Americans re-elect their presidents. Parties get two terms in the White House, and then Americans switch. Since FDR, who won four elections, it has been thus, with Bush Sr. as the exception.
Since the Second World War, Democrats have served two terms (Truman), followed by two Republican terms (Eisenhower), then Democrats again for eight years (JFK, LBJ), followed by eight of Republicans (Nixon, Ford). In the 1990s, the Democrats got their two terms (Clinton), followed by two for the Republicans (George W. Bush) and now back to two Democratic terms (Obama).
The post-war exception was Ronald Reagan, the only American titan since FDR.
When it was the Democratic turn for a second term in 1980, Reagan beat Jimmy Carter, and then he managed to hand over the White House to his own chief lieutenant in 1988, George H.W. Bush. After those three terms, Bush was defeated in 1992, and Americans returned to form. The Reagan ascendency was an electoral earthquake: He won the electoral college 489-49 in 1980, 525-13 in 1984 and Bush in 1988 prevailed 426-112. No one has come close to those numbers since. Indeed, no subsequent candidate has matched the Bush popular vote total in 1988 of 53.4%. (Obama in 2008 got 52.9%.) Reagan got 50.8% in a three-way race in 1980, and 58.8% in 1984. So aside from the Reagan elections (1980, 1984, 1988), Americans might make it very close, but the two term alternation holds.
On Tuesday, Americans opted for the status quo with even greater force. They re-elected a president, returned a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. One can therefore expect the impasse of the last few years to continue. When he had both houses of Congress, Obama dramatically expanded the size of government, for both emergency and structural reasons. The question now arises how America will pay for it.
From 1968-2008, from Nixon through Reagan and Clinton to Bush Jr., the American federal government took in, on average, about 18% of GDP in revenue, and spent slightly less that 21% of GDP. That corresponded to the working years of the baby boomers, so it may not have been sustainable when they began to retire. In any case, the financial crisis hit revenues hard, bringing them down to almost 15% of GDP, while the stimulus in a shrinking economy raised spending to 25%. That gap has shrunk since 2009, but it is what has produced the trillion-dollar deficits, and a $16-trillion national debt.
The re-election of Obama means that the expansion of government programs — health care, unemployment, welfare, food stamps — will remain until rapid economic growth returns, which itself is unlikely. The return of the Republican Congress, which passed the Paul Ryan budget of no tax increases and entitlement program cuts, means that they too can claim an electoral mandate. The status quo appears locked in.
This election featured a president who ran neither on his record nor his plan, but on sustained attacks against his challenger. The challenger was underwhelming at best, emerging from the second tier of his party, offering few concrete positions at all, and even those few were not consistent with his record.
A more fundamental question is whether America is capable of serious politics, or at least politics commensurate to the serious situation they face. This election featured a president who ran neither on his record nor his plan, but on sustained attacks against his challenger. The challenger was underwhelming at best, emerging from the second tier of his party, offering few concrete positions at all, and even those few were not consistent with his record.
Romney argued that the economy was bad, so throw out the President. The President argued that Romney was bad, so don't let him get hold of the economy. For a citizenry of some 300 million, it was a dispiriting spectacle. For a country with such big problems, it was terribly small. For a nation facing an array of serious questions, it was an unserious campaign.
There were serious arguments to be had on religious liberty and civil society. They will now be litigated in the courts. There were serious arguments to be had on monetary policy and household debt. They will now be left to the central bankers. There were serious arguments to be had about foreign policy, national security and the after burn of the Arab Spring. That will now be played out in acrimonious congressional hearings on Benghazi, which are likely to produce calls for prosecution of administration officials.
There were serious arguments to be had. In 2012, it was business as usual, and Americans took a pass.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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