Saturday, May 26 , 2018, 1:12 am | Fair 58º

 
 
 
 

Michael Barone: Triumph of Temperament, Not Policy

It was a thrilling — even inspiring — victory, but there's less there than meets the eye.

The Democrats’ victory — and President-elect Barack Obama’s — was overdetermined and underdelivered.

Michael Barone
Michael Barone
Overdetermined: Huge majorities believe the country is on the wrong track and disapprove of President Bush; voters prefer generic Democrats over Republicans by 10 percent or more. But Obama beat Sen. John McCain by just 52 percent to 46 percent, running two points ahead of Bush in 2004 and one point behind President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Democrats fell short of the 60 votes they need to stop filibusters in the Senate and made more modest gains in the House of Representatives than the leading prognosticators expected.

To be sure, Obama ran a skillful campaign. Just as he capitalized on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s weakness in party caucuses (she won more votes and delegates than he did in primaries), so in the general election he used his unprecedented ability to raise money by breaking his promise to take federal funds and by disabling the address verification system that would have screened out many illegal credit-card contributions.

Such actions by a Republican, as Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has argued, would have gotten scathing coverage from mainstream media. Not so for Obama. His campaign outspent McCain’s vastly on ads and organization in target states. That probably switched 1 percent or 2 percent of the vote in five key states — Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia — which meant Obama won a solid 364 electoral votes rather than a Bush-like thin majority of 278. All of which shows a certain ruthlessness. But ruthlessness is a useful quality for a president (see Roosevelt, Franklin; Reagan, Ronald).

Do Obama and the Democrats have a mandate? Obama got a larger percentage than any other Democrat since 1964, and Democrats have congressional majorities comparable to those in President Bill Clinton’s first two years. But their policies of protectionism and greater taxes on high earners seem ill-suited to a country facing a recession (see Hoover, Herbert). The public fisc does not appear to be overflowing enough to finance refundable tax credits, government health insurance or universal pre-kindergarten.

The half of the electorate that doesn’t remember the 1970s may be more open to big government than those of us who do. But “open to” does not equal “demand.” The decisive shift of public opinion came when the financial crisis hit. McCain approached it like a fighter pilot, denouncing Wall Street, suspending his campaign, threatening to skip the first debate. Obama approached it like a law professor, cool and detached. Voters preferred law professor to fighter pilot. This was a triumph of temperament, not policy.

Are we seeing a political realignment? Certainly some of the ingredients are there. As presidents, Reagan and Clinton attracted young voters to their parties; Bush signally failed to do so. Obama, before he has started governing, has inspired fervent, even quasi-religious devotion from the young and has brought millions of them into the electorate.

Judging from the polls and from my first look at the election returns, I believe he has attracted to his party many affluent, highly educated voters in metro areas running south from Philadelphia to Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa, Fla., and west to Denver and the Pacific. Democrats directed much rhetoric toward the white working class, but failed to win most of its votes. Instead, they assembled what you might call a top-and-bottom coalition: affluent suburbs plus blacks in central cities.

The Democrats have always been a party of unlikely coalitions, capable of expansion when their leaders perform well, susceptible to disarray when they falter. The roughhewn John Murtha helps bring the designer-dressed Nancy Pelosi to power in the House; the black quasi-academic Obama inspires millions in the highest- and lowest-income ZIP codes. And, as McCain handsomely acknowledged, there is something genuinely thrilling in the spectacle of Americans electing a black president.

But presidents can build majority coalitions only through performance (see Bush, G.W.). As president, Obama faces daunting problems. How to fix a financial system no one seems to fully understand. How to defeat terrorist enemies sheltered in the territory of our putative ally Pakistan. How to live up to the high expectations so visible in the cheering and tearful faces in those crowds in Berlin, Invesco Field and Grant Park — after a victory that was thrilling, but not quite what the Democrats hoped for.

Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S.News & World Report and principal coauthor of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Supporter

Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >