Barack Obama's smashing triumph is a victory for the idea that Not Being a Republican is a grand and glorious thing.
That's not to take anything away from the magnitude of his win or the excellence of his campaign, with its distinctly Reaganesque panache. I mean, I am a Republican, and I've had it with my side, who got the thumping we deserve. And all credit to the president-elect for magnanimously reaching out to us bruised and battered conservatives in his victory address, quoting Abraham Lincoln's hauntingly beautiful line, "We are not enemies, but friends." Yep, he's my president too. And I'm fine with that.
Like Sen. John McCain said in his extraordinarily gracious concession speech — tragically, the best speech of his campaign — electing our first African-American president is a great thing for America. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a part of mainstream life here in Dallas; on Tuesday night, Barack Obama carried Dallas County. It wasn't even close.
Unlike Ronald Reagan in 1980, though, Obama didn't run on an ideologically distinct platform — which makes it hard to claim his victory as a mandate for a new era of vigorous liberalism.
Think about it: the most left-wing presidential candidate since George McGovern ran on tax cuts! Yes, he was against the war, but he did not campaign on taking U.S. foreign policy in a dramatic new direction — he has been as hawkish as John McCain on Russia, for example — nor did he stump for bold new social initiatives. Nor did he propose an audacious new philosophical approach to governing, unless you consider basic competence to be revolutionary (on the other hand, given the Bush administration's record, I concede the point).
This election represents not an affirmative embrace of neoliberalism but rather a repudiation of the Republican Party and a certain kind of conservatism. It's important for the left to recognize this in order to avoid the temptation to overreach in the heady Democratic days to come. One-party government didn't work out so well for the Republicans during the Bush years — and going further back, Bill Clinton's misreading of the meaning of his 1992 victory caused him to make several key political errors that Democrats paid dearly for in the 1994 midterm election. To be sure, Obama has an opening now to move the country to the left, but it's not clear that that's where we want to go.
That said, the Obama Democrats' greatest ally will almost certainly be the addled Republican Party, which will be wandering around for some time like a google-eyed Wile E. Coyote after he's had an anvil dropped on his head. The recriminations on the right will make the Night of the Long Knives look like a knitting-needle ticklefest.
The civil war among conservatives will be between an enraged rump of die-hard knotheads and a disparate group of reformers. The knotheads believe that Obama's victory came thanks to the treason of some conservative intellectual elites and McCain's failure to be more like Reagan, whatever that means 20 years after the Gipper left the White House. Sarah Palin is the standard-bearer for the talk-radio faction within knotheadism, and Mitt Romney will emerge as the GOP establishment's last stand.
The reformers — well, they believe a lot of things, but most of all they believe that the GOP is intellectually exhausted and has to chart a new path to remain politically viable. But where should the party go? There is no clear answer — especially because in many ways the Bush presidency was supposed to be the center-right evolution away from doctrinaire Reaganism. But at least this bunch is asking hard questions instead of retreating into a self-justifying revanchism. Unfortunately, if the Tory party's example is any indication of the GOP's future, it will be years before the reformers find their David Cameron.
Of course, nobody knows anything. Four years ago, we were all contemplating the possibility of Karl Rove's permanent Republican majority, and now look. History has both political parties by the napes of their necks, and its all either will be able to do simply to hang on for a rough ride. Obama will be restrained in pursuing an activist agenda by the lack of money and the lack of military. And nobody knows yet how bad the recession is going to be. Neither Obama nor McCain gave any indication that he understands the magnitude of the economic crisis overtaking America.
Still, if I were a betting man, I'd put money on a Barack Obama-Bobby Jindal match in 2012. If Obama is the Democrats' Reagan, then the Louisiana reform governor has the potential to be both the Republicans' Bill Clinton — in that he could revive a defeated and demoralized party — and its Barack Obama, in that he is young, brilliant and widely appealing. Besides, there simply aren't any other Republicans left standing today who could unite the GOP's shards after this epic smashing.
One last melancholy thought: The modern conservative movement began with the decisive loss of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential race. And it ends with the decisive loss in the 2008 presidential race of the Arizonan who holds Goldwater's Senate seat. But also a hopeful thought, certainly for Democrats, but maybe too for Republicans on down the line: If you had to pick a time and place when modern liberalism destroyed itself, it would be Chicago's Grant Park in 1968, in the riots accompanying the Democratic National Convention. That would be the same place where neoliberalism, of a sort, was reborn last night with Barack Obama's victory speech. The wheel of history keeps on turning.