The New Complacency

Democrats relearn how to take the presidency for granted.

Code Pink protester

There’s a new scent in the air. If you’re a Democrat, you haven’t felt it tickle your nostrils since October 1996, when everybody knew that Bill Clinton was about to beat Bob Dole. The perfume hasn’t been this strong since October 1964, the eve of Lyndon Johnson’s landside presidential victory. It’s the sweet smell of success that you can take for granted.

With every passing day, it’s harder to imagine that the next president of the United States will be a Republican—even a “maverick” Republican like John McCain. A consensus is emerging that the next president will be Barack Obama, a Democrat. Obama may not win in a landside, as some predict, but the common wisdom is that he will win and that the Democrats will expand their majorities in the House and Senate. Like the houseguests in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, swing states are disappearing one by one. Goodbye, Michigan; farewell, Ohio. Will Florida evaporate next? Colorado? Missouri?

“It’s over,” said former Hillary Clinton flack Howard Wolfson in his New Republic politics blog:

The campaigns themselves can’t afford to believe it. Many journalists know it but can’t say it. And there will certainly be some twists and turns along the way. But take it to a well capitalized bank: Bill Ayers isn’t going to save John McCain. The race is over.

Lest you think Wolfson believes this only because he’s a Democrat, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks reportedly thinks Obama’s got it in the bag, too. Welcome to the New Complacency.

Conservatives can carp all they want about the insularity of the cultural elite, but it’s been a very long time since liberals had the chance to experience electoral complacency at the national level. You’ll forgive them if they take a moment to taste it, savor it, perhaps bottle a little extra to tide them over during the next conservative ascendancy. Practically the only thing you can’t do is securitize it, but it would be churlish to complain about that, given the central role the financial markets’ collapse played in bringing the New Complacency about. Democrats, you want to worry about something? Worry about your portfolio!

For the past quarter-century, liberals have sweated and strained trying to make their worldview palatable to a Republican-electing nation. The exercise inspired some creative thinking, particularly at my alma mater, the Washington Monthly, and also a lot of dreary difference-splitting, particularly at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. What it didn’t do is win liberal ideas any greater acceptance. Even Bill Clinton, a Democrat who
triangulated” his way through two terms, pronounced that “the era of big government is over.” Clinton’s greatest political accomplishment—elimination of the budget deficit—was necessary and important, but it was also fundamentally conservative. Or, rather, it would have been conservative had the ideological spectrum not kept shifting rightward; by the end of Clinton’s presidency, Republicans were contending that the budget surplus signified the rape of the American taxpayer. Surplus-bashing reflected an irritating political dynamic of the Reagan and post-Reagan eras. Whenever Democrats yielded a little ideological ground to Republicans, the GOP shifted rightward and redefined the Democrats’ new compromise as the position of the far left. The Democrats were Charlie Brown; the Republicans were Lucy, at the last minute yanking the football of bipartisan consensus out of reach nearly every time. Now it’s the Democrats who have the football.

During the past 25 years, there have been countless sentiments that respectable Democratic politicians were never, ever supposed to say out loud for fear of angering the all-powerful Republicans. It still isn’t wise for Obama to say them, but maybe the New Complacency will loosen other tongues within the political mainstream. Even if it doesn’t, it’s fun to think about what those utterances might be. What follows is a list, compiled with help from my fellow Slate staffers. The views expressed don’t necessarily reflect those of the contributors—one of whom is a conservative Republican—or even me. But they sure are a refreshing change from what we’ve been hearing since 1981. With a little luck, they may soon be orthodoxies.

I think Karl Marx had some valuable insights into capitalist economies!I think abortion should be safe and legal. Rare is fine, too, but the way to achieve that is contraception, baby!I think Mormons are kooks!The Second Amendment does too allow government to ban handguns!Let’s standardize the federal age of consent at 16!Promiscuity between consenting adults is good exercise!

Wheeeee! Isn’t this fun?

Health care is a service, not a business!Pot is no more dangerous than vodka. Legalize it!I don’t support the troops. I support some troops, depending on whether or not they’ve committed war crimes!No more wars without United Nations or at least NATO support!Saving the boulder darter was worth a few thousand jobs!If Eastern Europeans think NATO will go to war to defend them against Russia, they’re out of their minds!Ditto if Taiwan thinks the United States will go to war to defend it against China!Let’s teach evolution in Sunday school!The military-industrial complex is a greater menace than most foreign nations!If Israel isn’t out of the occupied territories in six months, we’ll cut off all aid.

Tell it, sister, tell it!

Higher gas prices are good because they make everybody bike and take public transit like they should!America isn’t the greatest nation in the world. We think it is only because it’s our country. Duh!America won’t be the world’s most powerful nation forever. And you know what? Handing that responsibility off will be a relief!America’s official languages should be English and Spanish!Judges should legislate from the bench if they want to. Conservatives do it, so why not liberals?I do not accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior! I don’t even believe in God!What’s so great about the Judeo-Christian tradition?Big-city values are better than small-town values!I’m glad the Muslims whupped the Christians during the Crusades! Served ‘em right!

This is better than sex, don’t you think?

We need a shorter work week!Employees who work more than 40 hours a week should always get overtime.We’re going to need affirmative action for a long time.We’re undertaxed. Look at Europe!Terrorism isn’t that big a threat to America!

I’m not a “progressive,” for Pete’s sake. I’m a liberal!I’m not a “liberal,” for Pete’s sake. I’m a leftist!I’m not a “leftist,” for Pete’s sake. I’m a democraticsocialist!I’m not a democratic socialist, for Pete’s sake. I’m a Communist! Just kidding!

Let’s bring back the era of big government.

Walter Mondale would have made an excellent president!

Did I mention that my most conservative Slate colleague, a loyal Republican, enjoyed contributing to this list most of all?

It’s not enough that the top 5 percent pays 55 percent of our taxes. Why not 75 percent? Believe me, they can afford it!Prostitution is a victimless crime! Don’t outlaw it; regulate it, so we can arrest physically abusive pimps, limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and halt sexual trafficking in minors! Many welfare moms kicked off the rolls by the 1996 welfare-reform bill are worse off in their crappy jobs! *Ronald Reagan was a crummy president!Broad availability of gay marriage: good. Broad availability of gay divorce: better!You want to know why George W. Bush was a lousy president? Because he’s stupid!Pornography is good for your marriage because it teaches you new sexual techniques!The problem with public schools is private schools!

All right, enough for now. Mustn’t use them all up before Inauguration Day. But that sure did feel good. I’m taking the rest of the day off.

Correction, Oct. 10, 2008: An earlier version of this column erroneously gave 1986 as the year of the Clinton welfare-reform law. (Return to the corrected sentence.)