Okay, we did our duty, staying the course until, somewhere well short of dawn’s early light, we were able to discern the winner: President Barack Obama, having survived a leftover recession and a bad first debate, will serve another four-year term as president, defeating Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the political chameleon whose late surge after a dismal start and lackluster convention fell short.
The reelected president will, as before, have a Republican House and Democratic Senate and likely a few more rounds of gridlock to deal with (especially if, as seemed possible, Romney might actually finish ahead in the raw popular vote). Talk about “horse race,” the term so often invoked by political observers to describe any kind of political analysis based on something other than pure issues! Election night was, almost inevitably, a Clem McCarthy extravaganza (to invoke the late stentorian broadcaster of Kentucky Derby races) One way to follow election results is throughTwitter, if you have the right feeds. (In our office, Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden is both pioneer and master in regard to that technology.)
Another, more old-fashioned way is via the cable networks. And the virtue of that pathway is that if you swap around from MSNBC (Democratic) to Fox (Republican) to CNN (more or less neutral), you get not only the numbers and graphics and projections but the vocal tonalities and the squints or smiles or poker faces (as the case may be) of various commentators, more or less on the order of their partisanship.
And, early in the evening, regardless of what else was going on, what seemed to be a perceptible Obama trend in both Florida and Ohio had the faces going through changes. Shepard Smith on Fox looked very sober as he informed a couple of colleagues that Republican sympathizers could be in for some rude surprises. Dealing with the same information over on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow had no trouble fetching a smile.
The CNN team of Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, John King, and Erin Burnett kept things moving best of all, perhaps. They seemed to be the first with accurate projections, giving Obama an overall lead of 64 electoral votes to Romney’s 40 as of 7 p.m. CST, a ratio that the other networks would repeat in their turn.
The Deep South, of course, went solidly for Romney. No surprise. Blue states like Connecticut, Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts were called for Obama fairly quickly. On all three networks, the quilt spread bright red in the heartland, but CNN called Michigan for Obama, even as Ohio, a similar rust-belt auto state, was technically hanging fire.
For what it’s worth, Michigan is where Romney grew up; Massachusetts is the state he governed for four years, the one he still calls home, and the site of his election-night headquarters. The GOP nominee was undoubtedly hurt by his social-Darwinist attitude toward so many things, including the domestic car industry. (“Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” was the title of an op-ed he wrote for The New York Times in 2008. What is it they say about actions having consequences?)
On the other hand, shortly after 8:00 p.m. CST, Blitzer announced that the GOP would keep control of the House. Dana Bash, holding up an index finger, explained that the president made one robo-call, only one, for a House candidate. That, and his flop in the first debate, she said, dimmed Democratic hopes of capturing the lower chamber. David Gergen balanced that out, however, with a conjecture that the Democrats would keep control of the Senate (with Elizabeth Warren ousting the GOP’s Scott Brown in Massachusetts, among other signature Democratics wins).
And Florida was suddenly 50-50. Virginia seemed to be coasting Romney’s way. Colorado was swinging back and forth both ways. But Ohio was staying blue, which, as Wolf Blitzer said in something of an understatement, was “very good news for President Obama.”
And, uh oh, Martin Savidge, still speaking of Ohio, mentioned the troubling term “provisional ballots,” which seemed likely to loom large in several toss-up states as election night went on. It took no Magic Eight Ball to reveal that anything less than a decisive electoral-college victory by one candidate or the other would occasion nationwide calls for recounts and reviews on a scale to dwarf what happened in Florida in 2000.
Speaking of Florida, Blitzer seemed almost dangerously excited at the closeness of things as he noted a 600-vote spread for Romney with 81-percent of the vote in. Only minutes later, Obama was up by 1,000 or so. Would the ghost of deja vu walk the land in the aftermath of this election?
Over to Fox, however, where, just after 8:30 p.m. CST, Chris Wallace was explaining to Karl Rove (the master planner whom George W. Bush fondly called “Turdblossom”) and ex-Howard Dean aide Joe Trippi that Obama had now won so many states, including not only Massachusetts but Wisconsin, home state of Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan, that Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D, all alternate paths for Romney to win the presidency, were off the map. It would have to be Ohio, or nothing at all.
Seemingly in an effort to be consoling, Trippi opined that Ohio might yet be this election cycle’s Florida, a la 2000 (even as Florida itself was still very much in the running for that honor).
But Chuck Todd on MSNBC was saying, “I know that Republicans are going to want to talk about Sandy [the storm that interrupted a possible Romney bounce and allowed the president to be hands-on and presidential], but the story of this election is demographics.” Indeed. That was somewhere close to having the fat lady sing.
Ohio would stay in the Obama column, and he would pick up most of the other battleground states as well, ending with a minimum of 303 electoral votes of the 270 needed, while Romney had 206. (Florida's 29 votes were still uncertain.) Previous forebodings notwithstanding, the President also appeared to be slightly ahead of Romney in the national popular vote.
