We have reached a turning point in American history. It is no longer possible for a rural, regional, racially monochromatic political party to win the presidency. We are now, manifestly, a different country. The South, though a more complex region than ever before, won’t rise again until it resolves the issues that have marked its difference from the rest of the country since the land was colonized. President Obama, freed by victory to return to the grand rhetoric that marked his rise to power, acknowledged this demographic earthquake in the very first sentence of his passionate acceptance speech: “The task of perfecting our union moves forward.”
The line echoed two essential events in the history of the country: the Constitution’s mandate to “form a more perfect union” and Abraham Lincoln’s crusade to preserve that union. It marked the end of a 50-year era in American history, a time when the Civil War was fought again through the civil rights movement and a succession of Sun Belt Republicans revived the radical individualism that has been present in the nation’s character from the start. But on election night 2012, the solid South was fatally pinched as Virginia — the heart of the Confederacy — stubbornly remained blue, and Ronald Reagan‘s West continued its transformation into a region dominated by a rising generation of Latinos as well as the freethinkers who legalized marijuana in Colorado and continued to vehemently support liberal social policies along the West Coast. All that was left of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy was Scots-Irish Appalachia and the German-Nordic stripe of prairie states. It was American politics at its most primal.
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Barack Obama now lives in history as a transformative figure, but it remains to be seen if he will be a successful President. If the tectonic significance of the election was clear, the short-term path toward a less imperfect politics remains as difficult as ever. It will, and should, be argued that the election was a mandate for moderation. The last month of Mitt Romney‘s campaign, when he rushed to the center and suddenly made it a race, ratified the real will of the people: a sensible centrism that runs deeper than the overcaffeinated bluster that seems to dominate the media. The election hinted that the third rail of American politics — the certain death that comes to those who question entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare — is beginning to lose its juice. But the rail has been replaced by a rut: the immense power of special interests, left and right, to prevent compromise and of the right-wing media to sow cynicism about any form of government action.
The task of breaking that deadlock may prove more daunting than winning re-election. Obama no longer has to worry about electoral politics, but his most immediate challenge is to become a more effective politician. How does he do that? Despite the postelection recalcitrance from Republican congressional leaders, especially the sour Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, there is shared political interest in getting the so-called fiscal cliff behind us. McConnell may be chastened by the election results, in which Tea Party candidates in Missouri and Indiana lost seats that should have been safely Republican. More important, Republicans in both the House and Senate may take a lesson from the results and begin to cluster closer to the center.
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Two Republicans to watch in the coming months will be Senator Lamar Alexander and House Speaker John Boehner. Alexander, a relative moderate from Tennessee, resigned his Senate Republican leadership position this past year and joined the bipartisan forces — the Gang of Six — trying to develop a budget deal. By leaving the leadership, he may have become a leader, providing a path for some of his colleagues to move toward compromise. As for Boehner, he has a decision to make. He came very close to closing a budget deal with the President in 2011 but was daunted by his ambitious deputy, Eric Cantor, and the Tea Party caucus. Obama was daunted too, by his liberal partisans — but he doesn’t have to worry about that so much anymore. A bipartisan compromise can be had if Boehner and Obama work their way out from the middle of their parties to a bipartisan majority.
On election night, Obama said, “I look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney” to find ways “to move this country forward.” He should be very serious about that. Romney’s campaign may have provided the key policy path toward a budget deal. Romney suggested that taxes be cut 20% across the board, and that, of course, won’t fly. But he also suggested that tax deductions and old-age entitlements be severely limited for the wealthy — and that might well prove useful, a way to maintain current tax rates while raising revenue toward a $4 trillion deal. The President has proposed a limited version of this in the past, only to be thwarted by Republicans. We’ll see what Boehner and Alexander think about it now.
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But Romney may have a larger role to play, if he and Obama can come to a meeting of the minds. Faced with a bloated federal bureaucracy after World War II, Harry Truman embraced a leader of the opposition party, former President Herbert Hoover, to lead a bipartisan commission that actually reformed the government. That seems the sort of thing that might be right up Romney’s alley. Some of his most effective moments during the campaign were his recitations of government waste — the 47 job-training programs run by the federal government, the sedimentary layers of outdated and intrusive regulations, the number of bureaucrats involved in acquisitions at the Pentagon. There is political peril aplenty in such a move. But if the details of the arrangement could be negotiated, there would be the possibility of redemption for Romney and bipartisan credibility for the President — and a sleeker, more effective government as well.
During the campaign, Obama was caught whispering to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would have more “flexibility” to negotiate a missile-defense deal after the election. In fact, the President now has a range of possibilities for progress overseas. There are strong signs that Iran, crushed by economic sanctions, will be ready to make a deal to limit its nuclear program to peaceful uses, strictly verified by international inspectors. There is also, as always, an opportunity elsewhere in the Middle East. For his first overseas trip in his second term, the President should finally visit Israel, which will have its own election two days after Obama is inaugurated. He should celebrate that remarkable country but also make it very clear that now is the time for a two-state solution — which means a halt to Israel’s illegal settlement expansion and an end to the refusal by Hamas, and other Palestinian extremists, to recognize Israel. (Hamas, which faces the same brand of Salafist opposition as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, might be ready to play.)
There is other crucial work to be done, like creating a more perfect Obamacare and putting climate change firmly back on the table. There is also immigration reform, which will be a true test of whether Republicans have read the election returns. Indeed, that is now the crucial question of American politics: Do Republicans understand that they went too far, that they’ve reached a demographic dead end? I watched Fox News for much of election night. The conservative voices were stronger, as usual, but the overall coverage was admirably fair and almost balanced. Fox even stood firm, on the side of reality, when Karl Rove, the godfather of the old GOP, disputed the network’s call of Ohio for Obama. That may have been an outlier. The best ratings may be in continuing to demonize Obama. But as the man said in victory, “We are not as divided as our politics suggest.” And it now seems clear the country has accepted this man as President and is anxious to move on. If Obama can prove himself a more deft politician than he has been and the Republicans accept the obvious lessons of this race, there is room for some optimism that, yes, we can.
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