We seem to be coming out of the conservative era in American politics that was first glimpsed with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and zenithed with the elections of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Since George McGovern’s overwhelming defeat in 1972, Democratic candidates for president have all acknowledged the tide was against them. Mondale and Dukakis claimed they refused to apologize for being liberals, while apologizing. Carter and Clinton insisted they weren’t liberals at all, and Clinton really didn’t govern like one, achieving all his successes through triangulating the activist wings of both parties. The continued strength of the conservative current was demonstrated in 2000 and 2004 when a deeply flawed candidate, George W. Bush, managed to put his two sharper, smarter opponents on the defensive, forcing them into mistake after mistake.
This election season feels different. I guess we’ll find out soon enough, but I think the country is readier for a sharp left turn than at any time since the last liberal era began in 1932. In 2008, I think you could get a lot of people to agree there are “malefactors of great wealth” to use FDR’s great phrase. The economic issues that cut the deepest are aimed directly at industries and individuals who seem to have taken advantage of this country to accumulate their wealth, to the detriment of middle class people. The insurance companies. Big pharma. The oil companies. Mortgage brokerages. Hedge fund managers. The presidents of financial institutions who make disasterous investments then drift away, carrying with both arms duffel bags full of severance money.
The picture of unfettered capitalism painted by the most prominent capitalists on the business scene is not a pretty one. It was said the magic of the market would benefit all of us. Lately, it hasn’t, so the conservative warnings against the damage high taxes do to the economy ring hollow. Politically, it would seem to be a perfect time for a political movement attacking capitalism — in the American formulation, the “excesses” of capitalism. We don’t really have an intellectually coherent Left in this country in the 19th-century European sense. But we do have a political location where capitalism’s disappointed, disaffected and disgusted can unite — the Democratic Party.
And, they are about to nominate the most unapolegetically liberal candidate since McGovern in Barack Obama. In doing so, they are specifically rejecting a continuation of the successful Clinton legacy. Today’s Democrats largely no longer find Clinton’s reign to be such a success. Oh, it’s tied in with his and her ethical problems, but even his pure policy plays were either more wins for conservatism (welfare reform, NAFTA), symbolic changes in a liberal direction (the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows workers to take time off to care for a sick child — at their own expense), or big flops (do I need to remind anyone about health care?).
If you believe Obama, his administration will bring back liberalism in a big way.
Do you believe him? Check that: I’m not doubting his sincerity. I think he wants an activist government to create greater security for middle-class voters. My question is: If he wins, will he be able to pull it off? Will he take advantage of Democratic majorities in both houses (something Clinton had, but squandered after just two years) and get health care reform passed? Will he really go after the oil companies and mortgage companies?
Or is that going to be impossible?
This is what I’m dying to find out. Have the pitiless realities of the global economy rendered liberalism obsolete? Can Milton Friedman be repealed?
I sense the American voters are anxious to find out. They’d like to believe — “yes we can” — that we can use the tools of government to construct a fairer, more secure, more democratic and more sustainable economy than the one we have now. Will that belief survive the first two years of an Obama Administration?
If so, Obama could be the next FDR. But does that seem realistic to you?
P.S. I realize McCain is still close in the polls and might win. He’s got the national security issue about as locked up as a candidate can, and his domestic-policy views are closer to liberalism than any Republican has tried for decades. He’s not to be written off by any means. If this election is about homeland security and national defense, he wins.
Or: He wins if the American public decides it isn’t ready to revive liberalism.
Or: He wins if the American public concludes Obama doesn’t have enough experience to back up his promises.