Post-Election Unconventional Wisdom: A Guide

Commentary

Ain't much left to say, kids.

More words have been shed on the epic Campaign of 2008, I am sure, than any contest for elective office in the history of the species. That in itself is an interesting historical factoid to consider in the coming days.

Still, there are many words ahead in the next week. The only small but possibly useful service I can think to offer at this late juncture is to anticipate some of the post-election punditry and reportage and suggest some counterintuitive or contrarian ideas for independent thinking. And, yes, this assumes Obama wins.

Obama's victory represents the start of a political realignment. Or not. Partisan winds have been extremely fickle over the past 30 years. Seemingly decisive elections have been repudiated two or four years later.

The conventional take on realignment (a major, enduring shift in partisan power) is that FDR spawned the last really big one. President Richard Nixon — strange but true — spawned the next, not-so-big realignment. Republicans have controlled the White House for 28 of the 40 years since Nixon's first election (1968-2008). The GOP realignment was weaker than the FDR model because Republicans were only able to seize control of Congress for brief periods.

When Bill Clinton won in 1992, there was realignment talk for a couple minutes after the election. The problem was Clinton didn't even capture 50 percent of the popular vote in 1992 or 1996. And, of course, the Democrats lost Congress in 1994. (You remember the "Contract With America," right?)

When George W. Bush built on the Gingrich gains of '94, there was more talk of a Republican realignment (or re-realignment) and a dead Democratic Party, even though Bush lost the popular vote. Republican gains in 2004 boosted that kind of talk, which seems silly today as Bush suffers some of the worst approval ratings ever recorded and the Democrats are poised for big wins.

But the extraordinary pessimism and fear inspired by the financial meltdown make it hard to be confident of any enduring patterns that may emerge from the vote. It simply doesn't make sense to talk about a Democratic realignment until and unless the party's gains are repeated in 2010 and 2012. So sit tight and be skeptical of the R-word.

Blue America has vanquished red America. Hogwash. In this election, purple America vanquished the phony myth of red-blue America.

The story of this election is that all kinds of middle-of-the-road voters — people who vote for Democrats sometimes and Republicans sometimes, people who are independent, people who are disinclined to give their love to political parties — broke decisively for one party. As I said earlier, these are a fickle bunch. They change their minds.

The important thing is that these kinds of people — the neither reds nor blues — are the majority. They are the "deciders." Toss out the whole, pernicious red-blue construct.

Increased voter turnout is a sign of a healthy democracy. Or it's a sign of an electorate mobilized against an incredibly unpopular incumbent president as the country faces a terrifying economic situation and a couple of wars.

Yes, I suppose, low turnout under such circumstances would be depressing. But I am not convinced that higher participation is super-duper significant. Pundits like to praise it because it's an easy way to say something positive and feel like a civic goody-goody.

Obscene amounts of money were spent on this election. I will let George Will provide counterpoint on this one: "By Election Day, $2.4 billion will have been spent on presidential campaigns in the two-year election cycle that began in January 2007, and an additional $2.9 billion will have been spent on 435 House and 35 Senate contests. This $5.3 billion is a billion less than Americans will spend this year on potato chips."

Don't get me wrong: I am far less impressed by the massiveness of the expenditures than by the length of the lines at polling places. Spending money on political speech is an odd measure of civic health; not spending money on political speech is an odd measure of civic health, too. I am getting wobbly on campaign finance reform and it's an issue ripe for fresh thinking.

The length of this campaign, the way it has dominated the agenda of our nongoverning government, strikes me as far more worrisome than the flood of donations.

A torch has been passed to a new generation. Kind of. Obama was born in 1961. The conventional dates of the baby boom are 1946 to 1964, so he is a boomer just like Clinton and Bush the Younger. They were born at the start of the boom of babies; Obama, at the end. I don't see the torch passing here. But I certainly hope Obama has a better reign than his fellow boomers.

JFK was the last president to get good mileage out of the generational gambit. For many years after his election, men born in the 20th century who were involved in World War II held the White House.

Big thoughts on race. When the votes are all counted, it will be nice to be able to finally say simple, kindhearted things about race: The election of a black man to the presidency is a milestone for this nation and a laudable one. It may someday be seen as one factor in a more general restoration of confidence in government and culture. It may or may not be a factor in how his administration performs. It may or may not affect future national elections or the general state of race relations.

But even to those who disagree with Obama on important issues and who don't like Democrats, there is an aspect of his election that ought to be a source of civic pride and confidence. I hope so.

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