For Obama, Survival Is the New Winning

The President figured out how to leverage a thumping victory from relative weakness.

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Obama attends a campaign rally in Richmond, Va.

A party interested in winning future presidential elections would ask itself why candidates who might have been more adept campaigners than Romney chose to stay on the sidelines this year. Perhaps talents like Christie and Hoosier Mitch Daniels looked at the fates of Utah’s Bob Bennett and Indiana’s Richard Lugar — two longtime Senators whose careers were garroted during Tea Party–led purges — and decided to wait until after the GOP’s deeply conservative fever breaks. And why did Romney’s poll numbers jump only after the Denver debate, in which he reassured voters that he would be a moderate, open-minded President? There was a message for the right wing in that surge. As strategist Karl Rove put it on Fox News, “If we are going to win in the future, Republicans need to do better among Latinos, and they need to do better among women — particularly single women.” But with no President Romney to remind them of it, the lesson is likely to be ignored.

(MORE: Karl Rove Vs. the Arithmetic)

Should Republicans point fingers at Romney without also pointing a few at the mirror, they will likely emerge from defeat convinced that the path to victory lies even further to the right. They will go deeper into the quagmire of the culture wars. They will double down on anti-immigrant rhetoric that helped turn California from the land of Reagan into an automatic 55 electoral votes for the Democrats. The failure to beat a hobbled incumbent should remind the GOP that politics is a game of addition, not exclusion. But there are powerful interests in the party — from evangelical preachers to talk-show hotheads to leaders of right-wing pressure groups — who are more interested in ideological orthodoxy than winning elections. History suggests that the dominance of these forces won’t last forever. The natural ebb and flow of the two-party system tends to pull ever so gradually toward the center. But their reign isn’t over yet. Someone will have to depose them, and what brave soul is up for that job?

Lessons for Democrats
On the other side of the thin membrane separating winners from losers, Obama’s Democrats are scrambling to claim more credit than the raw numbers would seem to support. Even before the last votes were tallied, as it became clear that Romney’s efforts to tip the scales in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa had failed, party leaders began spinning the win as a renewal of Obama’s power. “He’s holding a lot of cards coming off a win,” John Podesta, who led the President’s transition team four years ago, told the New York Times. “He can create a certain set of demands on Republicans that they’re going to have to deal with.” This is bold talk in a town where votes are power, and Obama officially has millions fewer than he had before. He lost the House two years ago and stands now on a narrow ledge in the Senate. The returns document his sagging popularity across the electorate. Comparing CNN exit polls from 2008 and 2012, Obama lost 4 points among men and a point among women, 6 points among voters under 30, 7 points among independents and 2 points among college graduates.

(VIDEOPresident Obama’s Victory Speech in 3 Minutes or Less)

Should the Democrats examine their poorer showing, they will recognize that the chief lesson of the past four years is that they took their eye off the ball. When the economy is in trouble, all other issues are better off sidelined. But instead of devoting himself exclusively to bringing back housing or forcing banks to lubricate a credit market that had seized up (and still remains cranky), the President and his party used dubious legislative mechanisms to force a health care reform bill through Congress on a party-line vote. Voters liked some of the provisions, like coverage for pre-existing conditions and the guarantee that young Americans can remain on their parents’ insurance up to age 26. But the sheer complexity of the law and the hard-to-swallow claim that the vast program will actually save money led millions of voters to sour on Obamacare. What’s more, the urgency with which the Democrats scrambled to pass the sweeping law fed the right’s persistent suspicion that the President’s party seeks to build a European-style welfare state.

Obama is unlikely to make the same mistake again. The signature accomplishment of his second term, if he can pull it off, will be not an expansion of entitlements but a reduction of them. Without reform, the brutal arithmetic of an aging population will eventually break the bank. He will sooner or later reach for the Grand Compromise that has eluded Washington for nearly 30 years: trading lower taxes on businesses and individuals for closing billions in loopholes and other tax-code giveaways that make virtually everyone in the U.S. — from corporations to small businesses to college students — welfare queens of one kind or another. Obama’s vision, to the limited extent that he has shared it with the public, is even grander than that. He thinks he can wrap the long overdue reform of the tax code into structural changes to Social Security and health care entitlements in a way that cuts the deficit, lowers the tax burden, reduces the debt and sparks economic growth. In theory, Republicans are for this, as it cuts spending on people who aren’t Republicans. Democrats should like it because it reduces the pork that businesses get from Washington through backdoor giveaways in the tax code. Everyone has to give a little to save the Republic.

VIDEOMitt Romney’s Concession Speech in 3 Minutes or Less

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