Istill remember January 1985 quite well. I was one of those young, dime-a-dozen Capitol Hill aides, answering a junior Democratic congressman’s constituent mail. I was as far down the totem pole as you could go, but I had somehow come into possession of a Capitol Hill parking pass, which allowed me to deposit my little Ford Fiesta on the street right by the Longworth House Office Building every morning. I’d left it there over the weekend in awful winter weather. On Inauguration Day, a Monday, as Ronald Reagan took the oath for his second term, the Capitol Police wanted us to get our cars out of the way, but mine and the others were buried under a wall of plowed snow. I spent the day shoveling in zero-degree weather and making no progress—a pretty apt metaphor, I thought, for the party I was working for at the time.
It was a low point for liberalism, all right, and not because of the snow. Reagan went on to have a rocky second term in some respects: The Iran-Contra scandal may not have lived on in the collective memory like Watergate has, but it was real and debilitating. Even with that, though, he never really lost the goodwill of the majority, and in that term he did the two big things he wanted to do. He passed sweeping tax-reform legislation, lowering the top marginal rate from 50 to 28 percent (having already lowered it from 70 to 50 percent in his first term). And he consummated a meaningful arms deal with Mikhail Gorbachev. I might add that while he ran up then-massive deficits that today’s conservatives like to forget about, he did preside over a generally upbeat economy. The America of January 1989, when he left Washington, was a very different place than it had been eight years prior.
So here we are in another Washington January with another President getting ready to launch his second term. We all agree that Reagan was transformational, whether we liked the transformations or not. Can Barack Obama be the same? Will the political class agree, by January 2017 as he flies back to Chicago, that Obama was a Democratic Reagan?
That’s an awfully high bar in today’s political climate. Reagan didn’t face anything like the opposition Obama does. Nevertheless, there are concrete reasons to hope—and believe—that Obama can move the center of gravity in our politics to the left in ways that Bill Clinton could not (no fault of Clinton’s, it’s just that the circumstances that exist today didn’t exist in his time). If Obama can notch four accomplishments—economic recovery, immigration reform, prudent health-care implementation, and one foreign-policy achievement—then those, combined with demographic change and conservative incoherence, should bring the era of conservative dominance, which Clinton battled gamely but couldn’t quite defeat, to an end.
The economy. The signs began to mount in September and October that the economy really was in recovery. With all the usual caveats about Europe and so forth, we have every reason to believe that these next four years are going to be years of recovery and perhaps even real prosperity.
Let’s permit ourselves to imagine, then, that by the end of this year, the private-sector economy will be adding more than 200,000 jobs a month. Now, we need to add around 350,000 jobs a month to get the jobless rate back under 6 percent in three years. Economically, substantively, that’s where we’d like to be. But politically, it’s hardly as if Obama will be penalized if he leaves office with an unemployment rate of, say, 6.5 percent. Indeed he’ll be hailed. He’ll be the President who lifted the country out of its worst economic crisis in 80 years.
Remember Clinton’s math from his convention speech? In 28 years in power since 1960, Republican presidents have created 24 million jobs. In 24 years, Democratic presidents have presided over the creation of 42 million jobs. Four years from now, the number of years will be even at 28. The country will need to average only 125,000 jobs a month for four years for the Democratic number to hit 48 million in 28 years—or exactly twice the GOP total. Moody’s Analytics forecasts an average gain of 250,000 jobs a month over the next four years (through October, we averaged 157,000 jobs per month in 2012). If we end up with something in between these two figures, there should be little question by 2016 in the minds of most voters that progressive economic policies work and conservative ones don’t.
The above is admittedly speculative, and none of it will just happen. The Administration—and, importantly, the Federal Reserve—needs to pursue the policies that can help make it happen: some form of stimulus (however indirect, given nearly certain GOP opposition), progressive tax reform, adequate public investment, and so on.
The broad point is this: The next four years seem at this moment far more like an opportunity than a burden—and the opportunity is to bury trickle-down economics once and for all and replace it with a kind of “middle-out” economics that privileges investing in the middle class first. The President embraced this argument during the campaign. We at Democracy are proud to have contributed to it (see “Growth and the Middle Class,” Issue #20). More than that, our board members Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu coined the term middle-out economics, a phrase Obama himself took to using on the stump.
Immigration reform. After the election, the immigration-related talk was all about the Republicans, and whether they could improve their levels of support from Latino voters by embracing reform. They undoubtedly would if they did so. But all of these conversations conveniently forgot that it would be Obama who’d be signing the bill into law.
