I don’t want to overstate things, but I believe that the 2012 election is the realignment election that we political scientists have been looking for since Ronald Reagan hijacked the nation and set the GOP moderates scrambling for a political home.
The general idea behind realignment is that voting blocs in the electorate shift allegiances, typically in response to major policy changes in one or more of the political party choices. These abrupt changes come about from one or more party reacting to major world events in a way that was not an option in previous elections.
For example, FDR’s election and subsequent New Deal is seen as a realignment in politics. Lincoln and the establishment of the Republican Party is a realignment moment, as was Andrew Jackson’s election. Since FDR, we political scientists have struggled to find a realignment model that makes sense of the obvious changes in the electorate that have occurred. Was it Reagan’s win? Nixon in 1968? The 1994 elections?
Nixon started the move of southerners from D to R, which led to Reagan victories and eventually the 1994 GOP breakthrough. But these gains did not turn the GOP into an electoral behemoth. They have instead shrunk the party, pushing moderates out of the party, moving the party to the far right, and giving Democrats a majority of Presidential votes ever since.
They created, in essence, a false realignment. Voters shifted in terms of party identification, but they didn’t change views. No grand policy changes were pushed. No new ideas moved voters to accept the formerly unacceptable…until now.
Obama 2012 is that realignment election, primarily because overall political attitudes and what’s politically possible have radically changed. LGBT folks are closer to true equality under the law than ever before. No US Senator can stand in that body and speak against gay equal rights without personally insulting one of their own. Two states voted to legalize marijuana, and marriage equality saw its first ballot win in 33 state-wide tries.
Look at the items up for consideration in the next four years: tax fairness with increases for the wealthy; defense spending cuts (not just cuts to rates of growth, but actual cuts); social security and medicare reforms that aren’t based on starving old people and giving them coupons for Viagra; clean energy; climate change; a peaceful, engaged dialogue with nations we disagree with; voting reforms; clean elections; responsible debt management.
How many of those things get done in a Reagan/Bush/Bush and even Clinton/Gore era? Sure, they were talked about in some whispers and maybe-some-days. But I remember DADT. I remember tax cuts for rich people. I remember privatizing social security and everything else. I remember deregulation. Those days are gone and gone for good.
Think of the things that Obama has done, like health care reform, that have expanded the role of government in America. Those things were just reaffirmed by 50+% of the nation. They are the new normal, the baseline against which all political considerations will be made.
Do you think Obama will stop there? Hell no, he won’t. He was proud of what he accomplished in four years, as well he should be. Stopping a disaster and reforming health care while advancing civil rights is hardly something to scoff at, particularly with a hostile and openly obstructionist opposition party. He has seen the lengths they will go to in order to block reforms, and just as he responded to that first debate with appropriate changes, he will respond to that first term with appropriate changes in this term.
So what will Obama do? What will he pass that will set the benchmark for the “new normal”? What will he cast into stone for a generation and beyond as political certainties?
1. Senate Reform. While technically not his issue, the Democrats will finally address this stupid notion that 41 senators can block the will of 59 senators. Harry Reid has said motions to essentially tie up the Senate will be gone. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Senate require filibusters actually involve filibustering. This will cut down on the impasse in the Senate and change the partisan tenor of that body. It will pay off to be part of the discussion rather than having no discussion, no agenda, no votes.
2. Election Reform. Every citizen should be afforded a safe, simple means of quickly voting. Six hour lines, ballot access laws that limit minorities, polling place disparities – these all need to go. My ability to vote (10 minute wait in a rural district) should not be easier than someone else’s (4-6 hour waits outside to vote on confusing ballots with broken machines). There will be an effort to make voting uniform, simple, and available equally to everyone.
3. Social Security Reform. Cue the cat-food commission crowd, whose howls will be set back by the reality that this president isn’t going to starve old people to cut a deal with dickheads. Will benefits be cut? Maybe at the top end, where we have to wonder why we pay out benefits to those folks anyway. Will SS taxes be raised? Hopefully, and probably by extending the range upward to reflect the ability of wealthier people to contribute more.
4. Climate Change. Watch as the President goes around Congress and regulates CO2 via the EPA without a single vote held.
5. Health Care Reform. Done and passed. It’s part of a long reform game, and what has been set in motion (eventual universal health care, affordable and available to all) is on its way. Absent a functioning, sane Republican party, setting this in motion and waiting for the market to work itself out is the best we can do. We’ll tweak some things, but this is where we’re headed.
6. The budget. Hello tax increases for the wealthy! Or as I like to put it, thanks for tipping the country a little extra for giving you the kind of service that results in 7 and 8 figure bank accounts. We will see real cuts in defense spending, because having an army that could conquer every planet in the solar system redefines “overkill”.
7. Immigration reform. Now is the time to make it safe, simple, and legal for immigrants to step forward and be part of the system. We will no doubt push for such reforms, and the Republicans would be wise to be a part of this process. There is no longer a path to 270 that insults and demeans the Latino community.
8. Normal diplomatic relationships. There is no need to get tough on China and Russia when we could partner with them. Fairer trade? Yes please. But we’re not in position to have those talks so long as we’ve got morons talking about war preparations with either or both of these countries or their allies.
These things are all the new baseline for American politics. Opposing these policies will now have real risks for Republicans. Asking to cut taxes for the wealthy will get you slapped on the hand. Pushing for bans on condoms or defending rape (how in the hell did we even get there?) will lose you a seat you probably should have won. Trying to privatize SS or health care (once the reforms truly kick in and go universal) will get you booted out of office.
The President is a man with both vision and an eye for the future, for legacy, for the long arc of American history. His presidency is a turning point for the country, as the impossible becomes possible, the possible becomes probable, and the probable becomes entrenched, sacred legal promises to all Americans, now and forever.
This is the realignment we have been waiting for. This is the new normal. This is what the next four years are about. This is, without a doubt, the best political moment of our lives. Savor it, be thankful for it, reflect on what it means for our children…and then let’s get to work on seeing this through. As much as we need him, he needs us. Together, this country will be great again. Today starts that journey.