When you do it once, it’s just a victory. When you do it twice, it’s a realignment.
The coalition that Barack Obama put together to win the presidency handily in 2008 looked a lot like the emerging Democratic majority that optimistic liberals had been discerning on the political horizon since the 1990s. It was the late George McGovern’s losing coalition from 1972 finally come of age: Young voters, the unmarried, African-Americans, Hispanics, the liberal professional class — and then more than enough of the party’s old blue collar base to hold the Rust Belt for the Democrats.
But 2008 was also a unique political moment, when George W. Bush’s immense unpopularity was compounded by a financial collapse, and when the possibility of electing the country’s first black president fired the imagination of the nation (and the nation’s press corps). So it was still possible to regard the Obama majority of ’08 as more flukish than transformative — or at the very least, to see it as a fragile thing, easily shattered by poor choices and adverse developments.
There were plenty of both during the president’s first term. The Obama White House underestimated the depth of the recession, it overreached politically on the health care bill and the failed push for cap and trade and it reaped a backlash at the polls in 2010. The Republican Party, left for dead after 2008, revived itself, and at many points across the 2012 campaign season Obama’s majority coalition looked vulnerable. Its policy victories seemed to teeter on the edge.
And the Obama coalition was vulnerable. I believed that at the beginning of the campaign season; I believed it in mid-October, when I thought Mitt Romney might just pull the election out; and I believe it even now that the president has won a narrow (in the popular vote) but electorally decisive victory.
But the lesson of the election is that the Obama coalition was truly vulnerable only to a Republican Party that took Obama seriously as an opponent — that understood how his majority had been built, why voters had joined it and why the conservative majority of the Reagan and Bush eras had unraveled.
Such understanding eluded the Republicans this year. In part, that failure can be blamed on their standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, who mostly ran as a kind of vanilla Republican instead of showing the imagination necessary to reinvent his party for a new era. Romney’s final month of campaigning was nearly flawless, though. His debate performances were the best by any Republican since Reagan and he will go down in history as one of the few losing challengers to claim a late lead in the polls. A weak nominee in many ways, he was ultimately defeated less by his own limitations as a leader, and more by the fact that his party didn’t particularly want to be reinvented, preferring to believe that the rhetoric and positioning of 1980 and 1984 could win again in the America of 2012.
You could see this belief at work in the confidence with which many conservatives insisted that the Obama presidency was not only embattled but self-evidently disastrous, in the way so many voices on the right sought to raise the ideological stakes at every opportunity, in the widespread conviction that the starker conservatives made the choice between left and right, the more votes they would win.
You could also see this conviction shaping the punditry and predictions that issued from conservatives in the days leading up this election. It was remarkable how many analysts not normally known for their boosterism (I’m thinking of Michael Barone and George Will in particular) were willing to predict that Romney would not only win but win sweepingly, capturing states that haven’t gone Republican since Reagan. But even less starry-eyed conservatives — like, well, myself — were willing to embrace models of the electorate that overstated the Republican base of support and downplayed the Democrats’ mounting demographic advantage.
Those models were wrong about 2012, and they aren’t likely to be right about 2016 or 2020. Republicans can console themselves that they came close in the popular vote. They can look ahead to a favorable Senate map in 2014, and they do still have their House majority to fall back on.
But Tuesday’s result ratifies much of the leftward shift in public policy that President Obama achieved during his first term. It paves the way for the White House to raise at least some of the tax revenue required to pay for a more activist government, and it means that the Republicans let a golden chance to claim a governing coalition of their own slip away.
In this sense, just as Reagan Republicanism dominated the 1980s even though the Democrats controlled the House, our own era now clearly belongs to the Obama Democrats even though John Boehner is still speaker of the House.
That era will not last forever; it may not even last more than another four years. The current Democratic majority has its share of internal contradictions, and as it expands demographically it will become vulnerable to attack on many fronts. Parties are more adaptable than they seem in their moments of defeat, and there will come a day when a Republican presidential candidate will succeed where Mitt Romney just failed.
But getting there requires that conservatives face reality: The age of Reagan is officially over, and the Obama majority is the only majority we have.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.
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