Journalists are inclined to depict every political bend in the road as a major turning point. Historians know better. And so it is after the 2008 election in which President-elect Obama is being globally greeted with hosannas and depicted as the bearer of solutions to all ills foreign and domestic.
But those commending President-elect Obama should not lose sight of the reality that 2008 was the probable victory year for “any Democrat.“ Thus, we could just as easily be mulling over the prospects for President-elect Clinton, Edwards, Richardson, Dodd, Biden, etc or any of the other worthies who sought the Democratic presidential nomination—had their campaigns been more compelling to primary voters.
The Democrats did not “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,“ but neither is 2008 the end of the Republican Party—certainly not akin to the drubbing suffered by the Progressive Conservatives in 1993. Nevertheless, this defeat is not simply one in which “time and tide” weighed against the Republicans. It was a well-deserved beating, reflecting massive popular dissatisfaction with everything (and not the least the Bush/Republican administration). It was only surprising that polls were relatively close through the end of September until economic concerns became economic collapse.
Nevertheless, just as a defeated military learns more from defeat than a victorious army learns from victory, the Republicans have some lessons to absorb. Some are obvious: expand the candidate pool to include more women/visible minorities; and clean up the financial and personal irregularities that have enmeshed a sordid assortment of Republican legislators (being removed from the trough will help fiscal probity). But several other lessons come to mind:
— Better Fund Raising. For decades Republicans out-raised Democrats through small donations from middle class voters with discretionary income, but not this year. Democrats exploited Internet fundraising pioneered by Howard Dean in 2004 and, combined with voters sensing a Democratic winner, produced floods of dollars for advertising blitzes in swing states at campaign end. Republicans are feckless to complain about the McCain-Feingold fundraising restrictions—the Democrats made them work, and the Republicans need to upgrade their technology/techniques.
— Bipartisanism Is a Canard. The role of the Opposition is to oppose; society deserves a choice rather than an echo. Every administration opens with scripted commitment to bipartisanship—the epitome of the sobriquet that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.“ That commitment lasts until the first moment that the Opposition says “no.” This is a partisan era with societies facing hard, expensive choices at virtually every turn. If Republicans want to be bipartisan, they should change their party affiliation.
— Oppose “Wars of Choice.” It is not isolationism but prudence to back away from avoidable wars. Unless the United States is directly under assault, such as from the 9/11 al-Qaeda forces based in Afghanistan, or a treaty ally is invaded, the first reaction should be “never again” when the issue of U.S. combat missions abroad is contemplated.
Presumably we will argue until the last historian of this era dies whether Iraq was the worst failure of U.S. intelligence since Pearl Harbor or a nefarious plot by oil company executives and vengeance seeking neocons. But the bloody conclusion is that regardless of a potential best case Iraq outcome in the form of eliminating a vicious dictator and enhancing Iraqi human rights, the effort stained the Bush 43 presidency even more than the semen on Monica’s little blue dress did for the Clinton presidency. Hundreds of billions—perhaps a trillion—dollars and over 4,000 U.S. lives must give pause to any future Republican support for boots-on-the-ground foreign ventures.
Thus it is time for others to step up—if there are steps to be climbed. It was absurd for Europeans to call upon U.S. assistance in addressing the slow motion disintegration of Yugoslavia into its shard states in the early 1990s. If ever there was a local housekeeping exercise, it was the management of this process. Likewise, the seemingly endless tribal/boundary/rebel/failed state conflicts in Africa. Whether one calls them Somalia, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Congo, Rwanda or the like, these are conflicts that need local management—or action by former colonial powers. The calls for U.S. intervention are excuses to avoid hard local decisions—with the added benefit of having the U.S. to blame for “interference.”
Lessons for Democrats will follow.