Has Obama sealed the deal? (And is that a good thing?)

Last night saw the third and final presidential debate between Senators Obama and McCain. The polls suggest the Democratic hopeful emerged the winner with the public (though perhaps not with the now-immortal Joe the Plumber); the pundits are calling it pretty much a draw, which isn’t good enough for Senator McCain, who is trailing nationally, and especially badly in the battleground states which will determine the winner.

The ElectoralVote.com map, as of today, gives Senator Obama a lead of 352 over Senator McCain’s 171 in the electoral college; most worryingly for the Republicans, the polls right now suggest that 250 of those Democrat votes are strong, just 20 short of the 270 winning post. And it’s not just the presidential race which at the moment favours the Democrats: they are currently projected to have a 59-41 advantage in the Senate, and a 247-186 lead in Congress.

Even allowing for some tightening in the race – and barring any major terrorist intervention – it’s hard to see at this stage any other result than a Democrat-controlled legislature and executive come January 2009.

Many of us in the broad church that can be termed liberal progressives might welcome such an outcome. Checks and balances can be very tedious things if you’re wanting to push through major reforms (as Ronald Reagan discovered throughout his presidency). But there has to be a question mark, in the current economic climate, as to whether a one-party grip on government will be a good thing for the US, or therefore for the wider world. Generally speaking, divided government – with one party in charge at the White House, and the other party with a majority in at least one chamber of Congress – has coincided with periods of economic stability.

As The Economist summed up this viewpoint, back in 2004 (when the Republicans were in the all-conquering ascendancy):

gridlock imposes discipline by reinforcing the most important principle in the American constitution—frustrating legislative zealots. Gridlock forces both parties to compromise. And compromise brings two wonderful things in its wake: it reduces the quantity of legislation that can grind its way through the legislative mill, and it improves the quality. The parties eliminate each other’s worst excesses while compromising on sensible centrist legislation.

(Tangentially I’ll note in passing the similarity between this philosophical underpinning of the US constitution’s checks and balances with liberal arguments for electoral reform).

The above extract was written at a time when many, especially on the fiscally conservative wing of the Republican party, were looking back with some nostalgia to the days of the Clinton presidency and Republican Congress, and its legacy (squandered by George W Bush) of balanced budgets. Now the gridlock argument may, The Economist fully acknowledged, be a bit simplistic; it perhaps underestimates the extent to which the determination of a politician to prioritise cutting the deficit (as President Clinton did) can make the difference.

But, still, in the current economic climate there will be those looking nervously at the results of the November election; hoping, for sure, for Democrat success; but worrying that all that power will go to the party’s head.

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14 Comments

  • I am confident that Obama really is the conciliatory politician that he likes to present to the world (from the evidence of The Audacity of Hope, he likes nothing better than viewing & considering problems from every imaginable angle). He also seems to have the personal verve to carry a lot of people with him. So I guess the key question will actually be the Democratic Congressional leaders – will they try and push him into more and more partisan areas, and will he endanger his relationship with Dem activists by resisting, especially in the early days? If he is a moderate president, and can convince his counterparts to adhere to the same values, then single-party domination isn’t actually that frightening.

    To be honest, if McCain wins I think he’d probably guide from the centre too. This could be exposed as wild, silly optimism, but I can’t see the next four years at least being overwhelmingly partisan.

  • Bibliophylax 16th Oct '08 - 9:54pm

    One of the better things about the U.S. setup is that if one-party rule becomes a bad thing, it lasts 24 months or less. Hooray for fixed terms.

  • Thomas Hemsley 16th Oct '08 - 9:55pm

    The arguments about one party government are not that true. Firstly, as has been pointed out, US politics changes quickly. Within 2 years of inauguration, there will be mid-terms. Until then, a Supreme Court that still has a majority of conservatives will keep him in check. I don’t doubt that Obama will have to make Supreme Court appointments in his term (although he might not – Carter didn’t), but I don’t think they’ll be in the first two years.

    In addition, party leaders in Washington are weak. The bailout plan showed that. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid both supported the package, yet they couldn’t drag the votes to the lobbies – the House of Representatives because they were facing election, the Senate because they are more naturally independent.

  • Terry Gilbert 16th Oct '08 - 10:04pm

    I hope so, but remember Carter had a 13 point lead at this stage and won by only 2, while Clinton had a 19 point lead and won by 6. Best not to count chickens before they hatch.

  • Thomas Hemsley is right about the current weakness of the party leaders. But for the economic package they were working alongside a President whose approval rating was (and is) in the dustbin. This left no cover at all for members of Congress, who may have felt the package was necessary but couldn’t vote for it in the face of constituents’ concerns.

    American politics does change quickly, but the Republican uprising occurred 2 years after Clinton’s election because Clinton made a mess of his first two year’s legislative agenda. The Washington system allows the President to lead if they are up to it, and I still think Obama can make great strides from the centre.

  • I do worry about the GOP suffering a massive defeat in all branches of government. There are relatively sensible elements within it who lost out under Bush, are repelled by Palin, & generally need encouragement to take over & provide opposition on a real conservative basis.

    We do not want New Labour II: although Obama seems somewhat more humble than Blair, like all governments he needs an opposition to hold him to account & keep up his rectitude.

  • David Heigham 17th Oct '08 - 6:09pm

    Mike Smithson reports on politicalbetting.com that the bookies have started paying out on an Obama win?

  • Surprised that no-one’s posted an article on the bad result in Canada for our sister party, the Liberals.
    Come on folks – let’s remember that there is politics north of the 49th parallel (and not just in Palinland)!

    If folks want a laugh try:
    http://www.palinaspresident.us/

  • Has Obama sealed the deal? At this point in the 1980 Presidential election Jimmy Carter was 6 points ahead of Reagan in the polls – and lost.

  • Hywel Morgan 18th Oct '08 - 11:43am

    “Mike Smithson reports on politicalbetting.com that the bookies have started paying out on an Obama win?”

    Paddy Power – they have also paid out on Man Utd to win the premiership well before the end of the season. And on at least one occasion Utd went on to lose.

    At this point Carter still had a debate with Reagan to go. IIRC it took place very close to polling day and Carter was widely perceived to have lost.

    “The only hope for the Republicans now is that Osama Bin Ladan gets captured or killed.”

    I’m not sure that helps McCain – it takes away a “fear of the unknown” issue to an extent.

  • Obama could still lose. His leads in Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Colorado and Virginia remain within the margin of error and are vulnerable to McCain’s ability to bring out additional rednecks who wouldn’t normally bother to vote but might stir themselves if they see the chance of stopping a black man becoming President.

    On the plus side for Obama is his success in mobilising early voters, many of them blacks and students registered for the very first time.

    The blatant use of race as an electioneering tool is unlikely to benefit McCain that much. Obama’s race is already known everyone. Those who won’t vote Obama because Obama is black don’t need McCain to persuade them. What the race card will do is cause lasting damage to community relations. But the Republicans are clearly prepared to pay that price.

    Obama is unlikely to fall to the assassin’s bullet. Firstly, candidates are much better protected these days. Secondly, there is a risk that no-one would believe the “lone gunman” hogwash this time.

  • Hywel Morgan 19th Oct '08 - 4:36pm

    “Obama could still lose. His leads in Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Colorado and Virginia remain within the margin of error ”

    That’s true but McCain effectively has to win all of the states which aren’t safe one way or the other on current polling.

    Not impossible but he’s behind in all of them which is not a great position to be! Certainly not when your opponent has loads on money and doesn’t have to spend some shoring up his safe states (which McCain does in ND and GA)

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