The President’s Historic Moment

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When his Affordable Care Act beat the odds and passed, it looked as though President Obama had the opportunity to become one of the great American presidents. That hope crumbled amid the years of carnage in the Middle East and an insidious erosion of civil liberties and privacy at home. Even yet, though, Obama stands a realistic chance of going down in history as a politically transformative figure. It depends on whether his post-campaign campaign, Organizing for Action, and particularly its early project called Battleground Texas, can succeed.

President Obama
President Obama

Commentator after columnist has declared the Republican Party dead or dying because of its appeal to old white males, a dwindling slice of the voting demographic. They are so wrong. The GOP is very much alive and a lot more well than its more liberal counterpart in many states and locales. Moreover, the Republicans are likely to put up a pretty good candidate, such as Sen. John Thune of South Dakota or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, in the 2016 presidential election, and the quality of the candidate will matter a very great deal. If the Democrats put up a polarizing figure like Hillary Clinton instead of a broadly appealing one like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the advantage might well go to the Republicans.

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That the GOP’s state and local party building has been a success is both doubtless and meaningful. Spending on state legislative races has tripled since the Citizens United case in which the Supreme Court held that unlimited, secret corporate contributions to campaigns are just fine. It’s an easy thing, if you have the money. Most states have “citizen legislatures,” where jobs are not full-time, so that only retired people, wealthy people or people sponsored by special interests can run. That tends to work for conservatives. Now, the spending on these races has put them even farther out of the reach of regular working folk.

The results of all that spending have been astonishing, especially in the South and Midwest, where state legislatures once dominated by Democrats are now under the sway of Republicans who are busy banning abortions and lowering workers’ compensation awards.

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More to the point here, those legislators are reworking the congressional-district maps. Some 20 state legislative chambers have flipped from Democratic to Republican legislative control, giving the right-wingers control over the drawing of district lines for congressional elections. What this means is that Democrats will have a hard time into the foreseeable future in trying to take back the U.S. House of Representatives. And in the Senate, the Democratic majority that once appeared safe teeters on the brink of evaporation this year.

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supremect2012
U.S. Supreme Court

That means the 2016 presidential election looms as even more important than the last several. A Democratic victory might bring continued stalemate, of course, and that might well be the best that liberals can hope for. The next president will likely appoint successors to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer on the United States Supreme Court. If that president is a Republican, the list of changes starts with overturning Roe v. Wade and may not end until the court has reinterpreted the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment, effectively ending much of the government’s ability to influence land-use decisions. That’s what the Federalist Society wants (more on that in a later column.)

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So . . . Obama apparently has recognized the race he is in. It is the greatest political race of his life, and it is against the calendar. Can the reconstituted remnants of his 2012 campaign, diverted in some part from Mrs. Clinton’s cause personally, seize the trend of demographic change before the Republicans lock up two branches of the federal government long enough to shape this country for two or three generations?

The question is no more complicated and no less important than that. Mr. Obama’s operatives understand that the growth of minority populations, particularly Hispanics in the growing Southwest, creates a grand opportunity for a long-term Democratic majority, but that their success rests on moving a Democrat-leaning demographic to register and vote. The Republicans, captive to their lunatic Tea-Party wing and unable to move to the center on issues, understand these facts, too. That’s why vote suppression has become a fundamental effort of all those legislatures they’ve purchased.

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The Obamalytes down in Texas have taken great pains to explain to the public that they’re in it for the long haul, that making Texas even competitive may take a decade. Privately, they have to know that they may not have that long. If Texas, with its 38 electoral votes can go blue in 2016, the battle is over for a long time. If it doesn’t, the same may be true, but with a vastly different outcome.

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