President-elect Barack Obama’s win is so cataclysmically historic one knows not where to begin. First, his victory signifies the death of the Old South and President Nixon’s infamous "Southern Strategy," which the GOP has used successfully for almost four decades to win presidential elections.
When President Lyndon Johnson championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, some Republican strategists saw a potential political gold vein in the South. They restructured their party as the safe haven for white voters uneasy with Democrats, or downright hostile to them, for advancing the cause of black people.
President-elect Obama’s victory means the South no longer holds the key to victory for the GOP. As Southern cities, such as Raleigh, N.C., draw more and more Northern urbanites as residents, they simultaneously become more progressive politically. Raleigh is the third fastest-growing city in the South, and a magnet for New York, Pennsylvania and New England urbanites seeking cheaper real estate and a warmer climate.
It means what former Sen. George Allen and later McCain spokesperson Nancy Pfotenhauer referred to as the "real Virginia" (in which Virginia politics was dominated by the state’s conservative southern region) has been replaced. Virginia’s revolution, like that of neighbor North Carolina, is driven by the politics of liberal invaders from outside the state who have flocked in great numbers to the Washington, D.C. suburbs known as Northern Virginia. Obama’s northern supporters now dominate state politics.
Watching the returns come in on Tuesday night, I could not help but hum The Band’s 1969 tune, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." And the comparison is apt not only in that a new political south is emerging, but in many ways the politics of the 1960s have returned as well. Unlike President Clinton who had to temper his support for abortion rights while campaigning for office, President-elect Obama did little of the same.
Does Obama’s victory signify that racism is dead in America? Not quite, but it certainly seems to be on life support. It also means Americans will finally have the chance to figure out what President-elect Obama means by his two campaign slogans: first, "Change We Can Believe In," later tweaked to read, "The Change We Need."
Sen. John McCain could not convince middle-ground voters that Obama’s version of change meant a reversion to 1960s and ’70s-style liberalism — or, in the phrase made famous by former President Ronald Reagan, "tax and spend" liberalism. But indeed the comparison is valid.
Obama promised scores of new federal programs including an effort as large as FDR’s public works program that pulled the country out of the Great Depression. He also promised not to raise taxes on 95 percent of American workers. It will be impossible for Obama to fulfill both promises at the same time. So political observers will be scrutinizing him to see which ones he fulfills and which ones he breaks.
Meanwhile, the GOP needs to go back, lick its wounds, and reconfigure. My hunch is Christian conservatives who’ve had a lock on the party’s policies for the past eight years need to give up control to moderate Republicans. The GOP needs to revisit the "Big Tent" vision of the late Lee Atwater or be strangled by the current leaders who envision a return to the Old South. It’s not happening. Hyper-kinetic patriotism is out as well.
McCain’s campaign slogan, "Country First" was a winner in the post-9/11 jingoistic frenzy to prove which party was the more patriotic. But as Americans’ worries turn closer to home, jobs, and the economy, our patriotic "shpilkes" (Yiddish for "ants in our pants") settles down, too, the Rockefeller Republicans of the 70s (fiscal conservatives, social liberals) seem destined to regain party power as the GOP attempts to enter its own Reconstruction era.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)