Democrats are in a chest-thumping mood and Republicans are in a chest-beating mood, just as you’d expect after the results on Nov. 4. They know there are lessons from the election, too, but that’s where it gets tricky for both sides—and potentially dangerous. Some of the “lessons” we’ve been hearing are completely wrongheaded. Two in particular.
Many Republicans are convinced they only lost because the economy went into a tailspin. They point to exit poll data indicating that the majority of voters said the economy was the biggest issue on their minds, and nothing else—not Iraq, not health care—came even close to it. They remind you that McCain had closed the gap just prior to the Wall Street collapse, and that his slide in the polls mirrored the economy’s fall. True enough, but this is not a sufficient explanation for the GOP defeats across the board.
The fundamental problem for the Republicans reared its head many, many months ago when the party struggled to name a standard-bearer for the presidential race. Recall that significant portions of the party had qualms about every single candidate for the nomination. The process wasn’t so much about choosing a nominee as it was reconciling the party to one.
This was a symptom of something that blew out into the open during the primaries and general election. To most voters, the Republican brand ceased being about what the party stood for, and became what the party stood against. They no longer could credibly argue they were for smaller government, for instance, nor fiscal discipline. They could only say over and over that they were against Democrats regaining power. It was a full-blown identity crisis, played out in public.
Had the economy not imploded and John McCain had won the White House, the ideological reckoning would simply have been delayed. No, the economy is a comfortable crutch for Republicans, and as an excuse, will only delay the hard work of figuring out who they are. Until Republicans agree on the answer, how can voters know it?
Meanwhile, we’ve been hearing from some Democrats that the election is evidence that the country has become “progressive” (today’s sleight-of-hand term for “liberal”). Even in red states, say these Democrats, surveys have shown that the majority of people are with them on the issues.
Author Thomas Frank posed the question “What’s the matter with Kansas?” in a book by that title that wondered why low and middle income red-staters vote against their interests in so many elections (i.e., they vote Republican). Now, post Election Day, liberals have concluded that many of those working class folks are at last enlightened and on board, and the time has come to take the country to the left.
Well, hold on. Haven’t the Democrats been making gains on Capitol Hill by allowing moderates and even conservatives to run for office in certain districts? In other words, haven’t they been electing Democrats who don’t embrace all of the national Democratic agenda?
And didn’t Barack Obama make the tactical choice of muting his liberalism during this election? He talked a lot about tax cuts, about his support of charter schools and holding teachers accountable, about his willingness to drill offshore and develop nuclear power, about his desire to build up troop levels in Afghanistan. None of that gets applause lines at a MoveOn.org event.
And didn’t Election Day also bring disappointing (to Progressives) results on ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage and prevent same-sex couples from being able to adopt? Yes, stricter limits on abortions were also rejected in ballot initiatives—a victory for Progressives. But the mix of initiative results, along with the way in which Democrats ran and won in races this year, seems strong confirmation that America remains decidedly centrist.
Democrats who want to say this election is a mandate for a dramatic lurch to the left will undermine their party just as assuredly as Republicans will undermine theirs by blaming a bad Election Day on the economy and nothing else. Those are two lessons that the parties better not fall for.
Bill Beaman is editor-in-chief at Politics magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org