Mandate. Mandate. Mandate.
It’s still all sinking in. Three States in the old Confederacy in the Democratic column for a black President. Striking distance from cloture in the Senate. A Republican Party stuck in clichéd states like “disarray” and “the Wilderness”. Huge voter turnout. And then there’s that single electoral vote in Nebraska. Absolutely fabulous. Am I happy? Yes, the grumpy, skeptical old man here is actually happy. And I’m not alone.
It’s a bit creepy, but nonetheless understandable that people are posting webcam footage of themselves crying with joy and elation. Jon Stewart was only half kidding- people do seem genuinely happier post-election, at least in the half of the country that wasn’t ever on board with the Bush-Rove experiment. There is dancing, literally and figuratively, in the streets.
But not so fast, blue America. Here come the killjoys. Beginning on election night, the punditocracy took to the airwaves to declare that, historic as it was, November 4th should not be seen as a mandate for “liberal” ideology, or even for Democrats as a Party. The country, their argument goes, did not shift to the left. Just like the “market”, another useful fiction, the “electorate” simply corrected itself, making up for an unwholesome shift to the right led by overzealous ideologues in the Republican Party. After all, voters passed homophobic ballot measures alongside Obama, and the Democrats only picked up a “few” seats in Congress. President-elect Obama is a pragmatist, not a progressive (as if these two things are mutually exclusive), and look- he’s appointing insiders and moderates to key positions.
This argument would hold some water if John McCain and Sarah Palin had run a different campaign. But they didn’t. Aside from their desperate ad hominem attacks in the final weeks, the Republican standard bearers made this election a referendum on Reaganomics. They did precisely what I had hoped our side would do, what Obama has always seemed unwilling to do himself. By responding to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression with a strict diet of anti-government platitudes (somewhat muddled at times, to be sure), McCain and especially Palin gave Obama a tremendous opportunity to put a basic and clear choice to the American people. To his credit, Obama did a masterful job of underlining that choice, of articulating a decisive break with the tired approaches of the past. Significantly, he criticized the blind worship of the “free market” on display in both parties. Then those same people gave him as strong and clear an answer one could hope for. Sorry folks, they gave him a mandate.
You can’t label your opponent’s proposals as radical, redistributionist, even “socialist” on Monday, and then when he wins on Tuesday say that people really didn’t vote for a real shift in economic policy. The exit polls are clear- people are ready to finally bury Milton Freedman. The only question is whether Obama will really get out the shovel.
Given, no mandate is a blank check. The expanded Democratic base is more socially conservative, more working class and even blacker and browner than it would have been with a smaller victory. That raises challenges for those of us who are as committed to social equality as we are to economic justice. But to argue that because we lost on gay rights in three states means that Obama should be cautious on health care, financial regulation or job creation is just plain duplicitous. Any majority to be built in a nation as large and diverse as the United States will be riddled with contradictions. I’m happy to have to deal with those contradictions if it means cutting into the Republican coalition.
The big question now, however, is whether January 21st Obama will be as bold as November 4th Obama was in seizing the opportunities given him by an economic crisis and the collapse of support for conservative policy frameworks. The last Democratic President had a similar, if less dramatic set of opportunities. It was the economy and health care in 1992 as well. Let’s hope it’s November 4th Obama and not the stack of Clintonistas piling up around him that will take the reins in January.
Etiketter: Presidential Politics