Lessons for Both Parties

Having convinced themselves that the presidency was theirs for the taking—and why not, considering the incumbent’s less-than-stellar record—many Republicans are sifting through the returns in search of answers. Why did a (bare) majority of voters reject Mitt Romney’s message? How did the party lose so many battleground states? Can the party reboot to appeal to the new America of the 21st century?

Democrats are watching the Republican self-examination with no small amount of joy. They would be reluctant to admit it, but in a way, some veteran Democrats can feel the Republicans’ pain. Democrats went through the same kind of gut-wrenching soul-searching after Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush in 1988. The Dems had lost three straight landslides, and five of the previous six presidential elections. Then along came a fellow named Bill Clinton, and everything changed.

It’s good—for the party, and for democracy itself—to see Republicans thinking hard about what they need to do to become relevant again in presidential elections. No national interest is served if one party dominates the national agenda without serious intellectual and political challenges.

But Democrats really ought to lay off the Schadenfreude. Yes, they had a good night on November 6, and the Electoral College math makes Barack Obama’s victory look like a landslide. But it wasn’t. Democrats held onto the White House by slender margins in states like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. Mr. Obama’s re-election was the least-resounding victory for an incumbent president in modern history.

So Republicans should not be alone in their self-reflection and internal debates. Democrats, too, need to think about their message, priorities and tactics as we move ever further from the 20th century’s political and demographic paradigms.

The Republican problem is easily described, and has been ad nauseam over the last 10 days. The party’s base has shrunk to a core of middle-aged white men. That’s not going to get it done in 2016. The party has to figure out how to calibrate its positions to appeal to a wider slice of the nation’s diverse electorate.

Executing a new strategy won’t be easy, but diagnosing the party’s problem is pretty simple. The numbers don’t lie.

The Democrats actually have a more complex lesson to learn, but if they master the subject, they could dominate national politics for many more years.

The party held on to the White House through a class-based campaign of resentment and envy. It worked—this time. But the Democratic strategy is no more sustainable than the Republican reliance on white males. Democrats, too, have to figure out how to move to the center on economic issues while retaining their socially liberal positions on issues like marriage equality, civil rights and women’s reproductive rights.

That pivot won’t be easy. There is no shortage of Democrats who are content with a strategy of bashing the rich, demonizing free enterprise, and loading the federal budget with entitlement spending. That may be good politics, at least for now, but it is morally and fiscally irresponsible.

For the most part, Americans want a fiscally conservative government that gives full rein to the creativity and innovation of the marketplace, and which regards the public treasury as a trust, not as a cash cow or political slush fund. If Democrats found ways of unleashing the private sector while continuing to push for progressive social policies, they would be almost unbeatable at a national level.

The next few years will tell us whether or not Democrats realized that they, too, have some lessons to learn from last week’s results. If the party pushes forward a fiscally disastrous agenda, one which will burden future generations with crushing debt, we’ll know that they learned nothing.

But if they take a leadership role in reforming entitlements while encouraging private-sector growth, well, they’ll be able to sign a long-term lease on the White House.