The 2008 Presidential and Congressional Elections

November 5, 2008

The morning after Barack Obama won a historic nod for the White House and Democrats further solidified control of Congress, Darrell West and Thomas Mann offered recommendations for getting the nation back on track.


Darrell West:

This is a classic message kind of election. It clearly seems to be the end of the Reagan era, a conservative era starting in 1980 and running through 2006 when Democrats reclaimed the House and the Senate. I think what is less clear is what comes next.

Some people are predicting that this is going to be the rise of a new progressive era; that Obama can do for Democrats what Reagan did on the conservative side.

I think when you look at this election it’s not clear to me yet that we’re in that kind of progressive era. If you look across the country, only 22 percent of Americans say they are liberal in their ideology. There are many more people that classify themselves as moderate or conservative. When you ask people, “Should the federal government be intervening more in the federal economy?”, obviously a big issue in light of the financial rescue package, 56 percent of Americans still say they oppose that financial rescue package.

And so I think Obama has an opportunity to govern in a new sort of way. But I don’t think he wants to become typecast as a doctrinaire, liberal president, because that’s not where public opinion is. I don’t think that’s the mandate that’s coming out of this election.

I think the mandate he has is to be a pragmatic problem-solver. The reason the Republicans lost this election was bad performance: they messed up Katrina and its aftermath; they messed up Iraq; and they now have messed up the economy. And so now the American public has voiced its discontent with that.

That gives Democrats an opportunity, but I think if you look ahead to 2010 and certainly 2012, Americans are going to want a much better performance. If Democrats give that, they will be rewarded. If they are not able to deliver a strong national security and a much better economy, they may end up frittering away the opportunity that they have right now.

The goal is to bring change to American politics. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe the United States is headed in the wrong direction. That is the reason why Barack Obama won. So what he needs to do is now govern in a manner consistent with his campaign.

Bill Clinton made the classic mistake in 1992 and 1993 of governing one way and campaigning another, and it led to disillusionment from his democratic base and it created a lot of cynicism among people who voted for him. And so Obama cannot make that kind of mistake.

He talked about bipartisanship, so he needs to put some Republicans in cabinet or subcabinet positions. He needs to make a serious effort at building bipartisan legislation. He needs to find a few areas where he can peel off some of those moderate Republicans and even conservatives from other parts of the country who are willing to support his activities. He doesn’t want to undertake steps that might reignite the partisan polarization that we have seen so much over the last decade.

Thomas Mann:

Well, I think there weren’t any big surprises. We anticipated that a strong Obama victory in the popular vote and the electoral vote would be accompanied by major Democratic gains in the House and the Senate.

Now, that’s unusual. The last three Democratic presidents that replaced a Republican in the White House did nothing for their House and Senate colleagues. John Kennedy lost twenty-two seats in the House, two in the Senate; Jimmy Carter basically saw the House Democrats gain nor lose any seats; and Bill Clinton, in 1992, was elected but lost ten seats in the House and gained none in the Senate.

So the fact that Barack Obama won not just the decisive victory in the presidential race but assisted his party colleagues in strengthening their majorities in the House and the Senate is what’s significant.

Listen, I don’t think things are going to go smoothly. They never do. There are real differences, and Congress is supposed to reflect those differences. Conflict is natural, especially when you’re doing important things. There are going to be people who resist and that’s fine. We’re not looking to govern by consensus, complete consensus. What you’d like are some broader coalitions, and that, frankly, requires first and foremost steps by the president to act in a way that will make such deliberation involving members of both parties possible.

Now, Speaker Pelosi, in order to get anything through the House in the last two years, has often had to dispense with so-called “regular order,” and sort of tighten the screws on the opposition party, because they were looking not so much to legislate as to kill and to get advantages for the upcoming campaign.

I think that with larger Democratic majorities and a sympathetic president in the White House, she’ll actually have more freedom to loosen things up; to invite Republicans who are genuinely interested in lawmaking to participate in real deliberations and negotiations. And I think it would serve her interest, the Democrats’ interest, and the president’s interest in doing just that.

Similarly, there’s some benefit actually in Harry Reid and Democrats not getting a so-called “veto-proof majority.” Falling short of that, they know from the outset they have to attract some Republicans. By attracting some Republicans, it’s going to be easier to hold their own more moderate members to the broader objective.

So, I also think it gives him the freedom to try to, from the outset, keep the Republican Party from falling into a filibuster mode on some things. Because I don’t think Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Arlen Specter are frankly interested in just playing opposition politics. They’d like to be part of a governing coalition. And I think the results of the election say, “Hey, we’ve got to move and we’ve got to change, and it has to be in a progressive direction toward what the Democrats are proposing and away from what the Republicans have been doing. But, in a pragmatic fashion.”