Has Obama sealed the deal? (And is that a good thing?)

by Stephen Tall on October 16, 2008

Last night saw the third and final presidential debate between Senators Obama and McCain. The polls suggest the Democratic hopeful emerged the winner with the public (though perhaps not with the now-immortal Joe the Plumber); the pundits are calling it pretty much a draw, which isn’t good enough for Senator McCain, who is trailing nationally, and especially badly in the battleground states which will determine the winner.

The ElectoralVote.com map, as of today, gives Senator Obama a lead of 352 over Senator McCain’s 171 in the electoral college; most worryingly for the Republicans, the polls right now suggest that 250 of those Democrat votes are strong, just 20 short of the 270 winning post. And it’s not just the presidential race which at the moment favours the Democrats: they are currently projected to have a 59-41 advantage in the Senate, and a 247-186 lead in Congress.

Even allowing for some tightening in the race – and barring any major terrorist intervention – it’s hard to see at this stage any other result than a Democrat-controlled legislature and executive come January 2009.

Many of us in the broad church that can be termed liberal progressives might welcome such an outcome. Checks and balances can be very tedious things if you’re wanting to push through major reforms (as Ronald Reagan discovered throughout his presidency). But there has to be a question mark, in the current economic climate, as to whether a one-party grip on government will be a good thing for the US, or therefore for the wider world. Generally speaking, divided government – with one party in charge at the White House, and the other party with a majority in at least one chamber of Congress – has coincided with periods of economic stability.

As The Economist summed up this viewpoint, back in 2004 (when the Republicans were in the all-conquering ascendancy):

gridlock imposes discipline by reinforcing the most important principle in the American constitution—frustrating legislative zealots. Gridlock forces both parties to compromise. And compromise brings two wonderful things in its wake: it reduces the quantity of legislation that can grind its way through the legislative mill, and it improves the quality. The parties eliminate each other’s worst excesses while compromising on sensible centrist legislation.

(Tangentially I’ll note in passing the similarity between this philosophical underpinning of the US constitution’s checks and balances with liberal arguments for electoral reform).

The above extract was written at a time when many, especially on the fiscally conservative wing of the Republican party, were looking back with some nostalgia to the days of the Clinton presidency and Republican Congress, and its legacy (squandered by George W Bush) of balanced budgets. Now the gridlock argument may, The Economist fully acknowledged, be a bit simplistic; it perhaps underestimates the extent to which the determination of a politician to prioritise cutting the deficit (as President Clinton did) can make the difference.

But, still, in the current economic climate there will be those looking nervously at the results of the November election; hoping, for sure, for Democrat success; but worrying that all that power will go to the party’s head.