The Most Important Election Ever

Writer Jonathan Alter explains why President Barack Obama's re-election really might have been the most important election ever.

By + More

Socialist. Communist. Not of this country. Those are just some of the characterizations thrown at President Barack Obama since he came into office. But in "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies," Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Bloomberg View, explains how, despite their best efforts, the Republican Party and its tea party allies couldn't brand Obama as a radical in the 2012 election. He recently spoke with U.S. News about the state of politics and Obama's latest challenges. Excerpts:

Every election, people say it's "the most important one ever." Why do you write that it may indeed have been true this time?

So usually [in] elections, the Democrat is maybe a little left of center, the Republican is a little right of center. That would be the case when Bill Clinton ran for re-election in 1996 against Bob Dole. But in this case we had an election where the Democrat was a little left of center, and the Republican was representing a party that was not your father's Republican Party. It certainly wasn't Bob Dole's Republican Party. In fact, the health care plan that Bob Dole supported in the 1996 election became Obamacare, which was described by today's Republican Party as socialism when it isn't. That's just not a factual description of it.

So they wanted to turn the clock back to a pre-New Deal America where it was every person for himself, basically, and government is the handmaiden of business. In this election, the Republicans were the radicals, and Obama was the small "c" conservative trying to protect and defend the centrist achievements of the 20th century.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Is the tea party over because of the 2012 election?

The tea party is what the Europeans call a "remnant party," meaning that its days are ultimately numbered because it's made up largely of older people who no longer look like America. They're overwhelmingly white and less in tune with where young people are and what they believe. On a wide variety of issues, the tea party is out of step with public opinion polls on what Americans believe. You can go right down the list, and they're a minority on almost every one of them. But they continue to have strength in the Republican primaries, so I think the tea party will have a little bit of a comeback in 2014.

How much will the Obama coalition be affected by the news of the National Security Agency leaks and the government's surveillance program?

There will be some strange bedfellows between the Rand Pauls of the world and otherwise progressive Democrats in opposition and coalitions between John McCain Republicans and Diane Feinstein Democrats in support of the NSA program. But I don't see it as having any kind of a permanent effect on the Obama coalition.

You write about the GOP's voter suppression efforts, but that ultimately the people who were supposed to be getting suppressed were galvanized and came out in greater numbers. Do you think the GOP will learn that lesson?

No. It's very clear in North Carolina, for instance, that they're just doubling down on suppression in a lot of states. Some of the voter suppression bills that were overturned were only overturned for the purposes of the 2012 election, and you'll see them back again. The fight's going to continue across many states. I think it's a risky strategy for Republicans because what it risks is what we're now starting to see in North Carolina, where black and Latino voters, students who did not vote in 2010 and generally have not been voting in midterm elections, are starting to say: "Well, this time it's different."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

According to Obama himself, the low point in his presidency was the debt-ceiling debacle. Do you foresee a repeat of that?

They often go up to the deadline, so they probably will again. That's the way Washington works. So I think it will be a little like Groundhog Day. But elections have consequences and [the GOP] can try to obstruct, but they won't have much public support. Now, in the past, they haven't cared about not having much public support. The problem is they just care about support in their primaries, and they felt it was very successful for them in 2011. So I think they will try to continue to play games with the debt ceiling, but the hostage taking will not be as effective because they lost the 2012 election.