The Dilemma of Winning in 2008
An Obama victory could haunt the Democrats in the long run.I've been supporting Obama this entire election cycle. So it's been hard lately, watching John McCain gleefully hopscotching from one lie to the next, while his "soulmate," Sarah Palin, with chirpy zeal, tackles issues she seems not to understand, from energy policy to foreign affairs.Their campaign has become a farce. Nonetheless, they may still succeed-pollsters recently put the odds at 30%, even after an Obama poll bounce.So what if McCain does win? Is this election even worth winning? Before last week, a rack of problems already made the upcoming presidential term seem suited only for the masochistic: A massive debt and deficit, two wars, a sagging economy. But then news arrived of our government's proposed $700 billion bailout of the financial sector. If it does pass, there won't be money left for either Obama or McCain to pursue the agendas they've promised-whether it's Obama's green-jobs plan and tax cuts, or McCain's open-ended commitment in Iraq and renewal of Bush's tax cuts for the rich. Granted, things might change for the better-we're still uncertain whether the full $700 billion will be required, whether or not the markets will recover, or if Iraq's current period of relative peace is durable. But the next four years will probably feel like we're finally being forced to eat our broccoli.I'm not suggesting that things have gotten so bad that we're screwed, no matter who's in the White House. These calamities only highlight the need for a prudent, thoughtful administration. By that standard, McCain's reflexive bellicosity seems downright apocalyptic. (Good news for Palin's evangelical base, I suppose.) The case for Obama, who has always had a technocrat's sensibilities, becomes stronger. And there's the problem.If the best the next president can hope for is an incremental success, then in return, the party in power may ultimately be tarred. Whether fair or not, a Democratic victory could ultimately serve to prematurely discredit its agenda: Universal healthcare, green jobs, energy independence, and a more progressive tax code may come to seem like empty promises, rather than urgent goals. And it will make winning an re-election difficult. Meanwhile, the Republicans would be able to limp along and eventually run again in 2012 as rebels, chastened by Bush's failure but hell bent on getting back to the issues. You don't need a crystal ball to channel the argument: We told you this change thing wasn't going to work. We told you it was empty rhetoric.This dilemma is a little reminiscent of the transitional period between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It was Carter who ran as a Washington outsider and change agent on the heels of the Nixon/Ford administrations. Though he promised a Washington overhaul, he was shackled by stagflation and soaring energy prices. Never mind that his prescriptions on energy may have been right. The prevailing view-that he was unfocused and ineffectual, so lacking in vision that he wore sweaters indoors, to lower energy costs-primed the nation for Reagan's call to rebuild our national pride. And that turned into 12 years of Republican rule, which were disastrous for the environment. (A big reason why we don't have more fuel-efficient cars now is the standard that Reagan set by rolling back fuel efficiency mandates, which had radically decreased our dependence on foreign oil under Carter.)If the Democrats do win, it will be difficult to hold their coalition together in the face of so many structural problems. That poses a strange dilemma: I'm certain that, on November 4, I have to vote with the better candidate in the short run, but for now, it's not a stretch to imagine that this will ultimately be self defeating, producing Republican successes in 2012 and beyond. History may well show that long-term, a Democratic agenda might be better served by another four years of clueless, Republican governance that burns their party to the ground.Nonetheless, I'm sticking with my vote-too much could change in the next four years for me to be certain of the argument I've just laid out, and our country's economy is wobbling on the brink. But this much I'm sure of: Obama's greatest political challenge in first term probably won't be healthcare or middle class tax cuts. Instead, it will be modulating his grand plans and convincing people to vote for him again, even if his presidency isn't the one he first promised, for reasons he couldn't control. That's a momentous task.
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