The Four Most Important Political Lessons of 2012

How to Make Government Work
Dec. 21 2012 5:31 PM

The Four Most Important Political Lessons of 2012

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President Barack Obama on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

What are the most important political lessons of 2012?

First, we saw the end of the electoral power—at the national level—of the Republican Party's theologically rigid agenda. Mitt Romney's primary season embrace of the social and economic agenda of the more rabid elements of his party doomed him, especially the shrill immigration rhetoric and the harshly insensitive theory that no additional sacrifice or contribution should be sought from those at the top. When he tried to move away from the sharpest edges of this during the general election, the public didn’t trust him.

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Romney's defeat was not simply the arithmetic of voting blocs; it was the larger statement that "We all did build this." The sense of community in our politics and society re-asserted itself against the hard individualism of the right. Hence the near certainty that Congress will enact immigration reform and tax rates that require the wealthiest to pay more. The two theologians of the Republican Party—Grover Norquist on taxes and Wayne LaPierre on guns—are now struggling. This is good for our politics.

Second, the president did best and crafted his majority when he spoke to true progressive values. During much of his first term he was quite tepid in his embrace of those values. And his poll numbers were flat, the public disengaged from his efforts. But when he finally spoke up on the agenda that the public cares about—from same-sex marriage to immigration reform to a fair distribution of the tax burden—the public responded. The lesson is clear: The timorous politics of so many Democrats who feel compelled to rush to the middle, to be meek, to shy away from the agenda of change that is needed, is not only wrong substantively, it is wrong politically.

Third, revolutions are messy things. The initial euphoria of the Arab spring—the most important foreign policy event of the past several years—has now been replaced by the grind of upheaval that has no clear direction. Yet the move toward secular society does seem to have traction, the desire for freedom as we understand it seems to be real. There are countervailing forces—the Islamists' desire to impose an intolerant theology. Yet in Egypt and elsewhere the foundation of democracy is visible, if under threat. Whether the state of Egypt ends up replicating Pakistan (we hope not) or Turkey (we hope so), it surely will not be Iran. The Middle East is still a mess, from Syria to Iran. Yet it does appear to be moving in the right direction.

Fourth, just because I can't resist coming back to this issue at least briefly, our financial system is still fraught with structural problems. From insider trading to LIBOR bid-rigging to analysts still shilling for IPOs they have an interest in, the problems continue. It is part human nature, part our failure to sanction properly when we need to, part our government's failure to have the backbone to restructure a system that is clearly unstable and flawed.


What a year it has been. And while 2013 will not see a major national election, we can be sure that most Republicans will obstruct and some Democrats will appease.  We can be sure that the Middle East will continue to be a source of vexing questions that need
solutions.  And we can be very sure that Wall Street will not fix itself.  Which is why we will have loads to discuss.

Have a wonderful holiday and New Year.

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