Barack Obama made history last night, delivering progressives our first transformative national election victory since 1964. As I predicted on November 3
, Obama won the former red states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Strong Latino support brought Obama easy victories in the latter three states, though the media continues to ignore this constituency’s impact on shifting U.S. politics to the left. All the pundits who insisted that Obama could not attract “white working class voters” should have eaten crow following Obama’s early victory calls in Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as his win in Virginia and likely North Carolina. For those who endured Richard Nixon’s landmark political realignment in the 1968 election and Ronald Reagan’s equally painful 1980 victory, last night was our chance to experience the thrill of victory instead of the agony of defeat. But as Obama said in his victory speech, this election only creates the opportunity for change—activists must stay committed to ensure it happens.
Last night was my first chance to experience the joy of strongly supporting a winning presidential candidate. Most progressives under age 69 (those eligible to vote for Jack Kennedy) feel similarly, with few having gotten very excited about Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
Despite believing for several months that Obama would both win an electoral college landslide and realign national politics, it was still stunning to see him speaking as our next President. And I was struck, as many no doubt were, that he used his victory speech not to simply thank supporters and generate cheers, but to instead announce that the push for change has only begun with his election.
A Mandate for Progressive Change
Since Barack Obama’s campaign offered an unprecedented level of policy specificity, he takes office in January with some very clear mandates. These include enacting his health care plan, tax plan, energy independence agenda, and the economic stimulus package that he has worked upon with Congressional leaders.
Only the latter plan was not part of Obama’s specific commitment to voters. The first three are all longstanding features of the progressive agenda, and Obama has insisted that their enactment will not be deferred by the nation’s economic woes.
But it was already clear on Election Night that Republicans and many pundits do not see the sweeping victory of a candidate who was portrayed as a Socialist, and as the most liberal member of the Senate, as a mandate for progressive change.
I have long argued that one of Barack Obama’s great advantages over most politicians is that he does not let pundits shape his agenda. And I expect nothing different from him as President.
But many progressives worry about what traditional media pundits say, so it is worth noting that talk was plentiful last night about how Obama must govern from “the center” in order to maintain his popularity.
If Obama’s platform now represents “the center” in American politics, than by all means he should govern from that position. But what CNN’s Bill Bennett and others were claiming is that Obama now must “stand up” to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, to allegedly prevent the Democrats from “self-destructing” by moving too far to the left.
In other words, when Nixon and Reagan won transformative victories, pundits told Democrats to accept that voters want a more conservative direction. In fact, Democrats who opposed Reagan’s notorious 1981 “trickle down” tax cuts were accused of being virtual traitors to the Republic.
But now pundits want Obama to reject the progressive platform that brought the Democrats their biggest victory in over forty years. And since they succeeded in getting Bill Clinton to drop his “Putting People First” campaign agenda even prior to his taking office, they are going to try to do the same with Obama.
So the fight over the meaning of the November 2008 election has already begun, and progressives better be ready.
A Center-Right Nation?
Karl Rove, who has not gotten enough credit for political strategies that helped make Democrats’ landslide victories in 2006 and 2008 possible, had a telling line last night on FOX News. While he was announcing that Obama had won Virginia, and was well on his way to a landslide, Bush’s campaign chief insisted that the United States remained a “center-right” nation.
Rove is not the first to make this point in recent weeks, and a video of pundits pushing this analysis can be found here
. But before anyone buys into this view, consider the following:
When one Party won major gains in Congress in 1964, 1980, and 1992, the voters reversed course in the next midterm election. The last time the nation had seen successive major gains in Congress by the same Party was in 1932 and 1934.
Until last night. After winning control of the House and Senate in 2006, Democrats in 2008 greatly added to their numbers and also won the White House.
Why would a center-right nation not only reaffirm the allegedly left-wing leadership of Pelosi and Reid, but then expand their power by giving a landslide to Barack Obama?
After nearly forty years of an ascending conservative political movement, it is understandable that Rove and many pundits are now in deep denial. But the voters are demanding progressive change, and it is incumbent upon all those who made phone calls and/or traveled to other states to take a break, get refreshed and then plunge back into transforming a victory at the polls into policies and programs that set the nation on a new course.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the newly released, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)