Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Largely Unnoticed Change

Congratulations to Barack Obama. Today, around the world, media outlets can hardly contain their exuberance at his victory. Headlines read "A New Dawn for American Politics" or "Change Has Arrived." Some people think this is a watershed in black-white race relations. I doubt it - if we elected a black president, the watershed happened a while back. I think the Obama years will be business as usual except that I'm looking forward to four years of saying "Obamanomics." But the gushing global geyser of love for Obama conceals one very important change: for the first time in recent memory, the Democrats have largely focused on the middle class.

Think about it - when was the last time a Democratic candidate actually made helping the middle class the centerpiece of his campaign? Nobody really knew what Kerry was about except that he wasn't Bush. Gore was going to fix the environment - not a cheap project. Clinton was elected in '92 on promises to let gays serve openly in the military and to institute a national health care program. He got re-elected because he was smart and slippery enough to grab all the usual Republican high ground, signing NAFTA and major bills to reduce welfare and fight crime. Dukakis and Mondale were painted by the Republicans as well-meaning guys who would raise taxes for the middle class. By 1980, Carter was in charge of an economy worse than today's - all Reagan had to do was ask, "Do you want four more years of this?"

Meanwhile, the long-running Republican promise of smaller government has proven hollow. If you're charitable, you might say perpetual short-term crises made cutting the budget unfeasible. Or you might just say they were full of shit. Either way, the government is bigger than ever and the Republicans have mostly been running the show since the mid-90's. Meanwhile, their standard positions on key issues have been fighting the tide of demographics. They lose a lot of women voters with their opposition to abortion and their support for abstinence-only sex education. They lose a lot of minority voters because of their positions on affirmative action and illegal immigration and the overwhelming whiteness of the religious right.

The Democrats, for their part, have shifted further to right over the last thirty years. They get that the private sector isn't just a cash cow to build massive government programs to give jobs to their cronies and secure low-income votes. They understand that, if rich people aren't able to make money through business then they'll have no reason to invest in business. They don't support top-bracket tax rates of 70% - which were in place when Reagan took office. In a sense, the Democratic party has done what Clinton did for his re-election campaign - they gave up their collectivist vision of how the world should work and focused on how it does work.

So, this may be an important signal that the Democrats are now coming around to the idea of individual responsibility. For decades, the Republicans have been able to portray the Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals who want to confiscate money from the middle class on up, in order to give it to poor people too lazy or irresponsible to work. Now, we may be on the verge of seeing an important shift - the Democrats may succeed in portraying the Republicans as out-of-touch deficit builders who enrich the top 1% at the expense of the middle class on down. I'm interested in seeing how the next twenty years will play out.