Sunday, October 19, 2008

Run Up the Score

With two weeks and two days to Election Day, Barack Obama could still lose this election, but it is increasingly difficult to see how. But there is more to elections than just whose nose got over the finish line first. Elections are symbolic. Ask George W. Bush if all elections are the same; he can tell you about the difference between being appointed President by the Supreme Court in 2000 and winning by four million votes in 2004. Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama this morning on Meet the Press was not a game-changer, but it was rich with symbolism (as well as substance: if there was any doubt that the McCain campaign's fixation on William Ayers and McCain's selection of Sarah Palin were blunders, Powell's measured criticism today ought to clear that up). And Powell will move some votes, among undecideds and among a new, exotic species, Republicans who are jumping ship and voting for Obama. That's good: today I want to make the argument for running up the score.
When the Republicans and their unfortunately kind of brilliant field marshall Newt Gingrich took over the Congress in 1994 the conservative movement, thirty years after Ronald Reagan's speech endorsing Barry Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention, finally won the definitive victory it had pursued all those years (Reagan's own impressive numbers in 1980 were interpreted as to some degree representing Jimmy Carter's failure of confidence). 1994 was the symbolic defeat of the old, legislation-based Democratic Party model of government that dated back to Franklin Roosevelt and that reached its apogee during the JFK-LBJ era of the early and mid-sixties. It was Bill Clinton, that most protean of pols, who then announced that "the era of big government is over." That's the kind of symbolic victory that moves us from one era to another. Such elections are rare: the apostate conservative Andrew Sullivan pointed out on the Chris Matthews Show this morning that the last time the Republicans were handed such a symbolic defeat was the landslide reelection of Roosevelt in 1936 (1932 was about "change" after the crash of '29, 1976 was about Watergate, Nixon's resignation in 1974 and the ignominious end of the US war in Vietnam in 1975. Clinton won by plurality in 1992 with Ross Perot pulling down about 20 percent of the popular vote).
The pendulum needs to swing again. A big part of the reason I was a Hillary Clinton supporter throughout this primary season was that a victory for Hillary, incarnate devil of liberalism, would have constituted an unambiguous defeat of conservatism, a statement by the body politic that Reagan's movement had run its course. We can still have such a moment, and the signs are everywhere that we need it. Joe Scarborough, getting back to his conservative roots in time of crisis, laid out the revanchist line this morning: if not for the economic collapse, Republican conservatism would have won the election. And conservative apologists are already pointing fingers at Obama's tremendous cash advantage, never mind that it was they who resisted campaign finance reform on the grounds that political donations ought to be considered constitutionally protected "free speech." This time, the people have spoken (Fairness footnote: John McCain has indeed been a "maverick" on campaign finance, although that and opposing torture are pretty much it). We need a blowout. Go get 'em, Sarah!

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