The message of the election: some good deeds go unpunished.

Steve Benen on why Obama’s win matters: it proves progressive government can be rewarded.

Standing out among the mainstream media’s determination to echo the standard Republican talking point that only GOP election victories actually count, Steve Benen nails the election’s real significance:

Had Obama come up short, the immediate threats to key public policies would have been significant, but the more sweeping consequence would have been the lasting damage to a progressive vision of governance.

It’s easy to imagine the recriminations this morning had the election gone the other way. The president’s 2008 victory would come to be seen as a faddish fluke, but more importantly, everything Obama fought for in his first term would be evidence of failure. For the foreseeable future, presidents would be told not to be ambitious, not to use government as a tool to make a material difference in the lives of working families, and not to rely on Keynesian economics to grow the economy through investments … or they too will end up as a one-term disappointment.

The 2012 election, then, can be seen as a referendum on Obama’s presidency — a test he passed yesterday in impressive fashion – and a referendum on the liberal experiment.

It’s what makes the president’s electoral success, not just significant in the short term, butimportant in the long term. Obama’s agenda has a new opportunity to make a meaningful, positive difference in the lives of America’s middle class, but it also establishes a precedent for history — presidents can pursue big, bold, consequential priorities, and be rewarded for it.

I’d only add that this is true even though Obama didn’t always explicitly defend activist government. Even if voters weren’t consciously voting for activist government, they were voting for the results of activist government. Thanks to the stimulus, a giant tribute to Keynes, the economy is doing just well enough that voters didn’t punish the incumbent party, in the Presidency or the Senate. No faith in government action to end recessions, no re-election.

Future presidents and Senate majorities, take note—and they will.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

21 thoughts on “The message of the election: some good deeds go unpunished.”

  1. Good point, Andrew, but don’t you have the headline backwards? Should be “Good Deeds Don’t Always Get Punished,” no?

  2. Good catch! Fixed (slightly differently from the way you suggested).
    Note to puzzled others: the original title of this post had a negative in the wrong place.

  3. Let us remember two short years ago the teabaggers swept in on a tide. IMHO in these tumultuous times the electorate is going to cast about wildly for relief. Not sure this is a mandate for Progressive governance as it is a repudiation of Wrecking Things. More wild swings to come as human population struggles to cope with resource shortages, strife, sheer population numbers, man-made climate change impacts, etc etc etc.

    1. While I would prefer a mandate for liberal government, at this point I will settle for a repudiation of the Republican Wrecking Crew.

      However, I’m not even sure we have that. I note that Michele “Crazy Eyes” Bachmann managed to eke out a victory in Minnesota. But, on the other hand, Alan West appears to have lost in Florida. Basically, far too many of the Tea Party wack-a-loons managed to survive in their gerrymandered districts.

      Note to President Obama: While we are fixing the voting problem, let us try to do something rational about redistricting. One of the reasons we are in this fix is that we allow politicians to shop for constituencies.

  4. PRIORITY ONE: by December 1, nominate a jurist for EVERY SINGLE VACANT SEAT in the federal judiciary, and demand ” up or down” votes on every single nominee on the Senate floor by February 1 as a condition for negotiations on the sequestration. Really. This must be a top strategic objective for the next four years … The instant a seat opens, there is a nominee and a short vetting and confirmation process leading to confirmation or rejection, but promptly. The GOPsters in the Senate are free to filibuster all they like, but they must conduct real filibusters and no other business transpires while they do.

    1. Yes. If Obama had lost, the lack of nominations would have severely damaged any chance for a legacy – even if the ACA had somehow survived and become part of the safety net.

      I’ve also been reading some stuff that makes me slightly optimistic that there might be just enough filibuster reform to get most nominations done on an up-or-down vote.

  5. “Future presidents and Senate majorities, take note—and they will.”

    Really? Does that start with the CURRENT President telling us he plans to reach out to Congress and the Republicans to work together on taxes, oil, and immigration? Exactly what has HE learned from the past 4 years (and the past 32 years)?
    And we STILL have a Republican majority in Congress — the same Congress that is responsible more than the Senate or the President for domestic policy.

    The CA election results may prove your thesis, the US results not so much.

    1. Obama will work with the Republicans on oil because higher domestic oil production is popular. (Sorry.) On immigration he’ll make a show of working with them, but given that the House Republicans viscerally hate the idea of a path to citizenship, nothing will happen and the President knows it.

      House Republicans were, unjustly but in accord with all political science predictions, rewarded for presiding over the uptick in the economy made possible by the stimulus that they vilified. (They also benefitted from gerrymandering: read Sam Wang today and over the last few weeks.) The lesson to be drawn is that if a House majority wants to benefit from approving a stimulus, it had better hope to pass a really big one that starts working right away. Democrats paid a price for their reluctance to put more money behind aid to state and local governments. Reid didn’t want Republican governors to get the credit for not cutting services–but as a result, House Democrats didn’t get credit for a recovery that took too much time to get started. That said, getting more stimulus through the Senate (remember, it required Susan Collins’ vote) was probably impossible anyway.

