An Obama rally on election eve. (Flickr/Becker1999)
Obviously, the most important thing that happened last night was President Obama's victory. But it's worth noting that this election was a victory for progressivism in so many ways. Some of the most infuriating conservative Democrats, particularly Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, are gone. And some of the new Democrats are more progressive than anyone would have wished for a few years ago. Elizabeth Warren is now a senator. So is Tammy Baldwin, the chamber's first openly gay member. And they were just two of a large group of Democratic women that won, including newly elected senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Maggie Hassan, the next governor of New Hampshire (in addition to Hassan, New Hampshire now has an all-female congressional delegation, counting both senators and both House members). While there are plenty of Tea Partiers left, a few of the most odious ones, including Allen West and Joe Walsh, are free to pursue their careers in talk radio. We can safely say that the Tea Party's moment has passed.
It’s safe to say that while the presidential race was the marquee contest, the bigger success may have gone to Democratic Senate candidates, who came back from certain failure to win a big victory—and deal a tremendous, unforeseen blow to the Republican Party.
Against all expectations, Democrats easily kept their majority in the Senate, successfully defending seats in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, and Wisconsin, while capturing Republican-held seats in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Indiana, where Joe Donnelly won an upset victory over Richard Mourdock, who crashed and burned following comments on how a pregnancy from rape is a “gift from God.”
Election Day 2008 crackled with possibility—with the electric buzz of history being made, of a country being transformed. A race-haunted nation was poised to elect its first black president. The economic and military catastrophes of the Bush years—and the religious haters, the Wall Street hustlers, and the chicken-hawk neocons who caused them—were about to be rejected. Change was coming: symbolic, palpable, and thrillingly uncertain.
The 2012 election, it seemed, never carried the same historical weight. For progressives, especially, this campaign seemed all along to be more about averting disaster—the atrocities the radical right had in store if Republicans won the White House and controlled both the House and the Senate—than about forging a new liberal path for the country. The moment for that had passed. The consensus, on both left and right, was expressed by The New York Times’s David Brooks: “If Obama wins, we’ll probably get small-bore stasis.” Not exactly the stuff of heart-pounding drama.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Elizabeth Warren instantly becomes the national leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (Disclosure: Warren's daughter serves on The American Prospect's governing board).
She has plenty of company among newly elected Senate Democrats. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, and Chris Murphy in Connecticut are well to the left of the people they succeeded. Conservatives who pulled the Democrats to the right on budget issues—Kent Conrad in North Dakota and Joe Lieberman in Connecticut—are mercifully in retirement.
This is a hard time, I know. We've all been there—it hurts when your candidate loses, and you realize that all the people and policies you hate will be in place for the next four years. But let me suggest that while you're perfectly justified in crying, wailing, beating your breasts and rending your garments, you really should try to keep your sanity. Not only will it be good for the country, it'll be good for you too.
Last night, as I sat in Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren's campaign ballroom taking notes on her win, I turned to Twitter and was stunned to discover that Americans have moved further and faster on marriage equality than I had dared to dream. Maine and Maryland voted to let same-sex couples marry; Washington state is poised to do the same; and voters in Minnesota defeated a measure that would have amended the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Maine voted in favor of equality 54 percent to 46 percent, in the first voter-initiated referendum to do so. Maryland passed marriage equality 52 percent to 48 percent—and did so the first time it went to the ballot. In Washington, with 50 percent of the votes recorded, marriage equality was ahead 52 percent to 48 percent. (That last one will take a week to before we get final results; Washington votes entirely by mail, and some of those ballots won’t even be received for days.)
They’re not kidding when they say the ads are inescapable in Ohio. Even the simple act of filling up the gas tank meant risking exposure to campaign messaging on Election Day; on the small screen at a pump in Cleveland, a Romney campaign ad about the skyrocketing cost of gas over the past four years played, a perfect example of the political micro-targeting that has become pro forma in the state. Mention the ads and people shudder; these 30-second soundbites are the modern day political equivalent of the Bubonic plague, festering with untruths and decimating what little Mr. Smith Goes to Washington innocence Ohioans might have had about the political process.
