A stalemate, not a mandate

The Fall 2012 issue of the Claremont Review of Books is forthcoming, but we have a timely preview. The issue will carry Professor James Ceaser’s analysis of the meaning of the election. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia. Our friends at the CRB have posted a column adapted from his forthcoming essay.

Professor Ceaser is a shrewd observer of the political scene. He anticipated four scenarios for “The day after” the election in an excellent Weekly Standard article. As it happens, the outcome appears to have landed somewhere between scenarios 1 and 2. Under each of these scenarios, Professor Ceaser observed:

An Obama victory…secures his place in the pantheon of great progressive leaders. On that imaginary liberal Mount Rushmore​—​perhaps to be carved out as a shovel-ready project for a new stimulus package​—​the face of Barack Obama will appear alongside those of FDR and LBJ. These are the three liberal presidents who did something big, something irreversible, in expanding the role of the federal government and altering the relation between citizens and the state.

As Professor Ceaser looks back on the actual outcome in “A stalemate, not a mandate,” he finds that, on the surface, the 2012 election produced little by way of change: we will have the same president, the same Senate majority leader, and the same Speaker of the House. Professor Ceaser puts it this way:

The 2012 election leaves unsettled the question of which party can claim to speak for a majority of the American people—a dispute that has been going on for the past two years. For those on the Left, the narrative of contemporary politics properly begins with Obama’s election in 2008, which signaled a break from the old politics and launched a new era of progressivism supported by a political realignment. For many on the Right, the starting point is the 2010 midterm election, which produced a majority for Republicans in the House of Representatives and brought a huge shift in the GOP’s favor in gubernatorial seats and state legislatures.

Each side pressed its case, and in the aftermath of 2010 both camps seemed prepared to wait for another election to decide the contest between these two conflicting mandates. Now that election has taken place, but it produced no definitive victory. The results are closer to a standoff: a narrow presidential win for the Democrats, a House of Representatives that remains Republican, and a Senate that is Democratic. Meanwhile, at the state level Republicans hold their considerable advantage.

And yet it seems apparent that the country is now a very different place than it was on the morning of November 6. Reelection means Obama can concentrate on consolidating the political realignment set in motion by his first term policies. Defeat means the Republicans will be forced to deal with the consequences of this realignment for the foreseeable future – that they will engage in politics on the Democrats’ terms.

Knowledge of this will shape the Republican Party’s adaptation to the changing electoral landscape. “The best strategy for the GOP,” writes Professor Ceaser, “lies in selecting conservative candidates credible enough to convince their more enthusiastic supporters to forgo promoting positions in national politics that would destroy the chances of achieving a majority.”


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