November 6, 2008

My weak predictions about the election. Followed by more predictions about the future..

How's that for being foolish?

Election night was an amazing night. First off, congratulations to Obama. He ran an excellent campaign. Now its time to trash myself. I blew it on the electoral college count. Call it wishful thinking.

I'd followed every different pollster, looked at their methodologies, their skewing towards registered Democrats, I'd looked at sites like on a daily basis. But I was unable to overcome my own optimism or, dare I say it, hope.

I was right about the popular vote being tighter than the 10 percent figure many pollsters were throwing around. I knew those numbers were inflated. It's going to net out around 4 percent (52 to 48). And I knew that all the battleground states were tightening, and that they were all in Republican defensive positions. But in the eight battleground states I thought the split would be more like 5 to 3 or 6 to 2 for McCain, given the traditional trends for those states. That's why I thought the electoral college would end up around 282 to 256 for Obama and McCain still had a shot. Instead, most broke for Obama and the early call on Ohio in particular surprised me. I thought it still wouldn't be finished counting or re-counting by this morning. Right now it's looking like 338 to 200.

Obama was aided by a strong wind at his back, namely George Bush. Bush alienated many conservatives nearly as much as he did liberals. McCain, while right about the surge in Iraq, was pretty ineffective in differentiating himself from Bush. And Bush was even more ineffective in differentiating himself from the Left's caricature of of himself.

Secondly, the economic problems, the roots of which date back to 1995 (and further) are seen as being associated with Bush. Unjust as it might be, perception is reality in politics. If McCain had run a more strategically sound campaign, he may have overcome his inherent disadvantage. He did not. Ironically, he championed campaign finance reform, stuck to the principles in the legislation he co-sponsored and ultimately he died by that. Obama was able to outspend him 7 to 1. Fair? No. Brilliant? Absolutely. Politics is never fair.

So what's next? Obama has to pick a cabinet. He's promised to include a Republican. Some are speculating it will be John Bolton. Meanwhile the Democrats only picked up 5 senate seats. That means senate Republicans can still filibuster legislation. A very non-sarcastic - Hurray!! But they have to be careful how much they do that. They can't, especially with a partisan press, be seen as strictly obstructionist. If for example they block Supreme Court nominees chosen by Obama, they will be pilloried (unlike when it was done to Bush repeatedly and against decent judges).

So the Republicans may have to go along with many legislative items they don't want to go along with and pick their battles. On the other hand Obama, unlike his compatriots in the legislative branches has to move to the middle. He can't get re-elected being an ultra liberal since what he does now is in full view of the entire country. The US has historically been a centre-right country. Are they now a centre-left one? Its too early to tell - 2006 and 2008 do not make a trend (except with respect to the Bush Presidency). But even if it has shifted leftward, notice the first word - Centre. Its key.

The legislature is full of Democrats that are quite far left. Most moderates have long since abandon the party. Look at Lieberman endorsing McCain. Southern Democrats became Republicans - look at the Red/Blue map dating back to the 90's. The south used to be blue years ago - today its all red. Even Clinton is a centrist by today's standards (Ouch!). So Democrats will want to push things like the Fairness Doctrine (a misnomer if ever there was one). But Obama has to find the middle and stay close to it. So expect him to fight his party on certain things.The Republicans meanwhile will need to re-find their center. They need to talk about more visionary ideas and not be only all about lower taxes. Smaller government is good, but its more than just less tax to it. There's a philosophical argument to be made about which businesses/services government should or shouldn't be involved in. Taxation is only one leg of the chair. Reagan had more legs than that (National defence and defeating communism, and robust economy, among other items). He had legs.

I think they have to contain the likes of McCain (not purge, manage). He offered very little as a contrast to Obama. Bush played his part too. He has derailed Republicans prospects more than any other individual, ironically because of his mainly non-Republican agenda items (massive government spending increases in non-military spending, entitlement programs, amnesty for illegal immigrants, trying to appoint friends to key positions e.g. Harriet Myers). Republicans need to differentiate themselves and provide an alternative to the Democrats. In a contest of Democrat versus Democrat lite, the Democrat will usually prevail. That's a recipe for permanent opposition.

And lastly if Republicans can find the contrast to showcase, they MUST find a way to simply present it to the public in an understandable and connecting way. Just like Reagan and yes, Obama both did so effectively.

Back to Obama. I do not envy his position. After the warm glow fades and the cabinet is in place he is faced with 1 of 2 difficult scenarios.

1. He moves to the centre (while his party, bolstered with hope and change and differing expectations of what that means) do not. And the Republicans, in response dig in their heels, and resist. You have a very partisan dynamic and a candidate who campaigned as a post-partisan. He then has to do the high-wire act of trying to bring both parties to the table to compromise because they won't do it themselves. The problem is if he is too one-sided in corralling the Republicans he comes off as partisan. But if he overcompensates and goes after his own party too strongly, he comes across as a sell-out (for lack of a better term). He'll possibly be regarded as just another politician whose interested in his own career and not real change [good morning Democrats, want some of that wonderful-smelling coffee?]. That will depress his support levels and risk his re-election possibilities. Or he could disengage and try to stay above the fray. The risk there is that he comes across as ineffective (bad image) or out of touch / elitist (worse image - see Bush). There's no easy way out of that scenario.

2. He doesn't move to the centre and sticks to his liberal leanings. There's a lot of risk associated with that too. The Republicans could also dig in their heels and then if he tries to bring them onside forcefully he comes across as a bully (bad). He could try to go to the public and convince them the minority party is obstructing good legislation. That might work but don't forget, 48% of the population voted against him, an if he runs to the left, he'll be making that argument fairly often. It'll become like the boy who cried wolf. And centrists likely will abandon ship at that point.

He could also face a compliant Republican Senate, based on the fact that they are trying to re-group for 2010 and 2012. Then the legislation he wants passed will get passed. There's even a risk in that. If they raise taxes at the $250,000 threshold (or lower as Congressional Democrats are urging), they will choke a lot of businesses and quite likely extend or deepen the recession. Not good for the country or his re-election. The other risk of a compliant Senate is that it takes away his bi-partisan image in a perverse way. The Republicans can consistently position every conciliation as a "we have no choice" conciliation or a "we are the ones being non-partisan here." Then, come 2010 AND 2012, they can say he wasn't really bi-partisan. It provides a tactical disadvantage to Obama in 2 and 4 years.

Either way, the goodwill is going to wear off within 6 months. The 'we did it' feelings will fade sooner, as reality sinks in. And no matter what, it's going to become clear that while the President is the leader, the Legislative Branches carry the water (at least in this cycle for the Democrats, but overall people put too much stock in the C.I.C. role and not enough in getting the right Congress and Senate). Obama isn't going to affect a sea change. He's already tried to adjust expectations by saying one term isn't going to be enough to change America (you should know, it really isn't). But the expectation level he has fostered within his own party may ultimately be his undoing. He could end up with disillusioned supporters, combative (against him) Democratic Senators and Congressmen, and a combative Republican opposition.

My advice to him is to find a common ground issue and focus on making real change in that area in the next 2-3 years, for example the deficit. That would be something to hang your hat on in the next election. Without a resume-builder, he'll end up being a one-term wonder. Charisma and vision can obviously get you there, but now that he's won, he's got to lead. If he thought winning would be the steep climb, he hasn't factored in the sheer cliff that is running the country.

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