And, truly, with or without a specific game plan for the future, and notwithstanding the South’s different direction, the Democratic Party seemed to be slouching toward its Bethlehem, ready for some ultimate rebirth based on its greater openness toward diversity.
While political junkies and ordinary citizens alike had followed the presidential campaigns with what seemed a growing sense of urgency and with no clear consensus as to who might win in the nation at large, it was taken for granted that in 2012, as in 2008, Obama would carry Shelby County, with its majority African-American population and presumed Democratic leanings, and that Romney would finish ahead in the state as a whole, with its ever more Republican bias.
As the election season entered its last few days, the major suspense locally had concerned the fate of two tax referenda. Both a gasoline tax proposal on Memphians' ballots and an all-county referendum to raise the sales tax a half cent had been responses to political realities — the former propounded by Councilman Ed Ford Jr. as a partial patch on the city of Memphis’ unending fiscal miseries (and as balm for MATA in particular) and the latter by Shelby County Commission chairman Mike Ritz for several purposes at once.
Among those were: To find a source of revenue to help pay for a $60 million shortfall anticipated for the forthcoming Unified School District; to throw a kink into the countervailing effort of six county municipalites to create their own school districts by superseding those suburbs’ already passed half-cent tax increases; and, incidentally but perhaps not least, to underscore the constitutional pre-eminence — often over-looked and, until recently, rarely invoked — owned by county government.
The bottom line, though: Both the gasoline tax and the proposed county tax increase went down -- and went down hard -- the gasoline tax by a margin of 138,456 to 85,405 and the sales tax hike by one of 172,625 to 78,075.
The failure of the county initiative keeps in force the half-cent tax increases voted by Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, Arlingto and Millington to fund their proposed municipal school systems. The City of Memphis, which saw its own half-cent increase knocked off the ballot by the county proposal but which stood to gain somewhat from the county measure, will now have to find other revenues to take care of urban needs.
The 9th District Congressional race, won by a 3-1 margin by Democratic incumbent Steve Cohen over GOP challenger George Flinn (188,245 to 58,676), was the closest thing to a marquee local pairing and, amid a growing hostility between the two contestants fueled by charges and counter-charges, was the one race that had managed to generate some real sparks. But few had expectations of a genuinely tight contest, outside the confines of Republican true believers, who were cheered by the deep-pocketed Flinn’s ability to advertise at will and by his determination to irritate Cohen while probing for a possible weakness.
In the judgment of many observers, regardless of their political orientation or how they felt about either Cohen or Flinn, the chief short-coming evinced by the congressman may have been in the form of a particular TV commercial featuring a cluster of T-shirted supporters chanting “Get Goin’ with Cohen.” Though it was fairly widely deplored as amateurish, Cohen seemed proud of it for that very reason, contrasting its “naturalness” and use of “real people” with Flinn’s more polished late commercials, which, the congressman said, were produced out of state, and, through the use of vivid graphics and jarring chords, charged Cohen with a variety of derelictions, ranging from missing votes to casting one that would strip Medicare of $700 billion.
The latter charge was a recap of one that was made incessantly by Republicans in 2012, from Romney on down, though, as Cohen (like former president Bill Clinton at the Democrats’ Charlotte convention) pointed out, the supposed “cuts,” designed to complement the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) were not in benefits but in extraneous inducements to providers (“people like Flinn,” Cohen said). Moreover, the Repulican candidate for vice president, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, had proposed the very same economy.
Cohen seemed most angered by Flinn’s charge concerning missed votes — some 130-odd out of what the congressman said were “5,000 opportunities to vote” during his first three terms. His rate of absenteeism was close to the congressional average, Cohen protested, adding that the votes he missed had not been essential to the 9th District and had been due largely to unavoidable circumstances — notably his mother’s deathbed illness and the need to attend funerals of eminent constituents like the Rev. Ben Hooks.
Flinn had also accused Cohen of indulging himself with excessive travel (“playing” as the ad put it). The congressman countered that many of his trips were to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistant or were similarly related to routine congressional fact-finding.
Far-fetched or not, the challenger’s late-campaign attack ads seemed intended not so much to illuminate troublesome realities as they were to play into public suspicions regarding politicians and to goad Cohen into reacting. They were the aggressive Phase Two of Flinn’s campaign — a largely self-financed one, like his previous ones for Shelby County mayor, for Memphis City Council, and for Congress in the adjoining 8th District. (Flinn served six years as a 1st District Shelby County Commissioner, winning appointment to a vacancy in 2004 and winning a full four-year term without opposition in 2006.)
The challenger’s phase one had been of a different sort altogether. His early TV ads served up the gentle, beaming countenance of a physician healer and consisted largely of glowing testimonials from patients and community figures, mostly African-American. They complemented his yard signs, which referred to the candidate simply as “Dr. Flinn.”
