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Obama's great victory wasn't a great victory for the Left


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From The TimesNovember 6, 2008


It was a great victory - but not for the Left

President-elect Obama won votes in parts of the country no Democrat has reached in decadesGerard Baker

Most historical observations about Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential election on Tuesday have focused on his race. But by many measures it would have been a singular political achievement, whatever the colour of his skin.


For a start, in terms of the popular vote it was the best performance by a Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. His 52 per cent made him only the third Democrat in the past 100 years to win a clear majority of the votes of Americans.


It was also the highest share of the vote by a nonincumbent president or vice-president from either party since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. The first-term Senator from Illinois, in other words, did better than the governors George Bush in 2000, Bill Clinton in 1992, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Jimmy Carter in 1976, the former Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1968 and the Senator and decorated war hero John F. Kennedy in 1960.


President-elect Obama won votes in parts of the country no Democrat has reached in decades.


His victories in rock-solid Republican Indiana (which Mr Bush won by 21 percentage points four years ago), and his triumph in Virginia, home to the capital city of the Old Confederacy, were the first by a Democrat in those states since 1964. He became the first Democrat from outside the South to win the presidency since John Kennedy.


His lengthy coat-tails helped to drag other Democrats to historic victories across the country. The party made big gains in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Added to their win in mid-term elections two years ago, these were the biggest back-to-back congressional election victories since Franklin Roosevelt was President. There is now not a single Republican congressman in New England, the disintegrated Yankee bedrock of the Grand Old Party.


All this history is making Democrats giddy. They can hardly be blamed for thinking that the 2008 election marks a transformation in the politics of the most powerful democracy in the world.


Given that at least part of their success seems to be owed to long-term demographic shifts – more college-educated, suburb-dwelling, socially liberal, nonwhite voters – it is understandable that Democrats are thinking in terms of a new era. The long period of conservative domination that began with the election of President Reagan almost 30 years ago certainly seems to be over.


But America is a big, complex country that defies easy characterisation, and there was plenty in Tuesday’s results to give pause to anyone tempted to think that the country is about to reinvent itself as a European-style social democracy.


To begin with, the Democrats’ gains were not quite as comprehensive as they had hoped or as the structural political conditions would seem to have predicted. Mr Obama won a lopsided victory in the electoral college, thanks to quite narrow victories in a number of states, but his lead over his opponent in the popular vote (about 6 percentage points) was well short of landslide proportions.


What’s more, the Democrats did not really make the sweeping gains in Congress that they had been expected to make. With recounts still going on in a number of states yesterday it looked as though they might have increased their total number of Senate seats from 51 to 56 – a comfortable majority, but well short of the 60 that many had forecast.


Most important, when you think of the macro-political conditions in America in 2008, you are left wondering why the Democrats did not do significantly better.


The US is in its deepest recession in a generation. For the first time in its history a catastrophic financial crisis erupted right in the middle of a general election campaign, one that fatally undermined the incumbent party. An unpopular war in Iraq has destroyed the Republican Party’s reputation for national security reliability. The exit poll on Tuesday found that 76 per cent of respondents thought that the country was on the wrong track. Democrats outspent Republicans by two-to-one. It is hard to imagine how circumstances could ever be much better for the Democrats.


Even as Mr Obama’s party was winning votes across the country, people were expressing strong support for conservative policies. In the most-watched ballot initiatives (plebiscites) on social issues in many states, there was little sign of a radical new beginning.


Voters in California, Florida and Ari-zona supported constitutional amendments to outlaw gay marriage. Voters in Arkansas banned adoption by unmarried couples. In Nebraska a measure to end affirmative action in state hiring practices passed easily.


Most remarkably, for all the transformation in US politics wrought by the past four years, Americans themselves do not seem to have undergone any great ideological conversion.


In 2004 exit pollsters asked voters how they would identify their politics. The answers were 21 per cent liberal (Left), 45 per cent moderate, 34 per cent conservative. On Tuesday, the same question elicited these responses: 22 per cent liberal, 44 per cent moderate, 34 per cent conservative.


President Obama and his jubilant supporters in Congress will surely not need reminding that this is still a centre-right country.

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