Seven or ten or 15 Republicans signing on to what will functionally be a liberal bill signed by a Democratic President isn’t going to alter Latinos’ perceptions of the GOP that radically. It will, however, create 12 million new voters down the road who’ll know that their paths to citizenship weren’t paved by a handful of conservatives caving in to electoral reality but by a coalition of progressives that spent decades doing the work that rendered the cave-in inevitable. Add to this the fact that Latinos tend to favor a more activist government across a range of fronts. This is exactly how electoral and lasting political coalitions expand.
Health care. One of the most important tasks of the second Obama term will be the competent and prudent implementation of the 2010 health-care law. (Jacob S. Hacker, who appears elsewhere in this issue, wrote an essay on what the law might look like in a second Obama term in our Fall 2010 issue.) Politically, this will come down largely to two matters—the government-run insurance exchanges, and the individual mandate. We saw immediately after the election that some conservative states are vowing that they will refuse to set up the statewide exchanges that the law calls for. Ultimately, many states are likely to push for a delay in the exchanges’ January 1, 2014 implementation date. The Administration has to stand absolutely firm on that date and set up federal exchanges and make them available to people in states that refuse to play. Medicare was implemented in one year. The Affordable Care Act can be put into place in time, too.
With respect to the mandate, there will be individual hardships as working-class Americans now forced to buy insurance may struggle to do so, even with the subsidies. There is no easy answer to this problem. Higher subsidies, sure, but that means more money, which isn’t likely. There’s little question that some percentage, maybe a hefty percentage, of the people forced to buy insurance will resent it. But there’s also a good chance that a majority will adjust in three years’ time, as people generally do—provided, of course, they and their children are getting good care and they see the advantage of that.
Foreign policy. Obama has basically erased the Republican advantage on foreign policy, but he hasn’t yet created a clear majority on behalf of a less bellicose and more multilateral foreign policy. The fact is that we simply have a war-weary public. Someday again, in a generation perhaps (one certainly hopes not sooner), we will have a war-hungry public. That’s just the way it goes.
But if Obama can pull off something big—bringing Iran to the table, most notably, and resolving that issue successfully without war or bombing—then that majority will form. This traditional idea of Democrats and liberals as appeasers and quislings is just too old now. Mitt Romney ran on it, and it never had any resonance outside the right-wing base. After all, as far as most Americans are concerned, the last time progressives opposed a war (Iraq), they were right. An event like a terrorist attack could change things quickly, but right now, the broad majority’s inclinations are toward a foreign policy that is strong but reasonable, not hopped up on testosterone.
If Obama has success in each of these areas, the progressive coalition will expand over the next four years. The broad middle class will support its economic policies; Latinos’ loyalty will grow; skeptical people will see through health care that the government is capable of delivering something useful; and the voters whom the demographers used to call “security moms” will have concluded that going around the world starting wars is not the best path to safety.
Of course, all this might not happen at all. But the reason to think that it could happen is the feeling, in this winter of progressive content, that conservatism is just spent. Obama didn’t win a Reagan-style landslide; such is not possible in our age for either party. But conservatism now feels a lot like liberalism did in 1984 and 1985, back when I was futilely shoveling away that snow. The ideas, such as they are, have grown awfully long in the tooth. The positions are not popular. The movement has gotten by on cliché and bluster and Scotch tape. The Tea Party tendency represents maybe a quarter of the population. It is overrepresented in Washington, which is unfortunate and a serious challenge for policy-making, but even with overrepresentation, America is not going to be headed in that movement’s desired direction.
If history is any guide, then, we’ll soon enough see a Republican variant on the Democratic Leadership Council, the group formed in 1985 to pull the party toward the center. We will have ringside seats for extended and highly entertaining battles between this new center-right and the hard-right. We can expect that the GOP will be riven for quite some time over the core questions of taxation, spending, culture, and demography that the 2012 election exposed as its weaknesses.
The Republicans may elect a President next time, or the time after that, as the reordered Democrats did with Clinton. Elections turn on a hundred small things as well as the big things, so who knows. But even if that happens, the strong likelihood is that that President will have run on a platform far more centrist and accommodating than Mitt Romney did, and that he or she will have to govern within broad parameters set by the other side and the majority that supports it. No huge tax cuts for the rich; no repeal of Obamacare; no opposition to same-sex marriage; no wanton unilateralism; and so on.
I don’t mean to overstate things. The 2012 election didn’t rise to the political scientists’ definition of a realigning election. The Republican Party will continue to be competitive; we’ll remain a divided country, although not exactly a 50-50 country; maybe a 52-48 country, which is a difference. But the GOP, and conservatism, will have to change. I’ve spent an entire adult lifetime watching my side have to adapt to reality. Let them shovel the snow for a while.