In honor of Presidents’ Day, it’s worth taking up a thought-provoking piece by Yale political scientist David Mayhew that ran in Sunday’s Washington Post, which attempts to get beyond the quadrennial hyperbole of candidates claiming that the election they are running in is the “most important ever” and to ask the question: how should one assess which elections are, in fact, the most important ever?
I’ll let you read the piece to arrive at Mayhew’s rankings of the years that were most consequential of all, which are hard to disagree with (hint: they involved slavery and depression). But I was slightly put off by the way Mayhew downplayed the last election and the upcoming one:
Yes, voter interest soared in 2004 and 2008, but I do not see any sign that the elections of Bush and Obama brought major, lasting changes in voter coalitions. As for significant long-term policy change, the jury is out. Possibly some of the Obama program of 2009-10 will stick and be considered historically important (health care comes to mind), but we simply don’t know yet. The signal significance of 2008 was the election of an African American to the White House — a truly historic event.
As for 2012? There may be some lasting, important policy changes to emerge from this election, but most of the time that doesn’t happen. So far in this campaign, we don’t seem to have witnessed big, energizing events, a new mood that invests the public in the outcome or signs of a clear voter mandate. In most elections, deft management of the economy and smart, prudent foreign policy are enough to ask for.
Does anything strike you as off about this estimation? In assessing the importance of the 2008 election, Mayhew judges that when it comes to weighing the policy achievements of Barack Obama’s first term, such as health care reform, the “jury is still out” because “possibly some of the Obama program of 2009-10 will stick” but “we simply don’t know yet.” Well, yes. And one reason we don’t know whether the program will stick is because...we don’t know who will win this fall. The Republican candidates are all on the record as vowing to repeal Obama’s policies, starting with health care reform. So wouldn’t that suggest that this year's election will matter an awful lot? But Mayhew doesn't mention that at all. He’s hardly the first serious observer of Washington to view the health care law in an oddly abstract way, as if it is something less than what it is: a law that is fully on the books, that is being implemented piece by piece (as the Catholic Church can tell you) but that will be, to some degree or other, dismantled or vastly scaled back if Obama loses this fall. If that's not consequential, I’m not sure what is.
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