Barack Obama is a gifted politician. But a president is judged by the gifts he leaves behind. Following his fourth national election as party leader, Democrats are taking stock of what they have received.
For Obama, there have been two convincing presidential victories; for the Democratic Party, electoral ruin at every other level. On Tuesday (assuming the most likely final outcome), the largest Democratic Senate losses since 1980. The ranks of moderate Democrats — Mark Pryor, Mark Begich, Kay Hagan, and (probably) Mary Landrieu — destroyed. During Obama’s presidency, the loss of nearly 70 House seats, producing the largest Republican House majority since 1931. The near extinction of the Democratic Party in the South, including in Arkansas and Tennessee, which provided the Democratic national ticket in 1992 and 1996. Full Republican control of 29 state legislatures, the highest total since the 1920s, and Republican governors in 32 states, including Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland.
Obama’s particular form of political magic has worked only for Obama himself.
His post-election news conference displayed a series of character traits that have become hardened and exaggerated under the pressure of defeat. His self-confidence has slipped into denial — imagining the election as a generalized anti-incumbent tantrum rather than a reaction to the performance of his administration. His moral certitude has turned into the graceless dismissal of opposition, who cannot be conceded anything more than a “good night.” His pride of accomplishment has become a conviction that Americans are just insufficiently grateful for the “real progress” of the last six years.
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There is apparently no possible electoral outcome that could shake these beliefs. And they seem rooted in a certain view of the electorate. Obama clearly regards the “two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday” as a more favorable audience than the discontented third who turned out. It is a view of politics that comes by way of William Butler Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
This mindset is among the most damaging gifts of the president to his party. Obama has reinforced a particularly simplistic view of the “coalition of the ascendant” among Democratic elites. It is true (and should deeply concern Republicans) that rising demographic groups such as Latinos, millennials and unmarried women are more Democratic in orientation. And they do tend to participate more in presidential elections. But this does not mean the Democratic Party can consist entirely (or mainly) of minorities, the young, the secular, the college educated, and single women. This approach can yield a regional blue map (witness the current distribution of House seats), just as an appeal to white men and religious conservatives can yield a regional red map.
Changing demography is the long-term context of American politics. But the coalition of the ascendant is not a standing political army, sent into battle by get-out-the-vote technology. “Liberals may still own the future of American politics,” says Jonathan Chait, “but the future is taking a very long time to arrive.”
To be a national party, Democrats need to contend for rural and small-town voters, for older voters, for working-class white voters, for white Catholics, even for suburban evangelicals. This requires not just a populist economic message (which is important), but the recognition of a set of values — a predisposition toward social order, family and faith — that is foreign to most liberal bloggers and Democratic strategists. In Colorado, for example, Democrats tried to apply a blue-state strategy — emphasizing abortion rights and the supposed Republican “war on women” — in a purple state. It backfired. (In contrast, Bill Ritter was elected governor of Colorado in 2006 as a pro-life Democrat.) In the Obama era, nearly every cultural signal sent by the national Democratic Party would be applauded in the faculty lounge.
It is possible for progressives to admire Obama for his courage — in passing Obamacare on a party line, in insisting that Catholic institutions cover contraceptives, now in promising an executive “amnesty” before the end of the year. He is a leader intent on shaping events, while almost entirely (on recent evidence) unshaped by them. Some will applaud.
But it is impossible to make the case that Obama has been an inclusive or unifying leader. He has left his party more ideologically and geographically uniform. He has left a riven society and political culture. And these should also be counted as Obama’s gifts.
To reach Michael Gerson, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.