The Substance Election

Bill Scher

It’s not the style. It’s the substance that dictated the outcome of the election, which gave Sen. Barack Obama a larger share of the popular vote than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton ever received.

The backdrop of this election has long been the comprehensive failure of conservative policies during the last eight years, and what “change” for those policies should mean.

Sen. Barack Obama responded not with an empty call for “change” but with a concrete vision for that change.

He spoke of “government” in a positive context more than any presidential candidate has in at least 20 years. He embraced a “FDR-style infrastructure building program.” He consistently placed energy independence as his top domestic priority, backing up the rhetoric with a plan of public investment to get it done. He said health care “should be a right for every American” during the town hall debate. He explicitly backed diplomatic engagement with Iran, support for democratic reform in Pakistan and beyond, along with a renewed military focus on Al Qaeda.

In doing so, Obama was taking positions supported by the liberal progressive base of the Democratic Party, but also held considerable support among self-described moderates.

Following the Democratic primary, Obama never needed to “pivot” significantly towards a mythical center. His core positions already represented the common ground shared by America’s progressive majority. In yesterday’s exit poll, voters expressed the desire for government to “do more” by an eight-point margin.

Much will be made of McCain’s “mistakes” in his campaign, as conservatives will surely seek to blame his (and Obama’s) performance for their shrinking minority status, to shift blame away from the failure of their own policies.

In fact, almost every mistake McCain made was not a personal failing, but was part of a futile yet necessary effort to bridge what had become a gulf between conservative base voters and moderate swing voters. After the utter failure of conservatism in every domestic and foreign policy area, there simply was no overlap left between the moderate and conservative camps, no overriding issue that could be the glue to hold together a center-right coalition.

McCain kept saying the “fundamentals of the economy are strong” to appeal to delusional conservatives, then awkwardly acknowledged we’re in “difficult times” to convince moderates he wasn’t delusional too.

McCain hastily picked a woefully unqualified and uninformed person to be his running mate because he lacked options for people who resonated with both base and swing, and Gov. Sarah Palin seemed to offer hope of energizing the base while reaching out to undecided women.

McCain delighted conservatives by attacking Obama as a “socialist,” which undermined his attempt to attract moderates by backing away from his record as a deregulator and proposing huge government involvement in the mortgage industry.

McCain’s erratic style may have made these flops seem particularly spectacular, but the deep rift created during the last eight years between conservatism and the rest of America was probably too big for even a polished candidate to overcome.

Obama’s tremendous skills helped navigate the difficult waters of racial politics and fend off an avalanche of smears. But all that did was return the race to its substantive fundamentals, made all the starker as the financial crisis put an exclamation point on the damage already wrought on our economy.

Figuring out how to repair the breach between conservatives and moderates is a problem for the conservative movement, not for us.

Our challenge is to turn the progressive mandate the public has given President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress into bold action. And that work starts … now.

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