To appreciate the magnitude of the victory Barack Obama and Democrats won tonight, think back to what the political landscape looked like in the spring. The Supreme Court appeared ready to strike down Obamacare, the President’s signature domestic achievement. The recovery was stalling; Republicans were preparing to unleash $1 billion in super PAC ads; Obama’s reelection seemed perilous; and Dem control of the Senate was in doubt. It looked perfectly possible that the congressional GOP’s strategy of obstruction at every turn could be rewarded by voters, possibly with a return of one party rule to the GOP. The Obama experiment appeared headed for failure, and the prospects for the future of progressive reform were teetering on the brink.
Instead, Obamacare survived. Obama has been reelected with a resounding victory in the electoral college (the popular vote is outstanding). Democrats have routed Republicans in the Senate races. A progressive champion has been sent to the Upper Chamber in the person of Elizabeth Warren. The first openly gay Senator — Tammy Baldwin, another solid liberal — joins her. The Dem majority will be more progressive and energetic. In Maryland, gay marriage has been ratified by popular vote for the first time.
The story of this election will be all about demographics. As Chuck Todd noted earlier today, the fact that it remained unexpectedly close in GOP-leaning southern states shows that the GOP is not keeping pace with the changing face of America. Meanwhile, Obama’s support proved unexpectedly strong among workers in the industrial midwest, thanks partly to his willingness to pursue aggressive government action to save a major American industry. Obama’s team made the right bet on the true nature of the American electorate. Rather than reverting to the older, whiter, more male version Republicans had hoped for, it continues to be defined by what Ron Brownstein has called the “coalition of the ascendant” — minorities, young voters, and college educated whites, particularly women.
Obamacare will survive. It will continue to be implemented, and provided that it works, it will grow in popularity as its benefits kick in. The health law will slowly get woven into the fabric of American life, just as the major progressive reforms of the 20th Century did over time.
The economy is likely to continue to recover. If Mitt Romney had won, he and his ideas (tax cuts, deregulation, unshackling the free market) might have been associated with the recovery, leaving Keynesianism and stimulus spending thoroughly discredited. Instead, Obama and Democrats will hopefully gain more credit for the ongoing recovery, and perhaps the idea that government can act to fix the economy will get rehabilitated. Warren’s victory is important here, too: The most vocal advocate of progressive taxation in the country was sent to the Senate, at a time when the argument over whether to raise taxes on the rich to help fix our fiscal problems is about to climax.
The GOP held the House, and the road ahead remains very difficult. A lot will turn on how Republicans handle this defeat and how they interpret it. GOP operative Steve Schmidt said on MSNBC today that this will require “soul searching” by the party. But there will be tremendous pressure on GOP leaders from the GOP base and conservative opinionmakers — angry about tonight’s results — to continue to obstruct Obama at every turn. However, the President will have leverage. He will be able to point to the fact that Republicans lost resoundingly after adopting a four-year strategy of scorched earth obstructionism to argue that it’s time the GOP sees the writing on the wall and cooperates with Democrats to move the country forward.
UPDATE: More on how this election was not “small” at all, as some pundits are claiming; it was actually a battle of big and consequential ideas.