A consistent feature of Flinn’s campaign, belonging to both phases, was his incessant demand for a one-on-one debate with Cohen. It has long been a standard ploy in American politics for a challenger going up against an incumbent to call for debates — for the obvious reason that such one-on-one encounters are thought to confer a de facto equality on the participants and expand public awareness of the (usually) lesser-known non-incumbent.
The corollary to this is usually an incumbent’s reluctance — or outright refusal — to cooperate and take the bait, even when provoked. As it happened, there were only two close encounters of any kind between Cohen and Flinn. The first had come when both turned out for an all-candidate forum at Kirby Pines Retirement Home and threw barbs at each other during their times at the dais, Flinn repeating his demand for debate and Cohen stating his refusal until the challenger might release his income tax returns (because “we’ve got to know what millionaires pay on their returns.”)
The next real encounter between the two occured in the last week of the campaign when both were campaigning at the Anointed Temple of Praise early-voting site. A Cohen supporter on hand at the church snapped photos of Flinn within the 100-foot distance from the pollng site permitted by state law and made them public. Flinn responded that he had gone beyond the line a) to use the facility’s bathroom; and (b) to try to get in line so as to cast his own vote. (A skeptical security guard at the site had maneuvered Flinn back across the line.)
One can only wonder what might have transpired if the candidates had actually debated. As an over-achiever in two fields -- as physician and as broadcast tycoon -- Flinn was obviously no slouch. But Cohen — an accomplished veteran of the state Senate before winning his House seat in 2006 — clearly had more political experience,and more knowledge of policy (Congressional policy, in particular). He was, moreover, a polemical warrior of real grit, as witness this response to Flinn’s mounting calls for debate:
“He’d be prime pickings,” Cohen said. “He knows nothing about Congress. He has no clue. He’s vulnerable on every subject.”
The point would remain moot.
Meanwhile, the less noticed race in the adjoining 8th Congressional District between incumbent Republican Stephen Fincher and Timothy Dixon had a similar outcome to Cohen-Flinn, Fincher winning by 78,434 to 26,607.
Though there were spirited contests for aldermanic and school board seats in the suburban municipalities, there were few races of more than parochial significance on the landscape for Shelby County. The legislative battles — which, after a GOP-overseen reapportionment, were mainly cases of incumbent Democrats competing with each other for the shrunken number of seats available to them — had already taken place during the August primary season.
A U.S.Senate seat was up for grabs in Tennessee — the same one that, in 2006, had seen a black Memphis Democrat, Harold Ford Jr., who tilted center-right, run neck and neck with a moderate Chattanooga Republican, Bob Corker. In 2012, Corker, the victor in that race and now the incumbent, leaned perceptibly further to the right and was all but unopposed in the general election, with the Democratic nomination having gone to a previously unknown non-entity whose views were regarded as so retrograde that the party whose banner he inherited officially disavowed him. (In Shelby County, though, the Democratic Party label was enough to pull that outlier candidate,one Mark Clayton, through.)
It seemed a forgone conclusion that Republicans would have commanding super-majorities in both legislative chambers — with a supposition of at least 75 of the 99 seats in the state House of Representatives and a minimum of 24 of the 33 state Senate seat. In the long run, the much-remarked “browning of America” seemed destined to create a reliable Democratic majority — so long, anyhow, as Republicanism might remain at the service of white traditionalism or allow itself to be a throwback force.
In the short run, and perhaps even in the long, that scenario of Democrats eventually prevailing had little relevance to Tennessee, nor to most of the South, which had once been relentlessly Democratic, but only for the 100 years or so between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights era, during the long-lapsed era when that party’s national coalition made a place for separate-but-equal pretensions below the Mason-Dixon line.
In a curious way, Southern white populism had shifted its allegiance from an ever-more multi-culturalist Democratic Party to a Republican Party which raised the standard of fixed “values,” and in the process its cadres became no longer the defenders of government but the adversaries of it. Jim Crow had yielded to John Galt.
Or whatever. If the election of 2012 had, on the presidential level, been a down-to-the-wire contest with a cliffhanger outcome and an uncertain prospectus, the results closer to home seemed clear enough. While diversity might prevail in unexpected ways — the Memphis City Council’s recent espousal of rights for gay, lesbian, and transgendered employees being a case in point -- the suburbs’ determined drive to create municipal school systems underscored the fact of a resolute and intractable separatism.
In both local and national spheres, the specter of gridlock haunted the process. In Washington, the symbol of all that was the Senate filibuster — invoked nearly 200 times by Republicans, even against Obama-sponsored bills of limited significance.
In Memphis and Shelby County, nothing typified the dysfunction of divided government so much as the County Commission’s inability, seven months past the December 31st deadline, to agree on reapportioning itself — a failure that, in turn, seems to have caused the Shelby County Election Commission to have dragged its feet on fitting precincts to ballots for the August election. And that delay appears to have been the proximate cause of some 3,000-plus wrong ballots, an electoral snafu that, on top of complications relating to Tennessee’s photo-ID law, has fostered serious distrust of the political system itself.
In any case, what was it Yogi Berra said? “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” If it ever really is.