The 2012 elections were clearly a victory for Democrats and progressive ideas. President Obama won a decisive Electoral College victory against Former Governor Romney. Despite having 23 seats up for reelection, as opposed to the Republicans’ 10, Democrats actually managed to gain two seats in the Senate. The Democrats won a majority of the House vote in the country, but Republicans kept the House through the redistricting process in 2010. Gay marriage was legalized through ballot initiatives in three different states and recreational marijuana was legalized in two different states.
At the same time, there does not seem to be a liberal groundswell in the same way as in the 2006 or 2008 elections, or the conservative swell in 2010, as both Obama and Speaker John Boehner claim a ‘popular mandate’ to promote their beliefs. Despite clear Democratic victories at the polls, the Democratic Party has shifted towards the center fiscally, to the point where income tax increases on anyone except the top earners is off the table. In light of the fiscal centrism of the Democrats, it seems that the popular mandate from the election is for fiscal reforms that can achieve deficit reduction and continue to spur growth.
Listening to the Republican rhetoric after the election though, this mandate seems to be completely lost on conservative leadership. The talk amongst Republicans is that the reason they lost was because of their failure to reach minorities, in particular Hispanic voters. To remedy this, conservatives in the media from Sean Hannity to Charles Krauthammer have supported comprehensive immigration reform with a path to amnesty for illegal immigrants. Yet, as Heather Mac Donald writes, immigration reform alone won’t bring Hispanic voters to the Republican side. Although Hispanics in America trend towards social conservatism, many of them also believe in government advocacy and a social safety net; they are not one-issue voters, on illegal immigration.
Like Hispanic voters, the majority of Americans are similarly not one-issue voters, which helps to explain the results of this election. Given that the incumbent party has not produced the economic growth that people have hoped, it is natural to expect the challenger to win, an assumption that drove a lot of Republican confidence leading up to the election. The depressed economic situation presented a significant opportunity for a Republican takeover. They chose a good candidate to run against Obama; Romney has good business experience and was productive as governor of Massachusetts. Yet early on in the Republican primaries, he was pushed to the far right on several issues. In terms of immigration, he advocated a position of ‘self-deportation’. And Romney was also forced into advocating drastic tax cuts in a time where sensible deficit reduction is a top goal in Washington right now, and slashing revenues only exacerbates the deficit.
This gets at an issue I’ve mentioned before: Republicans need to recognize that they didn’t lose this election solely because they couldn’t connect with Hispanics or Asians (another group whose Democratic leanings confound Republicans, especially given that they are wealthier than Hispanics on average), but because of their radical conservatism which rejected a role of government in people’s everyday lives. That is, quite simply, not a viable electoral strategy. Most Americans don’t believe that the government shouldn’t play a role in our lives; they accept that there are some things that government does better than the private sector. Such a radical interpretation of government would be akin to Democrats favoring government ownership of the means of production. Neither of those positions can win elections in the long run.
What does all this mean for the upcoming months? There are a number of key legislative battles coming up. The first will be the fiscal cliff and deficit reduction negotiations in the next several weeks. Immigration reform and climate change are two topics that figure to come up in the next Congressional term. How the Republicans approach the fiscal cliff will signify how they are willing to approach the next term. Boehner has recognized his situation, and appears open to some sort of compromise. Whether House Republicans are on board or not is a different issue. If they can agree on sensible deficit reduction, that bodes well for resolutions on issues like immigration reform. If Republicans can compromise and move back towards reality, they will succeed in the next few elections. This isn’t just wishful thinking on my part for a sane Republican Party, if they cannot reach compromise with Democrats on the fiscal cliff, immigration, and other issues, Democrats could achieve presidential dominance following conservative overreach similar to Republican dominance from 1968 to 1992.