      The larger point is that ideological agendas of all kinds are less popular than activists in both parties imagine. The median voter judges by results–which can mean ideologically distasteful compromises if that’s what it takes to get results.

    2. Well, like it or not, the Republican party has to be pulled back towards the center, sooner or later.

      This is likely going to be a painful process, but it’s also necessary for the political health of the country. Without it, there are three possible long-term scenarios:

      (1) Transition to what would be effectively a one-party government by Democrats; this would not be good. Corruption would be almost inevitable. See: the LDP in Japan.
      (2) Return of an extremist Republican party to power. Not good, either.
      (3) Permanent gridlock. Also bad.

      And on a practical note, the Republican majority in the House can block any legislation it does not like. That majority, by the way, has just as much legitimacy as the president’s.

      The need for some degree of bipartisanship, for better or worse, is built into our political system. That’s why you’re hearing a conciliatory tone from Obama (to the point of white lies about Romney’s “spirited campaign”). I’m pretty sure that he is well aware of the recent history of Republican obstructionism, given that he has made that point himself more than once; at the same time, he has no magic wand he can wave that makes it go away.

      1. Not necessarily. There is a fourth option: the GOP goes the way of the Whigs, and a new (I hope rational) Center-Right party forms from the two sane people left in GOP and the conservative Democrats.

        1. In theory, but I consider this fairly unlikely in our day and age. Creating a party machine that can effectively compete with the current Republican party is a tall order.

          1. Switch the affiliations of Blue Collar Democrats to Republican (after a few election cycles remove the current extremists from power). Voila! Consider the Dixiecrats affiliation switch, which worked just fine for them.

          2. The problem isn’t the competing, the problem is that our political system isn’t nearly as free today. By which I mean that we now have all sorts of laws and practices whose purpose is to keep third parties down.

            Ballot access, which is pretty much uniformly more difficult for third parties, to the point where the only route to the ballot is a lawsuit in some states. While the major parties get on the ballot automatically even if they forget to file the papers on time. This is the equivalent of some of the participants in a marathon being required to run a marathon to reach the starting line as the whistle blows. By itself, it represents an impossible barrier.

            Campaign finance laws, which were tuned to impact third parties harder. For instance, limits on donations for “party building”. Why? Because it’s a major expense for third parties, a minor matter for the major parties.

            The rise of “bipartisan” organizations running parts of the campaign process. Bipartisan debate commission. Bipartisan election night coverage. Third party candidates are systematically excluded from debates, and airbrushed out of the coverage.

            No, the Republican party isn’t going the way of the Whigs, much as I wish it would, because it isn’t in the interest of the major parties to permit this sort of thing to happen, and they are now alert to the danger.

          3. Brett, I agree with you in the main about the barriers to development of a new party, but I don’t wish the Republican Party would go the way of the Whigs. Rather, I wish they could return to the party of Ike and Gerald Ford. Do you believe that’s hopeless?

      2. No magic wand? Sure he does. It’s the bully pulpit he has. Now we all know he won’t use it but he could. Starting NOW. He has absolutely NO reason to come out and start the bipartisan conciliation crap. He should come out and lay down some markers of his own. Otherwise he will just get rolled like he was the last 4 years. We all know that the repubs are not going to even try to work with him unless he just accepts their agenda lock stock and barrel. That’s their idea of cooperation and he needs to fight that from the start.

        1. You are assuming that he (or any president) can sell the general public on those ideas by sheer force of will and proper rhetoric. Color me skeptical in that regard. Partisans of either side tend to vastly overestimate how popular their respective ideas are and believe they just need the proper packaging.

          I don’t think Obama got “rolled” the past four years, by the way. I think that while he did make some unforced errors (and was slacking with respect to judicial appointments), more often than not he ended up with the better deal than the Republicans in Congress. The idea that Obama could have implemented a vastly more progressive agenda if he had just wanted it strongly enough is a Democratic fantasy.

          1. Kafka, I think you paint too much of an all-or-nothing scenario. I don’t assume he can “score a touchdown” on selling his program, but his objective should be to “push the pile” towards the goal line. Marketing is more than just closing; it’s about creating a base of receptive potential customers.

  6. I’d like to see Obama make good on the promise to fix the voting system. He needs to address that immediately, so things can be in place by 2014. Set national standards, and provide money to states that commit to meeting them, if that’s what’s needed. Include nonpartisan, professional, election supervision. The current situation is a disgrace.

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