When the applause among Democrats and recriminations among Republicans begin to quiet down—probably within the next few days—the President will have to make some big decisions. The biggest is on the economy.
His victory and the pending “fiscal cliff” give him an opportunity to recast the economic debate. Our central challenge, he should say, is not to reduce the budget deficit. It’s to create more good jobs, grow the economy, and widen the circle of prosperity.
The deficit is a problem only in proportion to the overall size of the economy. If the economy grows faster than its current 2 percent annualized rate, the deficit shrinks in proportion. Tax receipts grow, and the deficit becomes more manageable.
The day after Barack Obama was re-elected, the Dow Jones lost 312.96 points. It wasn’t just that investors were hoping for the lower taxes and further deregulation that would have come with a Romney win. The news from Europe was bad, and pundits were obsessively focused on the “fiscal cliff” of mandatory budget cuts that will drive the economy into a new recession unless Congress jumps off its own budgetary cliff first.
For once, the markets are right. But the news from Europe entirely contradicts conventional assumptions about the fiscal cliff.
Over the past 15 years, California’s electorate has changed so dramatically and so quickly that Democrats have often won victories they weren’t even anticipating. In 1998, no one expected Gray Davis to win the governor’s office by 20 percentage points, and the tightly wound Davis, who had no life outside politics, was plainly bewildered by his own emotions during his victory speech on the night of the landslide. This week, no one expected the Democrats to win two-thirds of the seats in the state Assembly (they did expect to win that many in the state Senate, which they did), yet the Democrats won those seats going away. As California law requires a two-thirds vote in both legislative houses to raise any taxes, the Republicans have long used their just-over-one-third representation in those houses to block all tax increases, decimating the state’s schools, colleges, and parks in the process. Now, the Democrats have finally overcome that hurdle—and have become the first party with two-thirds representation in both houses since 1933.
How long has it been since America’s long-suffering liberals had an Election Night like Tuesday? The answer is 1964, folks. So enjoy your schadenfreude and revel in the spectacle of the right wing dealing with the combination of dismay and cluelessness that has regularly, like clockwork, beset liberals after elections for decades now. Only if Michele Bachmann had lost her seat in Congress—which damn near happened—could last night have been sweeter. Because this was no mere Democratic victory, and no mere Obama victory.
Given how little Republicans have to celebrate today, it might be tempting for the more enthusiastic conservatives to sip at least a little champagne over gubernatorial dominance. While races for the top state job in Montana and Washington remain too close to call, Republicans successfully captured North Carolina’s governor’s mansion. That means of the 50 state governors, at least 30 will be Republicans next year; only 18 will be Democrats. It’s a remarkably high number—but it sure ain’t as high as the Grand Old Party was hoping.
I spent all of yesterday traveling from polling place to polling place with election observers from a nonprofit, nonpartisan group called Colorado Common Cause. Its volunteers don’t care whom people vote for, they just want all voters to be able to vote. The Republican secretary of state, Scott Gessler, had made some efforts to keep mostly Democratic groups away from the polls. He sent out letters asking many Hispanic voters to provide proof of citizenship—which they’re not required to do—and his office did not send mail-in ballots automatically to any voter who missed the 2010 midterms. The Latino vote, in turn, devastated the GOP here.
A college-aged man in an American flag T-shirt shook up a bottle of champagne and sprayed it on the crowd below his perch atop tree branches. Despite the chill, no one really seemed to mind, and the large contingent of cops and Secret Service agents paid him and his fellow tree-climbers no mind. Friends jumped on each other's backs, lovers embraced, and everyone whooped and walloped. Tears were shed. Bottles of booze were passed about, and a whiff of weed hung in the background. Off-duty taxis rolled up 18th Street, the drivers laying on their horns and thrusting their hands out the window for high-fives from the flock of pedestrians joining the revelry.
Sean Barry showed up at the same polling place in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, where he cast his ballot for Barack Obama in 2008. But when he got there, the poll workers informed him that his name was nowhere to be found on the voter rolls. They also told him he wasn’t alone; other regular voters had arrived only to find their names missing. All of them had to submit provisional ballots. Allegations of an illegal voter purge were already swirling, and Barry felt uneasy. “I feel unsteady about my vote being counted,” he said. But in the end, with or without Barry’s vote, Obama won Pennsylvania easily.
Here’s a paradox. The networks’ exit poll taken yesterday shows that 50 percent of voters cast their vote for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, while just 48 percent said they voted for Republican candidates. Yet even as President Barack Obama won re-election and Senate Democrats not only didn’t lose their majority but picked up one or two seats, House Republicans suffered no diminution of their power and may end up losing just a handful of seats, if any. The Democrats had hoped to pick up the 25 seats they needed to retake the House, but they fell depressingly short.
President Barack Obama was re-elected president with a strong majority in the Electoral College, although not quite as big as in 2008. If he wins Florida, where he is currently leading but where the final results are not in—the vote counters got tired and went to bed instead of finishing the job last night—he will have won every state this year that he won in 2008 except Indiana and North Carolina. Those two are deeply red states that Republicans nearly always win. They simply have reverted to the norm (although North Carolina was close: Romney's margin was only three points). Noteworthy is that Obama appears to have won all the swing states except North Carolina. If Florida stays blue, Obama will have 332 electoral votes (versus 365 in 2008). If Florida becomes red in the end, Obama will still have hit 300 electoral votes, with a total of 303. Either way, a solid victory. None of the media are reporting anything about Nebraska's Second Congressional District, which Obama won last time, so let us assume that Romney won all five of Nebraska's electoral votes.
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.