A number of pieces and posts by wonks such as Ezra Klein and others have made me think a bit about the ways in which we understand campaigns. Put simply, rhetorical critics, like political pundits and news anchors, have a strong, vested interest in the volatility of presidential campaigns. If the first debate mattered so much, then we matter when we study debates. If Bill Clinton's speech mattered so much, then we matter when we study such speeches. If rhetorical campaign activities matter so much, then we matter because we are rhetorical critics.
I do not wish to end my ability to make a living. But I do think we have a strong tendency to value change over stability, to see fragmentation where there is continuity, to perceive chaos when there is also linear progression. So, is there a middle ground here? How might we talk about campaigns such that we can also think about the stable discursive patterns or long term movements that help to craft an outcome? Given my biases, I tend to think in terms of linguistic or performative traditions--or, at least, find some way to talk about long, slow change in linguistic patterns and public perceptions. Let me name a few that I think either mattered in this campaign or will matter in the long term.
First, the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, have sought since at least the early nineties and perhaps earlier, to argue that they truly represented the middle class and to root that authority claim both in history and metaphor. For instance, Bill Clinton's 1992 nomination acceptance spoke for those who worked hard and played by the rules; Barack Obama spoke in nearly the same way at Osawatomie, KS in the Dec. 2011 kickoff to his presidential campaign. Significantly, both presidents many times called on the heritage of the Progressive Era--of Wilson and TR--as a warrant for their policies. Neither wished to overturn capitalism, both wished to reform it. The "rules of the game," the Progressive legacy also cast their Republican opponents as robber barons--rule breakers, defenders of wealth and despoilers of the wilderness. There is considerable evidence that this long rhetorical effort has finally succeeded.
Second, as many have commented, the Republicans have now become the party of Clint Eastwood--angry, old white men talking to empty chairs. The most immediate solution offered seems to be immigration reform; Republicans and some pundits now believe if they just change on that issue and nominate Marco Rubio, all will be well. There are always short term events or issues that change elections--9/11 and the 2002 midterms and 2004 general come to mind--but this kind of fix will not be easy. The Republicans spent much of the 70s and 80s pursuing "Reagan Democrats"--white, male ethnics--and they did so by raising the spectre of the Other--of the ghosts of Mississippi, when Reagan kicked off his 80 campaign in Philadelphia, MS, of Willie Horton in 1988, of the hands tearing up a job offer because a black man got it in the Helms/Gant NC Senate race, of welfare queens, of Islamofascists, of illegals, of food stamp queens, of takers. Those decades of discourse stick. Rs can change on an issue or two, but the culture of the party is clear. Much as the Democrats abandonment of gun control has failed to draw the NRA into their coalition, so, too, does it seem quite unlikely that Rubio alone can change the world.
3) A primary political fact of the '00s was, in the wildly misleading and popular metaphor, this: The Democrats are the mommy party; the Republicans are the Daddy party. Republicans have owned national security since roughly 1970. No more. In 2 of the last 3 elections (Bush 2004, McCain 2008), they nominated candidates who believed that the unilateral use of military force should be the first, not the last option. Heck, in the middle of the 2008 campaign, McCain wanted to save Georgia from the Russians--remember that? This year, the Rs nominated someone completely ignorant of foreign affairs, a man who badly fumbled both his trip abroad and his foreign policy debate. Meanwhile, Barack Obama has performed very well in this area; in fact, if anyone can claim the George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker mantle of cautious realism, it is Obama.
No one paid much attention to foreign policy this election. But the long term trend is clear and will likely come back to haunt the Republican party. They simply aren't trusted to conduct foreign policy. That's a major shift in the electorate.
None of this foreshadows a new Democratic majority. These are simply shifts in discursive patterns over periods of time, slow, not fast, change, the culmination of rhetorical projects decades in the making that rhetorical critics should notice alongside a good or bad debate performance. And they are arguably more important than that performance. Or, at least, that performance should be viewed from within such rhetorical contexts.