Thursday, November 08, 2012

QUESTIONS OF LUCK - Obama’s victory needs to be put in historical perspective

By Swapan Dasgupta

In any contest involving the top political job, there are no prizes for the guy who comes second. On the contrary, the post-mortem exercise often leaves the runner-up even more bruised since the focus is invariably on his personal shortcomings, the strategic miscalculations of his team and his misreading of the electoral landscape. Moreover, there is an unending preoccupation with missed opportunities and the what-if questions.

Historians who have studied presidential elections in the United States have often thrown the what-if teaser to their readers. What if, it is often asked, Richard Nixon had cared to remove his six o’clock shadow and been a little more careful in choosing his suit for the legendary TV debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960? If nothing else, Nixon would certainly have appeared a less ghostly personality than his Democratic challenger who cut a dashing figure on the screen. Appearances mattered because the majority of those who saw the encounter on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner, while the majority who heard the debate on radio thought that Nixon had prevailed. The issue is relevant because the results revealed a mere 0.2 per cent difference in the popular vote between the winner and the loser.

There is certain to be a similar, big what-if question that future studies of the 2012 presidential election are bound to throw up. Was President Barack Obama the luckiest presidential candidate, with God on his side? Consider the facts. For the week before Superstorm Sandy created havoc in the east coast of US, Obama had witnessed Mitt Romney steadily closing the gap and, indeed, two days before the storm, overtaking him in most of the polls. Romney seemed to be on a roll and the President, far from being the silver-tongued inspirational orator, had become distinctly unfocussed. So much so that he had to summon the evergreen charmer President Bill Clinton to shore up his defences and rally the faithful.

Sandy halted the Romney momentum, allowed Obama to act presidential and bipartisan and, most important, reminded wavering voters that there are obvious pitfalls in taking the idea of less government to extremes. Sandy rehabilitated Obama both personally and ideologically. It is entirely possible that the Democrats would have won even without divine intervention. But the margin of victory would have been tantalisingly close. Sandy succeeded in informing many people who were disappointed by Obama’s performance but who were averse to voting for Romney to take a second look at the President, help conclude that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all and, therefore, worth the effort of a vote.  

If Sandy did indeed make the critical difference between a wafer-thin margin and a conclusive victory, it also calls into question the resulting over-interpretation of the implications of the President’s re-election. For a start, it is important to keep some elementary electoral statistics in mind. The margin of Obama’s victory (it may increase after the full Florida results come in) against Romney was 2.82 million votes (2.4 per cent). That this was nowhere near the awesome 9.52 million vote (7.2 per cent) margin separating him and Senator John McCain in 2008 need not be held against him. An underperforming presidency was lucky to just register a victory on November 6 and limit the loss in electoral votes to the states of Indiana and North Carolina. To my mind, what is more significant is that Obama polled nearly 9 million votes less than what he did in 2008.  It may also be worth noting that the Republicans retained control of the House of Representatives and confined their net Senate loss to just two seats—including that of the bigot who made the bizarre comment about a conception from rape being a gift of God.

Ever since the exit polls suggested that Obama’s re-election was made possible by focussed mobilisation of African Americans, Hispanics, students, sexual minorities and women (particularly single women), there has been a clamour to suggest that the President has ridden the crest of a social revolution. Elated by a victory they never imagined would be so conclusive, a section of the commentariat has argued that the 2012 election marks the death of social conservatism, fiscal conservatism and the so-called moral majority. In 2004, at a time the George W. Bush administration was on a high and scholars were describing the US as a ‘Right nation’, Samuel Huntington had warned of a steady erosion of the Judaeo-Christian values that had hitherto set the tone for America. Was his prophecy now unfolding?

The statistical evidence indicates a compelling need to be cautious about rushing to judgment. Over the years, some occupants of the White House have certainly redefined politics for future generations. President Franklin Roosevelt certainly created a New Deal coalition based on active state intervention in the economy. On his part, President Ronal Reagan demolished the Democratic consensus of yore and put self-improvement, low taxes and Christian values on top of the agenda. Indeed, in seeking re-election both FDR and Reagan improved on their majorities (just as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush also did). This is the first occasion an incumbent President has been credited with a social revolution after actually losing votes.

Maps can often distort perspectives but a bird’s eye of the electoral map of the US doesn’t endorse the claims of a social upheaval. What the huge swathe of red states bordered on the north-east and west by blue borders point to is a deeply divided America. It is true, as the pundits in TV studios emphasised on election night, that states such as Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and even Florida which should have been Republican, voted for Obama for two consecutive elections.

That new immigrants, particularly Hispanics who today account for nearly 10 per cent of the national electorate, perceive Republicans as less sympathetic to their interests and aspirations is undeniable. An emerging bloc of minority voters comprising Blacks, Hispanics and Asians may also, in time, become a reliable support base for the Democrats, particularly as the overwhelming white dominance of the country is diluted. However, those with a sense of history will readily admit, that voting blocs have never remained constant. Till the election of 1964, for example, the South, particularly the old Confederate states, was overwhelmingly committed to the Democratic Party so much so that Republicans didn’t even bother campaigning there. Yet the convulsions created by the Civil Rights legislation passed by President Lyndon Johnson resulted in the South become solidly Republican after 1968.

A historical perspective is necessary as a corrective to the impression that President Obama has crafted a new Democratic majority that will, in time, make Republicans unelectable to the White House. Certainly there are many lessons for the Republicans, not least of which is the need to tap the social conservatism of Hispanic voters and address the mismatch between gender and community. The Republicans also need to seriously deliberate on the wisdom of incorporating contentious social issues such as abortion and contraception into the larger political platform.

Against this, however, there is an equal danger that an exultant Democratic movement may carry minorityism and social liberalism a bit too far and, in the process, project the metropolitan values of California and New York in places less inclined to appreciate the virtues of personal liberty over social cohesion.

In securing re-election against tremendous odds, President Obama has shown himself a crafty strategist. But has his victory turned existing politics on its head? The jury is still out on that question. 

The Telegraph, November 9, 2012

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