Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Politics: Most Important Number is 46%

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The United States is wading through a tremendous amount of electoral data this morning. Some things are clear, such as Barack Obama being the president-elect, while others are extremely unclear, such as the Oregon and Minnesota senate races. Of all the numbers floating around, the one with the most significance may be the percentage of the popular vote won by John McCain--46%.

Much is being made of Barack Obama's percentage of the vote nationwide. Not since Lyndon Johnson in 1964--before the civil rights movement--has a Democrat gotten more than the 50.1% earned by Jimmy Carter in 1976; Bill Clinton only received 43% and 49% in his two victories. The election in a very real sense "feels" like a near-landslide, with Obama earning at least 349 electoral votes, probably 364 (if his current lead North Carolina result is certified), and the landslide line generally regarded as 375. However, the electoral college--for better or for worse--almost always amplifies a result to make it look it like the winner has more of a mandate than the vote total would suggest. That has happened in 2008, to a greater extent than some pundits had expected.

However, that underscores the problem with such analysis. Expectations are not relevant. The electoral college does elect the president, but it doesn't directly describe the decision made by voters for the purpose of understanding the national mood. The final vote totals do mean something. Barack Obama won with about 52% of the popular vote. That's a clear victory, but it pales compared with the 60% earned by Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or the 58% earned by Ronald Reagan in 1984.

John McCain won about 46% of the vote. Over 55 million people preferred him to Barack Obama. Despite the solid campaign run by Obama and the lackluster campaign run by McCain, despite the overwhelming anti-Republican mood of the electorate because of the economy, unpopular wars and an unpopular incumbent, despite a relatively-high 64% turnout, despite just about every factor favoring the Democrats, John McCain still made this a competitive contest. He lost, but he didn't lose by much--just like John Kerry didn't lose by much in 2004, and Al Gore didn't lose the popular vote in 2000.

So what? The Democrats in general and President-Elect Obama in particular need to understand that nearly half the country still doesn't trust them. All that rhetoric about reaching out to the other side needs to be followed up with action. Obama can't govern as if he had a mandate--the way George W. Bush did after 2000 and 2004--and expect to "bring the nation together" and gain further electoral success. Likely, Obama himself knows this, and his biggest problem will be convincing his congressional colleagues to be more centrist. Obama cannot govern from the left and expect to be a popular or great president. The country is still centrist, arguably still center-right, and he needs to demonstrate that that's where he's coming from--perhaps most urgently not to the public, but to the Democratic leadership in Congress.

One way that Obama undoubtedly will make such overtures is by appointing Republicans to his cabinet--maybe even more than the token amount selected by recent presidents. I would suggest that Obama make an especially bold move and talk to John McCain himself about being the Secretary of Defense.

For all the ugliness of the campaign, John McCain has tried to rise above it at times. Despite the negative response he received from his supporters, he has repeatedly stated that Barack Obama is an honorable American, a worthy opponent. The epitome of this side of McCain came last night in his concession speech, in which he directly addressed the historic nature of the election and called on his supporters to offer "our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited."

After that speech, many left-wing commentators on blogs asked the question "Where was that McCain during the campaign?" It was there the whole time, in moments like the ones in which he excoriated his supporters for disparaging Obama. Recall that McCain's personality type makes him inclined to get angry, and then get over it quickly. So, while he could go through periods where he seemed angry at Obama and referred to him as "that one," this was not inconsistent with his more conciliatory moments. Both are the real McCain, but the anger can always be counted on to pass.

Obama could demonstrate an understanding of McCain's strength of life experience, in particular in military matters, by reaching out to McCain about the position of Secretary of Defense. For a president who is clearly weak in military matters, it would drastically improve his credibility. It would be a very significant symbolic act of entering a period of "new politics," and it would reassure the 46% of Americans that voted for McCain that Obama wasn't going to ignore them. Some might say that Obama and McCain have positions that are too different to ever be working toward the same goals--but considering that President Bush and President-Elect Obama seem to have essentially the same policy about withdrawing from Iraq, and that Obama and McCain's positions on Afghanistan aren't that different, is the gap really that large? Furthermore, even if McCain himself wasn't interested, asking McCain to recommend a Secretary of Defense could serve a very similar purpose.

I doubt Barack Obama will take my advice and reach out to John McCain, and I doubt John McCain would accept the position if it was offered to him. McCain will likely serve until he retires as a Republican senator from Arizona with significant national standing, and there's nothing wrong with that. But, while we're still in a dream state after the election, before the "honeymoon period" disappears, why not imagine it for a moment? An African-American as president once seemed just as unlikely.

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