In October 2010, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, famously told The National Journal, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Barack Obama to be a one-term president.” And that’s how he and his party acted.
Well, Mitch, how’s that workin’ out for ya?
No one can know for sure what complex emotional chemistry tipped this election Obama’s way, but here’s my guess: In the end, it came down to a majority of Americans believing that whatever his faults, Obama was trying his hardest to fix what ails the country and that he had to do it with a Republican Party that, in its gut, did not want to meet him halfway but wanted him to fail — so that it could swoop in and pick up the pieces. To this day, I find McConnell’s declaration appalling. Consider all the problems we have faced in this country over the last four years — from debt to adapting to globalization to unemployment to the challenges of climate change to terrorism — and then roll over that statement: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
That, in my view, is what made the difference. The GOP lost an election that, given the state of the economy, it should have won because of an excess of McConnell-like cynicism, a shortage of new ideas and an abundance of really bad ideas — about immigration, about climate, about how jobs are created and about abortion and other social issues.
It seems that many Americans went to the polls without much enthusiasm for either candidate, but, nevertheless, with a clear idea of whom they preferred. The majority seemed to be saying to Obama: “You didn’t get it all right the first time, but we’re going to give you a second chance.” In a way, they voted for “hope and change” again. I don’t think it was so much a ratification of health care or “Race to the Top” or any other Obama initiative. It was more a vote on his character: “We think you’re trying. Now try even harder. Learn from your mistakes. Reach out to the other side, even if they slap away your hand, and focus like a laser on the economy, so those of us who voted for you today without much enthusiasm can feel good about this vote.”
And that is why Obama’s victory is so devastating for the GOP. A country with nearly 8 percent unemployment preferred to give the president a second chance rather than Mitt Romney a first one. The Republican Party today needs to have a real heart-to-heart with itself.
The GOP has lost two presidential elections in a row because it forced its candidate to run so far to the loony right to get through the primaries, dominated by its ultraconservative base, that he could not get close enough back to the center to carry the national election. It is not enough for Republicans to tell their Democratic colleagues in private — as some do — “I wish I could help you, but our base is crazy.” They need to have their own reformation. The center-right has got to have it out with the far-right, or it is going to be a minority party for a long time.
Many in the next generation of America know climate change is real, and they want to see something done to mitigate it. Many in the next generation of America will be of Hispanic origin and insist on humane immigration reform that gives a practical legal pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The next generation is going to need immigration of high-IQ risk-takers from India, China and Latin America if the U.S. is going to remain at the cutting edge of the information technology revolution and be able to afford the government we want. Many in the next generation of America see gays and lesbians in their families, workplaces and Army barracks, and they don’t want to deny them the marriage rights held by others. The GOP today is at war with too many in the next generation of America on all of these issues.
All that said, my prediction is that the biggest domestic issue in the next four years will be how we respond to changes in technology, globalization and markets that have, in a very short space of time, made the decent-wage, middle-skilled job — the backbone of the middle class — increasingly obsolete. The only decent-wage jobs will be high-skilled ones.
The answer to that challenge will require a new level of political imagination — a combination of educational reforms and unprecedented collaboration between business, universities and government to change how workers are trained and empowered to keep learning. It will require tax reforms and immigration reforms. America today desperately needs a center-right GOP that is offering merit-based, market-based approaches to all these issues — and a willingness to meet the other side halfway. The country is starved for practical, bipartisan cooperation, and it will reward politicians who deliver it and punish those who don’t.
The votes have been counted. Obama now needs to get to work to justify the second chance the country has given him, and the Republicans need to get to work understanding why that happened.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.MORE IN Commentary
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