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Fowler: Obama Beat Reagan, Not Romney

December 1, 2012

Both candidates and parties made it eminently clear throughout the campaign that this was no ordinary election. At rally after rally both President Obama and Governor Romney repeated that this election was not merely a choice between two parties or candidates, but a choice between two fundamentally different visions of the role of government in 21st century America. This was exemplified by the chasm that had polarized the two parties on issues ranging from women’s rights, gay rights, immigration, climate change, financial regulation, and healthcare. Most of all, however, it came down to the nation’s finances. How much spending should be cut, from where, and how many, if any, taxes should be raised.

The expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of the year gave both sides an element of urgency and a tangible icon of the consequences of defeat. Barack Obama won. And he won on a lot more than a 3.6% hike on income tax for the wealthiest. His vision of government stepping in when necessary, and providing certain services that it can perform better than the private market, effectively defeated Ronald Reagan’s diagnosis of societal ills as being the fault of too much government. The era of laissez-faire economics, and more importantly the rugged libertarian rhetoric that accompanied it, was shattered by an electorate that voted for the candidate explicitly advocating tax increases against one who maintained the anti-tax orthodoxy that had won five of seven presidential elections before 2008.

Since Reagan laid the blame for the nation’s problems on the federal government more than thirty years ago, only one Democrat had been elected president, and he had only won re-election by declaring the end of the era of big government. While Obama’s 2008 win could be chalked up to voters being fed up with eight years of the Bush administration, the 2012 election was no where near as equivocal. The election was run as a choice between the ideologies of Reagan and Obama, and Americans made it clear which they preferred.

While Obama’s three point win (leaving Romney with an almost poetic 47% of the vote) fell far short of the landslides of the past two fundamental choice elections of 1964 and 1984, it was nonetheless far more comfortable than most pundits, Nate Silver not withstanding, had been predicting. The fact that the president was able to win with a relatively comfortable margin while unemployment remained a hair below 8% and a majority of the population believed that the nation was on the wrong track is nothing short of remarkable; no president has won re-election with unemployment over 7.2% since Franklin Roosevelt. The president who won with unemployment at 7.2%? Ronald Reagan. Much like Obama, both men ran for re-election with an economy that was beginning to improve but with unemployment remaining stubbornly high. While both men were actually far more compromising than conventional political thought would indicate, both Roosevelt and Reagan were able to sell their platforms with sharp ideological rhetoric and winning personalities. In short, both men put the best possible face on their respective philosophies.

In Reagan’s case this was aided by facing Jimmy Carter, an incumbent president who was effectively a caricature of what conservatives saw liberals as: weak, incompetent, and unable to manage either the federal budget or threats from the Middle East. In nominating Mitt Romney four short years after the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression, Republicans handed the president a similar opportunity which he exploited with relish. Romney, through his background in private equity and penchant for making remarks that sounded eerily like Mr. Burns, could not have provided a better foil for a president seeking to make governmental protection of the middle and lower classes the framework of his campaign and presidency.

The shift in American politics that followed the 2012 election, however, did not end with the choice for president. For a political system that had been dominated by white, conservative, evangelical Christians for the past 30 years, the progress made by minorities, women, and various liberal interests was nothing short of astounding. Along with re-electing the first black president, American voters elected Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator; Mazie Hirono, the first Buddhist senator; Kysten Sinema, the first bisexual congresswomen (as well as the first nontheist); and Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu congresswoman.

However, the diversity of the 113th Congress, exemplified by a Democratic caucus that for the first time hosts a minority of white men, is almost outdone by the ballot measures approved directly by the American people. Marijuana was legalized in two states; in California, a tax hike and a reform of the regressive Three Strikes Rule were passed. Most importantly, same-sex marriage was legalized by popular vote for the first time in American history, in not one but three states (and a constitutional ban defeated in a fourth). For a nation that only eight years ago saw President Bush re-elected on the strength of Ohio evangelicals energized by the nascent threat of same-sex marriage, the turnaround is remarkable.

The statistics and precedents of the election further the concept that a more liberal America may be emerging in the Obama era. The president is the first Democrat to win a majority of the popular vote in both of his elections since Roosevelt. In fact, only four presidents in the past century have won a majority of the vote both times, with Obama joining the likes of only FDR, Eisenhower, and Reagan. 2012 also marked the highest percentage of liberals in the electorate since 1976. While they are still comfortably outnumbered by conservatives, the fact that liberals are at their highest standing since before the Reagan Revolution is telling. How all of this was achieved, with the economy in a state of steady but anemic growth and pessimism rampant throughout the American electorate, can be ascribed primarily to the electoral makeup. For the past 30 years Republicans have won the presidency by turning out the coalition assembled by Richard Nixon and entrenched by Reagan: white, working class Americans from the South and Midwest, joined together by a distrust of government and a reverence for a ‘traditional’ America that they’ve seen slipping through their fingers since the 1960s. Obama lost the white vote handily; had he been running even eight years ago, his 40% of support from whites would have produced a President Romney.

2012, however, saw a different coalition emerge. Building on the one he had assembled in 2008, the president succeeded by scoring huge vote margins amongst African Americans, gays, single women, young people (especially students), and, most importantly, Hispanics. The fact that Republicans are already starting to show signs of thawing towards the idea of comprehensive immigration reform, with a pathway to citizenship for those already residing in the country, speaks to the party’s realization that they cannot afford to keep losing the fastest growing demographic group by 40%. Likewise, the gender gap that led to Romney’s twelve point loss amongst women, while partially explained by the astounding and repeated emergence of rape as a talking point for Republican congressional candidates, was also a result of the party’s policies on abortion, contraception, and equal pay that alienated the socially liberal independents who are increasingly deciding elections in states like Virginia and Colorado.

In all 2012 did provide the basic choice that both sides claimed it would. This is not to suggest that the parties presented divergent approaches to every topic: foreign policy, gun control, the war on drugs, and homeland security more often than not had the candidates agreeing whole heartedly with each other, preventing meaningful debate on these important issues. However, the vast majority of elections present candidates who agree on a wide variety of issues. What distinguished 2012 from any election since at least 1984 was the number of issues which the candidates disagreed on, and especially the gulf of disagreement on most of them.

The Republicans offered an agenda crafted from a strict interpretation of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric, albeit with an immeasurably worse salesman. The GOP and Governor Romney espoused the virtues of laissez-faire economics as the solution to every fiscal challenge facing the country. The president and the Democrats, on the other hand, offered a centre-left agenda that included tax hikes on the wealthiest, expansions of rights for women and gays, and the full implementation of Obamacare. That agenda would have been a surefire electoral loser even eight years ago. If 2012 proved anything, however, it was that Republicans can no longer ride the residue of Reagan’s rhetoric to victory. Barack Obama and the American electorate have seen to that.

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