Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Politics: No Such Thing as "New Politics"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Anyone remember all that discussion about "new politics" that people were talking about around the election of Barack Obama as the President of the United States? What happened to that fundamental change in the way that politics was practiced in the United States, the "no more red and blue Americas, just a purple America"? It's hardly surprising that it seems to have gone by the wayside. Probably since ancient Greece, and certainly in my lifetime, there has never been any such thing as "new politics," only varying degrees of skill in practicing classic politics.

Some tried to paint the very election of Barack Obama as representative of "new politics" for its use of technology to reach new voters, especially younger voters, but to me it was just a classic get-out-the-vote campaign. Twitter, generic cell phone messaging, and the extensive use of the world wide web may have been new, but it wasn't conceptually any different than the first phone banks used more than a generation ago, or the first application of customer relations management software to politics. While the number of new voters registered may make a significant difference in a number of (at least formerly) swing states like Virginia and Nevada going forward, that doesn't represent new politics--it represents very efficient execution of a classic political strategy.

In the end, it probably wasn't even Obama's impressive "ground game" that won the election. Just as in 1992, when the Clinton campaign "focused on the economy like a laser beam," the collapsing economy in the United States so damaged the Republican brand that even a perceived "maverick" within its ranks could not stand against the news. With a 4% margin of victory in the popular vote and a structural advantage in the electoral college, the approximately 2% that the highly successful "get-out-the-vote" campaign probably gained turned out to be superfluous. The oldest factor in the book--the state of the economy--was the single most important factor in the election.

Yet, the "new politics" was not supposed to be about the election, but about how Obama governed after the election. He went out of his way to try to open dialogue with the Republicans, inviting them to the White House, and speaking of bi-partisanship from the day he was elected right through the first few weeks of the the administration. In return, there were zero Republican votes for the stimulus package in the House and only a handful in the Senate. What happened? There was no "new politics"; the Republicans were still operating in a classic political space. There was no political advantage to be gained by voting for the package in the House, as they could not stop its passage there. If it works, the Republicans could claim they were trying to improve it; if it fails, they could say they were opposed the whole time. In the Senate, there was only an advantage to voting for it if something was gained in return, in this case the reduction in the size of the package by about 20%. If it works, the Republicans could say they improved it, and if it fails, they can say they were substantially opposed.

Even Obama's attempts at bi-partisanship weren't really "new politics" but just very shrewd classic politics. By reaching out, he appeared less ideological at a time when voters were tired of ideology. As a popular president, he conceivably could leverage that popularity and pressure the opposition somewhat toward compromise. He had very little to lose--if the Republicans refused to even talk, they would definitely look bad. In the end, though, it was all about what basic political advantage could be gained through compromise, and right now, there isn't much advantage to either side to actually do any more than talk. It's no different than it ever has been.

I was very pleased to see "new politics" disappear from the lexicon so rapidly in the United States. As far as I am concerned, there isn't any such thing.

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