Liberals of the writer’s generation have done enough soul searching. Now it’s conservatives’ turn—and may it last a good long time!
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.
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