They’re calling it a “status quo” election. And some things about it are indeed quite predictable, including the rush to call the new dispensation status quo.
Predictably: From deep within the Fox bubble, Karl Rove’s first reaction was to doubt that Obama’s re-election was really happening.
Predictably: Within hours of Romney’s concession speech, Wall Street was stamping its Gucci-shod feet and throwing a hissy fit.
Predictably: The likes of Grover Norquist, the anti-tax zealot, were at pains to pooh-pooh Tuesday’s returns. It wasn’t a humbling defeat for the GOP; it was a solid performance, says Grover, the guy who dreams of shrinking government so small he can “drown it in a bathtub.” It was Obama’s performance that proved pretty dismal, he adds. Just compare the numbers to 2008 when Obama triumphed over no mere corporate turnaround expert, but a genuine “war hero.”
What Grover doesn’t want to acknowledge, of course—aside from the fact that McCain, the war hero, was saddled with a laughing stock for a running mate and the enormous animosity inspired by Dubya Bush’s second term—is that the real shocker of the 2012 campaigns is this: The utter failure of a rich, white, smart pro-business Republican to defeat a black social worker-turned-politician amid the worst economy in 70 years. All that to play with, and Romney couldn’t even carry Virginia or any of the several states he calls home?
I confess to being one of those cynics Obama decried in his deeply moving victory speech. I had all but given up on the American electorate. Maybe I’ve lived too long in the South, but the roots of my despair run deep, at least to 1984 when a visibly senile ex-movie star rambled through the campaign debates and won anyway. (Years later, in the memoir by Reagan’s son we learn that my diagnosis was on-point: Reagan had dementia.)
A latter-day version of this disconnect between voters and common sense was provided exactly twenty years later, in 2004. The second-term bid by the second Bush administration was built around a campaign against gay marriage—and middle-America fell for it! White men, already clearly injured by Bush economic policies and about to be completely undone by the crash they brought on, settled for the red meat of Rove/Bush’s appeal to homophobia, ignoring the worsening condition of their finances and job prospects.
So, yes, I expected the worst Tuesday night. I expected that the pro-Romney super pacs, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson would surely succeed in buying the votes of a feckless electorate. I assumed the bogus voter I.D. scare tactics would work.
I assumed that a nation of web surfers and sit-com addicts with an attention span reduced to the interval between TV commercials would have long since forgotten what a heap of steaming ordure Obama was handed as he became president. Economic fiascos don’t resolve themselves overnight, but I doubted we had the patience as an electorate to respect the slow, steady progress of the Obama recovery. I assumed the electorate would not be bothered by the illogic of again—twice in 12 years—placing government in the hands of people who are proudly contemptuous of government itself.
And, to be blunt, I thought racism would also figure subtly but decisively in Obama’s undoing. 2008 had always seemed like a fluke, to me, a too perfect storm. And the crazy virulence of the Tea Party’s 2010 counter-thrust—the birther movement, the wide insistence that Barack Hussein Obama was Muslim—only seemed to confirm that analysis. Gary Wills got it right: the way so much of GOP rhetoric about the unemployed and the undocumented—about Obama himself—seethed with coded racism. Notwithstanding a majority of polls showing the president leading Romney, I shared ex-Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder’s concern, his assumption that a slim but sufficient percentage of people bashful about their racism were lying to pollsters when asked if they supported Obama.
I was wrong. In state after state, the returns showed patience with a president that’s rarely demonstrated in other areas of our civic life these days. America seemed to have seen right through Romney’s almost compulsive inability to stop the ideological shape-changing and outright lies. The electorate seemed to understand that a sharp curtailment of public spending during a protracted economic downturn was exactly the way to make that crisis worse — the real lesson of Europe these days, though Paul Ryan has yet to learn it.
Status quo? Maybe not. Something has changed. After the whoop-de-do of a hyper-caffeinated Tea Party in 2010, America, at least for now, seems to be wising up. An extraordinarily intelligent and un-cynical president was re-elected Tuesday, notwithstanding an overt four-year campaign announced by Congressional Republicans to assure that he would have only failure to show for his first term. It was a campaign of obstruction so obsessive and ill-considered that it led Republicans actually to trash the nation’s credit rating rather than seek common ground in dealing with debt—in my eyes the single-most shocking development of the past four years.
The anti-Obama campaign failed in other ways as well: the auto industry was saved; a major health care act was passed; bin Laden was killed; school reform advanced; reckless and pointless wars began to abate; alternative energy got a bigger boost than most people realize and stimulus money was funneled toward rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
There’s a lot more to do. I’m less pessimistic than I was. There’s a chance some of it will actually get done. The strength of Obama’s performance is a mandate in one sense only. The gridlock that undercut his first term needs to end. That’s the status quo that disgusts the electorate. The GOP should take no satisfaction in it.