Liberals Worry, “What If We Win?”

by Timothy Noah | November 2, 2012

In the final days of a presidential campaign that Barack Obama stands an excellent chance of winning, liberals are imagining all the terrible things that will happen if he does. “Liberals Fear Grand Bargain Betrayal If Obama Wins,” Carrie Budoff Brown writes in Politico. “GOP Already Working To De-Legitimize An Obama Win,” frets Zachary Roth on MSNBC. “Get ready, Dems,” urged The Democratic Strategist in late September. “If Obama wins, conservatives will try to de-legitimize his victory with hysterical, phony claims of 'massive election fraud.”

I don’t mean to dismiss these concerns entirely. I myself have urged Democrats to ignore the respectable pleadings for a quick budget bargain from Erskine Bowles (and, closer to home, TNR’s William Galston) and recognize that Democrats hold a very strong hand in forthcoming negotiations over the “fiscal cliff.” (MSNBC's Lawrence O’Donnell has since July been doing the Lord’s work in waging a spirited “Off the Cliff” campaign to educate his fellow liberals about how strong that hand really is). The Democratic Strategist has some very practical suggestions about how to counter the inevitable claims Republicans will level that Obama stole the election. (I wouldn’t put it past the GOP to wage a baseless election-fraud campaign in Democratic strongholds even if Romney wins.) And yes, Republican partisans can be pretty nuts these days. In 2009 a national poll indicated that fully 52 percent of Republicans thought that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama. Donald Trump still thinks Obama was born in Kenya. 

But can you imagine conservatives confronting a probable victory with such anxiety and foreboding? Get a grip, Democrats. The likelihood’s better than even that you’ll keep the White House, and you’ll almost certainly keep the Senate, too. The House elections will be brutal, but recapturing the House in 2012 was always a pipe dream. The economy is lousy, Obama’s opponent is a frighteningly adept shape-shifter, and the president’s greatest achievement, Obamacare, is still a hard sell in polls. Yet he’ll probably get another term. Be happy, for Christ’s sake! 

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Will Republicans be graceful in defeat? Of course they won’t. They’ll scream bloody murder and vow to sabotage the Democratic agenda. But what else is new? In 2010 Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Yes, that was a little unhinged, given the volume and variety of urgent public business before Congress. But if Obama wins re-election that will mean the Republicans have failed in their “single most important thing” (in addition to failing, earlier, to block Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, among other legislative achievements). 

What about the “mandate” issue? Please. Let’s consider the worst-case scenario. Obama wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote. Galston (not exactly a liberal but still at least nominally a Democrat) writes, “Whatever may have been the case when the Constitution was drafted, majority rule is the core of legitimacy in contemporary political culture.” That would leave Obama entering his second term with “a relatively weak hand.” Sort of like ... George W. Bush in 2000? A lot of people (including me) screamed bloody murder when Bush won the election that year without winning the popular vote. But as Jonathan Zasloff points out on The Washington Monthly’s Web site, Bush’s popular-vote defeat wasn’t the main thing liberals were screaming about that year. Mainly they were screaming about hanging chads and butterfly ballots and questionable Supreme Court jurisprudence, all of which conspired to give Bush an Electoral College victory. And despite all that screaming and yelling, the impact on Bush’s perceived legitimacy was, within a month or two, virtually nil. Electoral-College-haters like me didn't devote much of our lives to proving that Bush wasn't really president. We were more interested in persuading Electoral-College-defenders that the 2000 election was a wake-up call to change the way we elect presidents, Democratic and Republican, in the future. If a split decision in 2012 makes Electoral-College-haters out of Republicans, I’ll consider that a net benefit. Maybe that will make it possible, finally, to rid ourselves of an antiquated, anti-democratic institution. But I think everybody understands that campaigns play according to the rules they’re given, so there’s no reason to think a strong movement to eliminate the Electoral College would harm Obama’s legitimacy in any meaningful way. Indeed, if Obama were smart, he’d join it.

So enough with the long faces. Let’s see some more smiles out there, Democrats. There are worse things than winning.

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