(Mint) Tea Leaves in Georgia

The results of the Georgia Senate run-off were unsurprising. Despite GOP worries that Team Obama’s 13 million strong data base of donors and volunteers might be able to tilt the race, the world did not turn upside down yesterday.

But, there is a lesson in the results for the President-elect and his party. In November, when African-Americans turned out in huge numbers in Georgia, incumbent GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss did not win the 50% majority needed for election. He took 49.8% to Democrat Jim Martin’s 46.8%. Yesterday, Chambliss took 57% in a race where only half as many voted as went to the polls in November. The lesson? Obama’s popularity is not immediately transferable.

Obama leads the nation and he leads the Democratic Party. If he intends to create a governing majority for the Democrats and make his election a realigning event in American political life, he needs to find a way to transfer his own popularity to his party. In one sense, this goal is made easier by the defeat in Georgia. If the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority, there would be no incentive to sit down with the likes of moderate GOP Senators Susan Collins, Arlen Specter or Olympia Snowe. The eventual shape of legislation will benefit from sitting down with these three, and Obama’s political brand will be improved by adhering the label "bi-partisan" to all of his major proposals.

The quest for bi-partisanship, however, does not translate easily into long-term loyalty to the Democratic Party. The power of the presidency is so markedly different from that of a Prime Minister, his fortunes are not tied to his party’s. Bill Clinton famously used triangulation to improve his own standing even while the strategy threw congressional Democrats under the bus. Conversely, a disastrous presidency is likely to bring down the president’s party in Congress too. Ask Senators John Sununu or Gordon Smith if George W. Bush was a drag on their candidacy.

The key is for Obama to select two or three core principles that will animate the Democratic Party he wishes to shape and make them central to the party’s identity. Universal health care, middle class tax relief, restricting the degree to which executive compensation is deducible as a business expense, and private-public partnerships to create the green economy of the future strike me as likely candidates. If Obama uses his personality to help enact the policies, and let’s them become part of the fabric of the nation’s polity in a way that they are identified with the Democratic Party, then he will be able to look back on 2008 as a re-aligning election. Governance is key. Reliance on his data base is not enough.

Michael Sean Winter

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