If you want a sense of how remarkable Barack Obama’s re-election victory is, think back to last summer. At the time, the president was struggling to reach a deal with House Republicans, who were threatening not to raise the debt ceiling and plunge the economy into a second recession. Unemployment was high—9.2 percent—Obama’s approval had dipped to the low 40s, and to anyone paying attention, the first African American president looked like a one-term failure.
But beginning in the fall, Obama began to reassert himself. With the American Jobs Act, he outlined a viable plan for generating economic growth and kick-starting the recovery. With his widely praised speech in Kansas, he outlined a populist agenda of greater investment and higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Over the course of 2012, he built good will with important communities, from LGBT Americans with an endorsement of same-sex marriage to Latino immigrants and their families with a measure meant to emulate the DREAM Act. What’s more, the economy began to pick up: Job growth increased, unemployment dropped, and the overall economic picture began to brighten.
Many years ago, legendary psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky used experiments to demonstrate the power of "loss aversion," the fact that losing something you have is more emotionally powerful than gaining something you don't. In other words, the misery of losing $100 is far larger than the pleasure of gaining $100. Which means that Democrats ought to feel even better today than they did in 2008.
They probably don't, though. The election of 2008 was certainly the most extraordinary of my lifetime, and probably of yours as well. There were a few prescient voices at the time saying, "Don't get too excited, or you'll just be disappointed" (Paul Krugman was the most notable), but it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the moment, particularly because it came after eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. The emotion most Democrats are experiencing right now is not so much hope, or inspiration, but relief. It doesn't seem quite as likely to produce tears of joy.
ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA—The daycare of a church named Shiloh Baptist isn't where you'd expect to locate the epicenter of President Obama's hopes for being re-elected. Inside, boxes of Toy Story fruit snacks, miniature scissors, and the occasional errant, bewildered toddler indicate the building's primary purpose, but the string of Obama-Biden yard signs marks this as the spot. While half of the building maintains its original use, the other has been taken over as an Obama field office. About 60 volunteers cram every nook and cranny of the second floor. They line the hallway walls, sitting on folding chairs or cross-legged on the floor, speaking softly into their cell phones, gently reminding voters to head to the polls. A chorus of voices echo the message: "This is so-and-so from the Obama campaign, calling you from Alexandria to see if you have voted today."
For progressives, waiting for tonight's election returns is less a matter of giddy anticipation a la 2008 and more a cause of intense nail-biting. There is potentially more to lose tonight (or God forbid, in a couple of weeks if Florida, Colorado, or Ohio make a mess) than to gain. There’s health-care and regulatory reform, of course. But more than that, there’s the much-needed sanity that President Obama has brought to a politically fractious, often-unhinged Washington.
I've often thought that there are few things worse than getting your party's nomination for president and then losing. To come so close to becoming the most powerful and important person on Planet Earth and then to fall short, and to boot, not only not getting a nice silver medal but being heaped with scorn, ridiculed and condemned—that must just eat you up inside. Some losers, like John McCain, have a job to go back to, but most don't, and Mitt Romney hasn't had a job since he started running for president five years ago. Let's assume for the moment that all the polls are right, and tonight is going to end with Barack Obama getting re-elected. What will Romney do with himself?
This is the tenth in the Prospect's series on the 174 measures on state ballots this year.
Marriage equality is up for vote in four states. In three states, voters have a chance to affirmatively say yes to allowing their state to marry same-sex couples; in the fourth, voters can add a “one man-one woman” marriage clause to the state’s constitution. As we all know, support for LGBT issues in general, and marriage equality in particular, has been getting stronger every year, as more of us talk to our families and friends, explaining that love and devotion are the same whether you love a boy or a girl. Will this be the year that, at long last, we win at least one marriage vote at the polls?