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What do we do now?”
That’s the question Bill McKay (Robert Redford), ponders in The Candidate (1972). He won the presidency, promising “a better way.” After Nov. 4, America is asking Democrats the same haunting question.
These are heady times for the party of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and, now, President-elect Barack Obama. Only a few years ago, Democrats were almost relegated to permanent minority status by a “Mission Accomplished” sign and an ass in a flight suit.
But since President Bush’s 2004 re-election, Democrats have gained at least 50 House seats, 12 Senate seats, seven state houses and seven governorships.
Republicans used the threat of “socialism” to turn the 2008 campaign into a referendum on conservatism. The result? Democrats notched their highest percentage of the popular vote since 1964 – when Lyndon B. Johnson won in one of the most lopsided elections in U.S. history.
After two years and more than half a billion dollars worth of ads, the pulverizing election came down to a steel-cage match that pitted rivals against each other – and not Immigrants versus Natives, Americans versus Foreigners or Whites versus Blacks. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama made the race’s final weeks a proxy war between two presidential icons who still loom large: Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.
McCain promised to follow Reagan, “in his tradition and in his footsteps.” He vilified Obama as a 1930s-era “socialist” looking to “redistribute wealth.”
Obama countered by invoking Roosevelt’s speeches and depicting the financial meltdown as “the final verdict” on McCain’s “failed philosophy” (that is, Reaganism).
Mind you, neither candidate fully personified these predecessors. Obama’s moderate record is not FDR’s quasi-socialism, and McCain renounced some of his Reagan-inspired dogma.
And each had their inconsistencies. Obama criticized the “failed philosophy” of Reagan conservatism, while infusing some of his own tax prescriptions with such conservatism. McCain, for his part, attacked Obama’s “socialism” after voting for the bank bailout bill – the most aggressive market intervention by government in contemporary American history.
But all that was less significant than how the duo framed the election. They both effectively said that a vote for McCain is a vote to continue Reagan’s trickle-down tax cuts and free-market fundamentalism, and a vote for Obama is a vote to resurrect Roosevelt’s regulations and redistributions. And because this choice was made so clear – because voters knew exactly what they were voting for – Obama, with his 6 percent margin of victory in the popular vote, has a huge mandate to implement his progressive vision.
That’s why conservatives are so worried.
They understand cause and effect: As McCain doubled down on the right’s economic catechism, Obama surged. Capturing traditional Gipper territories like Colorado, Indiana and Virginia, the Rooseveltian Socialist beat out Reagan Reincarnate.
Yet to this, conservatives responded with a pre-emptive “nah, nah, can’t hear you!”
They contended that despite the Obama victory, this is still a center-right nation. Indeed, this poll-tested term – “center-right nation” – has become one of the Punditburo’s most ubiquitous Orwellian buzzwords.
From a Newsweek cover story by conservative dittohead Jon Meacham to a Wall Street Journal screed by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan to a Politico.com diatribe by former Rudy Giuliani aide John Avlon, the “center-right nation” phrase was parroted with the discipline of Cuba’s Ministry of Information.
According to a Lexis-Nexis search of news articles and transcripts, “center-right nation” became the talking point du jour in the lead up to Election Day.
But is there any proof that America is a center-right nation? Republicans cite polls that show more Americans call themselves conservative than liberal. While that data point certainly measures brand name, those same surveys undermine the right’s larger argument because they show majorities support progressive positions on most economic issues.
Because the Bush era finely tuned America’s BS detector, repetition and revisionism can no longer cloak reality.
Prior to the election, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote that because the Republicans have “run against the very idea of progressive politics,” a McCain loss in such an ideologically polarized contest means that “Democrats can justifiably claim that conservatism itself has been rejected.”
Obama talks of forming a bipartisan cabinet, but his election wasn’t a public cry for milquetoast government-by-blue-ribbon-commission. It was, as community organizer Deepak Bhargava puts it, an ideological mandate that created “an opening for transformational, progressive change.”
This opening is predicated on Democrats possessing the kind of great power that Spider-Man creator Stan Lee warns comes with “great responsibility” – a political euphemism for high expectations.
While the party gained in strength, it lost a GOP scapegoat that once justified Democratic hyper-caution (read: inaction). On the huge issues – whether re-regulating Wall Street, reforming trade, solving the healthcare emergency or ending the Iraq War – America demands success, and Democrats in 2009 will have no one to blame for failure but themselves. After all, with 349 electoral votes (as In These Times went to press), a President Obama cannot credibly claim he lacks the political capital to legislatively steamroll a humiliated Republican Party and its remaining senators.
The same goes for Democrats at all governmental levels. Meeting expectations requires them to champion far-reaching – dare we say, radical – solutions.
That was always this election’s unspoken theme. Despite lipsticked pigs, Joe the Plumber and Superbowl-sized candidate events, the 2008 campaign pivoted on a single, hope-flavored choice: America had to decide between continued conservative rule and a progressive agenda as far-reaching as the crises we face. McCain himself said, “The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.”
To rise to that call, Democrats will have to abandon their worst habits.
They must, for instance, acknowledge the progressive mandate the voters demanded, rather than downplay expectations like Sen. Harry Reid (D‑Nev.) did immediately after the election. “This is not a mandate for a political party or an ideology,” he fearfully told reporters.
They might also consider retiring the Innocent Bystander Fable – the dishonest storyline that claims they cannot change anything. Democrats cited the fable as the reason the Iraq War continued following the 2006 election – expecting Americans to ignore Congress’ authority to halt war funding.
In late October, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D‑N.Y.) lamented: “There’s not much we can do” to amend the failed bank bailout. Such continued mendacity will metastasize from boringly banal lies into scathing punch-lines on late-night comedy shows.
Most importantly, Democrats will need to ignore revisionists who say President Clinton’s early foibles prove the failure of “governing in a way that is, or seems, skewed to the left,” as the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus claims.
The true story is far different – and more foreboding.
Recounting the real history to Politico.com, a Republican lobbyist noted that Clinton tacked right, “co-opt[ing] a portion of the business community” and championing conservative policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement, and thereby demoralized his base, helping Republicans take Congress.
The success of Obama’s two-year campaign highlights America’s disdain for precisely that kind of invertebracy and triangulation. This election first saw voters reject Clinton-style incrementalism, and then scorn McCain’s Reaganism. That means the Democrats best answer to Bill McKay’s question “what do we do now?” is a similarly simple answer: Go big.
That is not merely the better way – it is the only way.
Obama has a mandate for the kind of “direct, vigorous action” Roosevelt called for in his 1933 inaugural address. Should a President Obama try to capitalize on it, he will have nothing to fear but fear itself.
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