad economy, and that the US is now a center-left country instead of a center-right one. This meme is on all the networks, presented rather gloomily on Fox News, cheerfully on CNN and CBS, and gleefully on the Beeb. There is, to be sure, some debate about it -- the talking heads on one side of the screen will point out the shift in voting patterns and assure us that the world has changed, while the heads on the other side of the screen will point to several ballot initiatives that suggest otherwise and say not so much, but the notion is never dismissed and the change in the vote is never explained away.

This leftward lurch meme is bunk, of course, and the reason is is never explained away is that the obvious explanation is something that the talking heads can't say -- a taboo subject. It is the elephant in the room that nobody is talking about.

For me, as a libertarian-leaning conservative, there is a bitter-sweet aspect to Obama winning the presidency. It is an historic event, an overdue milestone in our history, and a real accomplishment for our society. The slight bitterness arises from the fact that I had hoped -- and expected -- that the first black president would be a Republican. As an individualist, I try to resist identity politics -- to vote for the man and his policies, not for his ethnic identity -- but in resisting I can't deny that there is something to resist. History was there to be made on Tuesday and I could feel its pull. I didn't vote for Obama. I am enough of the Buckleyite to have stood athwart history on Tuesday, not so much yelling "STOP", as saying sadly "Not this time." But, since I am channeling William F. Buckley, I can't really criticize those, such as Buckley's son, Christopher, who were carried away by the flow.

My point is that having elected the first black president we all feel a sense of accomplishment -- even those of us who voted against him and fear that his policies will be a disaster -- it is a pleasing sense of something overdue which can be checked off of our lists. Vice-President elect, Joe Biden -- whose mouth is only loosely coupled to his brain -- inadvertently captured this sense during the Democratic primaries when he said "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy... I mean, that's a storybook, man."

I contend that the factor that cost McCain those missing votes in the safe parts of his base is that some people saw the election not so much as a contest between Democrats and Republicans -- or a contest between Barack Obama and John McCain -- as a referendum on the question "Is America ready for its first black president?"

The elephant in the room, which everyone is studiously ignoring, is that people voted for Barack Obama because he was black. Or more precisely, people felt ready to vote for a black president and there was Obama -- "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" the first presentable major-party black candidate for president. Biden was exactly right, it was a storybook moment.

The good news for the G.O.P. is that it is a one-off deal. In four years this historic moment will be merely history. The short attention-span media will have lost some of its infatuation, and Obama and the Democrats will need to run on their accomplishments. During their well-deserved time in the time-out corner, the strategists for the Republicans should ignore the illusory leftward movement of the voting public and focus instead on the basics -- having a message that makes sense, having candidates who can present the message, and generally generally acting like they have part of a clue about running a political campaign.

Photo Credit: The photo of an elephant in the rear view mirror is a creative-commons licensed photo by a flickr user named exfordy. The original photo is here:

1 comment:

Incognito said...

as you saw in my post I think it was a combination of factors that led to Obama's win, and yes it probably did have something with the historical significance of voting for the 1st black president..

I'm not sure I agree, though, that the country isn't heading center-left. I have been on non-political forums and many are asking what's so wrong with socialism