Morning Jay: Barack Obama and the Triumph of Identity Politics
6:00 AM, Nov 8, 2012 • By JAY COST
Barack Obama is now the first president in American history to win a second term with a smaller share of the electoral vote, a smaller share of the popular vote, and a smaller aggregate vote than when he was first elected. There are still votes to be counted, but as of this writing he actually has fewer votes than George W. Bush won in 2004.
An important takeaway from Tuesday was the massive decline in voter turnout, particularly white voters. It is guaranteed to be down – perhaps substantially – from 2008 in raw numbers, and as a share of the total population it will almost assuredly be down substantially.
This is no coincidence; at least in part, it is a consequence of the campaign the president ran. Credit where it is due to Team Obama. Recognizing the economic headwinds the president faced, it borrowed a page from Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign, accomplishing two goals simultaneously.
First, it played to its base with a level of intensity rarely seen in the modern era. “The war on women” was a prime case in point. The idea was to maximize turnout for the president’s core groups by focusing on identity politics, encouraging them to come out and vote against a fictitious GOP bogeyman who would suppress their rights to vote, deport their friends and neighbors, deny them Medicare, ship their jobs overseas, raid their pensions, and eliminate their access to contraception. And it worked.
Second, among voters that he could not win – namely, lower-to-middle class, socially conservative whites who have disapproved of the president for four years – Team Obama worked assiduously on turning Mitt Romney into the “other.” The message to these voters was essentially: you don’t like me, but this guy is worse. They got the point, and a shockingly large number stayed home. My back of the envelope estimate, assuming 2008 turnout levels and steady population growth, suggests that almost 10 million white voters did not show up this time around.
I honestly did not think this approach would work, because unlike Truman, Obama had no FDR. There was nobody he could point to as a beacon of hope, a reminder that though the current nominee may be a disappointment, he nevertheless follows in the footsteps of a beloved leader. But I was wrong: in the end, that was the purpose that Bill Clinton served this time around; George W. Bush, naturally, played the part of Herbert Hoover.
Oftentimes, you cannot understand what is really happening until it has already occurred.
This strategy has shades of the Bush 2004 campaign, but with an important difference. While Bush played to the value voters and attacked Kerry, he also campaigned on something positive: he had kept us safe after 9/11, and he would continue to do so. There was no such positive message coming from Obama, at least none to be taken seriously.
The problem, of course, is that Obama will likely learn what Harry Truman discovered in 1949: one might be able to win reelection by ruthlessly splitting the country in half, hoping to collect a fraction of the vote more than your opponent, but one cannot govern after having made such a mess. Much like Truman, Obama enters a second term with no mandate to speak of, and with roughly half of the country intractably opposed to his policies.
As for Republicans, there is a valuable lesson to be learned here. The Democratic party now dominates the Upper East Side of Manhattan, as well as the wealthiest neighborhoods in the most powerful cities. And yet Republicans are still effectively castigated as the party of the rich. They are not – at least not any more than the Democratic party is. Sure, the GOP favors tax rate reductions to generate economic growth, but the Democratic party has proven itself ready, willing, and able to dole out benefits to the well-heeled rent-seekers who swarm Washington, D.C. looking for favors from Uncle Sam. This is not the party of Andrew Jackson Jackson or William Jennings Bryan or even Franklin Roosevelt. To borrow a passage from FDR’s 1932 nomination address, the moneychangers most assuredly remain in the Democratic temple. In fact, I’d argue they are in charge of it.
The profound hypocrisy of today's Democratic party should have been a hanging curveball for the Republican party – and it may yet be. But it was not this year. By nominating Mitt Romney, for all of his many strengths, he was too easily denigrated as a wealthy Northeastern elitist, the very kind who now regularly votes Democratic! His personal profile fit that mold entirely, and the “47 percent” videotape was a gift from above for Team Obama, as it seemed to prove their point that he was "not one of us," as one Obama ad so tastelessly put it.
In other words, much like 1948, the GOP nominated a candidate who played right into the trap that the Democrats had set. That year, it was Thomas Dewey. This year, Mitt Romney.
The heart and soul of the Republican party remains what it has been for generations – the middle class outside the elite quarters of the Northeast. This is why – in the 80 years between the Civil War and the Great Depression – the GOP almost always nominated a candidate originally from the Midwest: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, and Herbert Hoover. Only three nominees came from the Northeast -- Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, who entered the presidency through the vice-presidency, and James Blaine, who lost. Even in the post-war era, the party has found success almost always from outside the Northeast. Dwight Eisenhower was from Kansas by way of Texas. Richard Nixon was a farm boy from California. Ronald Reagan went to college in Peoria, Illinois. George W. Bush’s grandfather was a senator from Connecticut, but he spoke with a folksy Texas twang.
A nominee with this kind of background would have been more able to resist Obama’s demagoguery, and we might well have a new president-elect today.
Put simply: identity matters in politics, oftentimes more than anything else. We can view political battles in budgetary terms, or in terms of cultural hot button issues, but one of the most important elements of voting is seeing yourself in the person you elect. It looks to me like Barack Obama convinced would-be GOP voters who never would have supported him to stay home rather than support this “other” fellow, Mitt Romney.
In 2016, the Republicans cannot allow the Democratic party to get away with this tactic again. It must nominate a candidate who resonates, on an essential level, with the values and identity of the heartland. Since World War Two, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush all managed to do that, and each won twice. There is a lesson there for the GOP.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.
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