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The ascent of an African-American to the presidency is a moment so powerful and so obvious that its symbolism needs no commentary.
Nov. 4, 2008, was the day when American politics shifted on its axis.
The ascent of an African-American to the presidency — a victory by a 47-year-old man who was born when segregation was still the law of the land across much of this nation — is a moment so powerful and so obvious that its symbolism needs no commentary.
But it was the reality of power, not the symbolism, that changed Tuesday night in ways more profound than meet the eye.
The rout of the Republican Party, and the accompanying gains by Democrats in Congress, mean that Barack Obama will assume office with vastly more influence in the nation’s capital than most of his recent predecessors have wielded.
The only exceptions suggest the magnitude of the moment. Power flowed in unprecedented ways to George W. Bush in the year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It flowed likewise to Lyndon B. Johnson after his landslide in 1964.
Beyond those fleeting moments, every president for more than two generations has confronted divided government or hobbling internal divisions within his own party.
The Democrats’ moment with Obama, as a brilliant campaigner confronts the challenges of governance, could also prove fleeting. For now, the results — in their breadth across a continent — suggest seismic change that goes far beyond Obama’s 4 percent margin in the popular vote.
The evening recalled what activist Eldridge Cleaver observed of the instant when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and a movement followed: “Somewhere in the universe a gear in the machinery shifted.”
Here are five big things about the machinery of national politics and Washington that will be different once Obama takes office on Jan. 20, 2009:
The crash of the conservative wave
For most of the past 30 years, since the dawn of the Reagan Era, conservatives have held the momentum in American politics. Even the Clinton years were shaped — and constrained — by conservative ideas (work requirements for welfare, the Defense of Marriage Act) and conservative rhetoric (“the era of Big Government is over”). Republicans rode this wave to win the presidency five of seven times since 1980, and to dominate Congress for a dozen years after 1994.
Now the wave has crashed, breaking the back of the modern Republican Party in the process.
Obama’s victory and the second straight election to award big gains to congressional Democrats showed that the 2006 election was not, as Karl Rove and others argued at the time, a flukish result that reflected isolated scandals in the headlines at the time.
Republicans lost their reform mantle. Voters who wanted change voted for Obama 89 percent to 9 percent. They lost their decisive edge on national security. They even lost the battle over taxes.
Republicans lost support in every area of the country. Virginia went Democratic, and North Carolina at midnight hung in the balance. Republicans still hold a significant, if smaller, chunk of the South and a smattering of western states. The cities were lost long ago. The suburbs fell last night — and even the exurbs are shaky.
Republicans lost one of their most effective political tactics. Portraying Al Gore or John F. Kerry as exotic and untrustworthy characters with culturally elitist values proved brutally effective for the GOP in 2000 and 2004, as it had in numerous other races for years. In 2008, such tactics barely dented Obama — who because of his race and background looked at first like a more vulnerable target — and they backfired against such candidates as Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, who was routed badly after trying to paint Democrat Kay Hagan as an atheist.
The movement that brought so many conservatives to great power over the past 20 years — Gingrich, DeLay, Bush, Cheney and Rove — is left without a clear leader, without a clear agenda and without a clear route back.
The crash of the conservative wave does not necessarily mean the rise of a liberal one. By stressing middle-class tax cuts and the rights of gun owners Obama showed he is sensitive to hot buttons. But he will take power with the opposition party diminished, demoralized and divided by a draining internal argument about the future.
A Democratic headlock
Many people find Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric soothing. But it’s doubtful that these sentiments, even if sincere, reflect the reality of the new Washington.
This is a city that defines itself by partisanship. Politicians and the operatives they support play for the shirts or the skins and believe that one side’s gain is the other’s loss.
In this environment, Democrats have the capital in a headlock, holding more power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue than they have had for at least 32 years (Jimmy Carter) and, more realistically, 44 years (Johnson). Obama seems ready to press this advantage. The best early clue of his ambitions: He wants sharp-elbowed Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to run his White House.
Democrats are positioned to do more than move legislation. They will flush Republicans out of key positions in the federal government and lobbying firms. They will install their people in the federal courts. They will be positioned to raise money for those who usually give to Republicans and easily recruit the most desirable candidates in 2010, as other Democrats look to join what looks like a winning team.
While Obama’s race hovered over this campaign, what was most striking was that it was not the all-consuming subject that it would have been in the past. Exit polls showed Obama pulling support from 43 percent of white voters, 2 percentage point higher than Kerry.
And look around elsewhere in American politics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s gender was a novelty when she first took the gavel but now draws little notice. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) is a top member of the House Democratic leadership.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s inability to offer more diversity in its top ranks — Sarah Palin notwithstanding — threatens to become a crippling liability. Hispanics broke for Obama 67 percent to 31 percent.
The party inexplicably failed to field a single minority candidate with a plausible chance to win a House or Senate seat or a governorship. It will enter the next Congress just as it did the past two: without a single black member.
A party dominated by white males is poorly positioned to prosper among an increasingly diverse electorate. Somehow, the GOP needs to find new ways to appeal to minorities — or risk a long life in the wilderness as a percentage of the overall population continues to shrink.
For a couple of generations, conservatives had the more effective political infrastructure. They used direct mail and talk radio to run circles around liberals in raising money and communicating their message around the filter of the establishment media. Some of that money flowed into think tanks that helped nurture ideas and operatives.
This year was striking because the technology/communications advantage was decisively with the Democrats. Obama and other Democrats used this to raise vastly more money than McCain and to mobilize legions of people who had not previously been engaged with politics. Liberal think tanks such as the Center for American Progress have served as a Democratic government in waiting.
Important to remember: This Democratic infrastructure advantage is not disappearing. Obama, regarded as a heroic figure among party activists, can use it to help raise even more money, and to mobilize support for his agenda. This is a potent force that will inspire fear, and give him clout, over legislators of both parties.
Obama is the Google of politics: He has technological expertise and an audience his political competitors simply cannot match. Looking ahead to 2010, House and Senate Democrats will be jealously eyeing Obama’s e-mail lists and technology secrets — giving him even greater leverage over them. Republicans will be forced to invest serious money and time to narrow the technology gap.
The 1960s are over — finally
For two generations, American politics has been dominated by issues and personalities that were shaped by the ideological and cultural conflicts of the Vietnam era.
The rest of the population may have been bored stiff, but the baby boomers continued their remorseless argument, as evidenced by Bush and Kerry partisans quarreling over Swift Boats and National Guard service in 2004.
Obama had not yet reached adolescence in the 1960s. He seems little interested in the cultural conflicts that preoccupy baby boomers. The fact that he admitted to using cocaine was hardly a factor in this election.
And this young president-elect exerted powerful appeal over even younger voters. They favored Obama by 34 percentage points, 66 percent to 32 percent — a trend with huge potential to echo for years to come.
Guns, God and gays will not disappear from our politics. But they are diminished as electoral weapons as the country confronts a new generation of disputes: global warming, mortgage meltdowns and the detention of terrorism suspects, to name a few.