Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Potential Progressive Mandate

The Potential Progressive Mandate


By David Sirota

Denver Post's PoliticsWest

October 28,2008


In the final weeks of this campaign, John McCain has been telling America that this is a contest between his own neo-Reaganism and Barack Obama's supposed socialism. And the result is McCain not only losing ground in traditional blue states, but also in traditional red states like Colorado.


Obama, of course, is no socialist - far from it (and I've worked for Congress's only self-described socialist, so I have some firsthand idea of what a socialist is and isn't). And his aides, like Cass Sunstein in today's New Republic, are defensively making that point all over the place. But, as I told Larry King, that doesn't really matter in the shaping of a mandate - what matters is the choice the voters are being told they are making when they walk into the voting booth. And the one thing Republicans have done well in this campaign is portray this election as contest between two differing governing philosophies.


In that success, of course, the Right has set up a McCain defeat not merely as a loss for one candidate in one election, but a larger rejection of conservatism itself. As The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote:


    "It might be dangerous for the Republican Party to

    elevate the stakes for this election to a death

    match between competing ideologies. If Barack

    Obama's victory is as decisive as it is shaping up

    to be, the Democrats can justifiably claim that

    conservatism itself has been rejected as a

    political and governing philosophy. In the closing

    weeks of the campaign, as the Republican ticket

    continues to run against the very idea of

    progressive politics, they are sowing the seeds of

    the post-election realignment narrative...Obama has

    been talking about the larger GOP governing

    philosophy for a while now, but until recently, the

    race hasn't seemed like as much of a referendum on

    Republicanism; it's been more of a referendum on

    the Bush years. What changed? The GOP went all in

    on an ideological war."


Put another way, progressives may have very substantive concerns with some of Obama's positions on issues like NAFTA, the bailout, etc., and the media may cite polls showing many Americans don't call themselves "liberal" - but because the GOP has framed the election on such extreme ideological grounds, the mandate that would come out of an Obama win would be way more progressive than Obama's own policy platform. It would be as progressive on many issues as the public already is (despite whether people call themselves "liberal" or "conservative").


This is the point of a new Institute for America's Future Op-Ad in today's New York Times, which you can see here:


It is the same the point I and Bill Scher made in a series of dispatches last week about how McCain, in making the election a referendum on Reagan conservatism,  is creating a larger and more expansive economic mandate for a potential President Obama than Obama himself ever aspired to create for himself (though granted, Obama has occasionally put the race in ideological terms). In short, John McCain's message during the stretch run is creating a mandate that - if Obama wins - makes America safe if not for full-fledged socialism, then at the very least, for aggressive progressivism.


Whether a President Obama would seize that mandate is an open question - though one far less important than the more bottom-up question of whether that mandate would embolden the progressive movement to pressure a President Obama to reach farther than his own more incrementalist impulses may initially lead him to reach.


Our national religion may be presidentialism (ie. the worship of presidents as gods who hand down change to the masses), but American politics has always been the other way around. Electoral mandates create popular pressure and expectations that force presidents to embrace the change they may never have embraced. That


McCain is forging this mandate for a President Obama is certainly ironic - but it's also an undeniable reality.


*The word "potential" will be removed if Obama wins on Tuesday. At that point, it WILL be a progressive mandate.


Order David Sirota's brand new book The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street & Washington. The book was just released in June of 2008. A logical follow-up to his 2006 New York Times bestseller Hostile Takeover, Sirota's new book uses firsthand, on-the-ground reporting far away from the national media spotlight to explore the most intense and successful organizing at the edges of American politics. To pre-order the book, go to Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Powell's Bookstore. To subscribe to Sirota's regular newsletter, go to and sign up on the left hand side.


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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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