The Day After the Election

Perpetual partisan strife is the rule, not the exception, in American politics. So get ready for the fight to go—and on.

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Brian Cahn / ZUMA PRESS

With just two days left before the 2012 presidential election, volunteers gather at Obama for America's Las Vegas Flamingo East headquarters before fanning out across Las Vegas to canvass for President Obama and other down-ballot Democrats on Nov. 04, 2012

The day after is at hand. Unless something unusual happens, by Wednesday morning the presidential election of 2012 will be over. In the popular mind, the end of a campaign signals the beginning of a new phase in public life — often quite explicitly, from the New Deal to the New Frontier to the Reagan Revolution. Such points of departure, though, are the exceptions, not the rules in American politics. In fact, what does the conclusion of a campaign really signify in a nation that has almost always considered politics a perennial exercise?

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If history is any guide, whoever prevails on Tuesday is likely to face an ongoing partisan assault. In an 1816 letter musing on the nature of politics, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Where every man is a sharer in the direction” of politics, then he “feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.” A Scottish visitor to Albany, New York, in the late 1820s noted an American love of what he called “the spirit of electioneering, which seems to enter as an essential agreement into the composition of everything.” A Democratic Senator in the Age of Jackson remarked, “The large masses act in politics pretty much as they do in religion. Every doctrine is with them, more or less, a matter of faith; received, principally, on account of their trust in the apostle.” And religious fervor does not always precisely follow the electoral calendar.

Traditional sentiments about “mandates” or “honeymoons” tend to be just that: sentiments, not realities. There is likely to be immediate talk about curbing a re-elected Obama’s influence or of creating an implacable Democratic opposition to a newly elected Romney.

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Yes, averting the fiscal cliff will require great efforts at bipartisanship, as will creating an economic climate conducive to growth. The task of presidential leadership in such an hour is difficult but not impossible. In a way, the art of leading in the aftermath of the election is as complex if not more so than winning the election. The work of the day after, then, offers no respite — quite the opposite.