Barack Obama’s victory last night was no doubt historic, and the Democrats, as expected, extended their leads in the House and the Senate. But their victory was no landslide, despite what appeared to be overwhelming advantages.
Obama won around 52 percent of the popular vote, defeating John McCain by between five and six points. That’s nothing like the true landslides of the past: Reagan by ten points in 1980 and 18 in 1984; Nixon by 23 in 1972; or even Bush by eight in 1988. And yet, with hindsight, it is remarkable how much Obama had going for him. After breaking his pledge to take public financing he raised more money, by far, than any Presidential candidate in history, outspending McCain nearly two to one. Millions of new voters, many of them minority voters, were registered, and they went heavily for Obama. Obama enjoyed the monolithic support of the entertainment industry and was something of a fad among the young. He benefited greatly from being an African-American; the idea that his victory would be a good thing for America, on that ground, was widespread even among his opponents. He ran largely against a retiring President who, for three years, has rarely seen his name appear in a sentence that did not include the word “unpopular.” He had the active support of essentially 100 percent of the nation’s news media. And, perhaps most important, he benefited from a financial crisis that struck at the most opportune moment (for him) and was unfairly blamed on the Republicans by most voters.
Despite all of this, Obama mustered only a five-point win.
Something of the same sort happened in Congress. The Democrats were awash with money, outspending their opponents in nearly every contested race. Democratic candidates benefited from the new registrations and the Obama phenomenon. In the Senate, they had easy pickings because the seats that were up this year were overwhelmingly Republican.
Yet here too, the Democrats’ results, while positive, were not of the landslide variety. At the moment it appears that they will gain five seats in the Senate and 20 in the House.
The Democrats will be solidly in control in Washington. The silver lining is that for the first time in quite a few years, they will not be able to duck responsibility. As soon as they actually begin governing in January, they will, inevitably, begin to alienate voters. Obama in particular will not remain a tabula rasa, all things to all people, much longer. Whether he turns out to be the hard leftist of his legislative years or the borderline Republican that he sometimes seemed on the campaign trail, he will disappoint some of his followers. And the next time a hurricane strikes, it will be the Democrats’ fault.
In the coming weeks we will be writing about where conservatives should go from here. As a starting point, it will be important not to lose sight of last night’s strong performance by John McCain and competitive performances by Republicans around the country. There are still a lot of voters willing to vote for conservative and Republican candidates–not always the same thing, of course.
Finally, a word of appreciation for McCain. Losing Presidential campaigns are easy targets of criticism; with hindsight everyone is a pundit. But I think McCain ran a good race. He vindicated the judgment of many Republicans that he was the candidate best suited to run a competitive race in a year when the Democrats held most of the cards. His choice of Sarah Palin as Vice President turned out to be a good one, as she was an effective campaigner who brought more excitement to the ticket, at times, than McCain himself. (A recent Rasmussen poll indicated that more Republicans were happy with Palin as the V-P nominee than McCain as the Presidential nominee.) If it hadn’t been for the financial meltdown that occurred at the worst possible time, McCain likely would have won. If he had opposed the bailout instead of supporting it, he still might have won.
So I don’t think we’ll be seeing much gloom among conservatives in the weeks to come. The Democrats will get their turn at the plate and be forced to take responsibility for their actions. That in itself is a good thing. Meanwhile, conservatives will be debating where we go from here and looking for new leadership. It will be an interesting time.
PAUL adds: I agree with most of this. But I don’t agree that McCain likely would have won but for the financial meltdown. The widespread perception that the economy is in very bad shape and that the country is heading in the wrong direction pre-dates the financial meltdown. Taking into account Obama’s other advantages that John describes so well, I think Obama had what he needed for a victory, albeit a narrower one. This is all speculation, on both sides of the argument, of course.
I also think there is somewhat more room for gloom among conservatives than John suggests, considering the damage that the new administration and new Congress will likely inflict, some of which will probably prove impossible to reverse.
But I don’t think there’s enough room for gloom to make us affirmatively gloomy.
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