The voters rebuke Republicans for economic failure.
Hearty congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama. The American electorate has handed him and his fellow Democrats the kind of sweeping victory they haven’t had since at least 1976 and in certain respects since 1964. We’ll now find out if the Democratic Party has learned anything since the last two times it held all the levers of power in Washington.
Any Presidential victory is partly personal, and certainly this one is a credit to Mr. Obama’s rhetorical skills and unique appeal. As we went to press, Mr. Obama looked like he would become the first Democratic Presidential candidate since LBJ in 1964 to win more than 50.1% of the vote. That was Jimmy Carter’s share in 1976, and even Bill Clinton never matched that in his two victories. The Illinois Senator’s appeal among younger voters was overwhelming, as it also was among African-Americans, whose huge turnout helped push the overall electorate to what may have been record numbers.
A man of mixed race has now reached the pinnacle of U.S. power only two generations since the end of Jim Crow. This is a tribute to American opportunity, and it is something that has never happened in another Western democracy — notwithstanding European condescension about “racist” America. That blacks voted for Mr. Obama so heavily is a typical rite of American passage, and it is similar to the kind of cultural pride that Catholics took in the victory of John Kennedy in 1960.
While Mr. Obama lost among white voters, as most modern Democrats do, his success is due in part to the fact that he also muted any politics of racial grievance. We have had in recent years two black Secretaries of State, black CEOs of our largest corporations, black Governors and Generals — and now we will have a President. One promise of his victory is that perhaps we can put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country. Mr. Obama has a special obligation to help do so.
Americans also handed larger majorities to Democrats in Congress, though less for anything they have done than as a way to repudiate Republicans. The main thing losing GOP Senators seemed to have in common is that they ran in states where the anti-GOP tide was strongest. The defeat of John Sununu in New Hampshire is especially unfortunate, as he was right from the start about Fannie Mae and housing and his opponent ran on nothing more than linking Mr. Sununu to President Bush.
The economy was by far the dominant issue, and voters held GOP Members who belonged to the party in the White House responsible. There’s some injustice in this, because if anything Democratic policies have prevailed the past two years in Washington. But neither Mr. Bush nor John McCain made that case clearly to voters.
The Democratic temptation will be to interpret this victory as a mandate for renewed liberal government. Republicans hope they do. The last three times the Democrats won this kind of victory — in 1964, 1976 and 1992 — they overreached and suffered big losses two years later. Many of the committee Chairmen who will preside over the 111th Congress were part of those earlier majorities. They believe in their own agenda more than they do in Mr. Obama.
We’d note in particular that Mr. Obama ran as a tax-cutter for “95% of workers,” promising tax rates “less than they were under Ronald Reagan.” This is only one of the ways that the skillful candidate was able to disguise the details of what was the most left-of-center Democratic agenda since the early 1970s. The exit polls showed that among the 70% of voters who believe their taxes will go up under Mr. Obama, 55% voted for Mr. McCain. Democrats raise taxes in a recession at their peril.
As for the Republicans, the lesson of their defeat is the most fundamental in politics. When the party in power fails to deliver either peace or prosperity, voters typically send it packing. In 2006, the GOP lost Congress due to the chaos in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and corruption. The surge championed by Mr. McCain in 2007 has helped to calm Iraq, but Afghanistan has since deteriorated. And ironically the very success of the surge — and the lack of any attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 — made national security less of an issue this year.
Nonetheless, as recently as early September, Mr. McCain was within the margin of polling error nationally and ahead in many swing states. Then the financial panic escalated into a near-meltdown and Americans began to fear for their prosperity. Public support for Republicans fell across the board. Their lack of political and policy coherence made things worse, with President Bush supporting an unavoidable taxpayer rescue. But House Republicans decried it as a “bailout” and helped to kill its first version even as Mr. McCain made a show of “suspending” his campaign to broker a deal. Mr. Obama stayed cool above the fray.
Tuesday’s exit polls revealed the dominance of the economy in voter minds. Mr. McCain actually lost less ground than many expected, compared to Mr. Bush in 2004, among voters earning less than $50,000 a year. However, he was crushed compared to Mr. Bush among voters earning more than $75,000, the very members of the “investor class” who have watched their 401(k)s and IRAs plummet in value.
Many Republicans will want to believe they are the victims of a financial ambush that they could do nothing about. But the panic actually began in late 2007 and its roots go back to the causes of the housing bubble. Republicans — specifically, Mr. Bush’s Federal Reserve nominees and Treasury Secretaries — forgot about the value of money. They failed as stewards of the dollar, unleashing a credit mania and panic that collided in colossal bad timing with a Presidential campaign.
Mr. Bush never did explain to Americans what was happening. He told them the economy was fundamentally strong, while agreeing to a bipartisan fiscal “stimulus” of tax rebates in February that he promised would restore growth. As we warned at the time, the stimulus wouldn’t work and voters would forget that Democrats on Capitol Hill had been its co-authors. Mr. McCain went along for the same ride, and with that the Republicans made themselves hostage to financial misfortune.
Republicans can console themselves that soon Democrats won’t have George W. Bush to kick around anymore. They’ll now have to take responsibility if the economy stays in recession, or if Iraq turns chaotic again after an abrupt U.S. withdrawal. Americans have entrusted Democrats with what will essentially be unrestrained power, and we’ll soon see if liberals have learned to govern.