PI Original Adam Doster Tuesday March 25th, 2008, 11:31am

Obama's Governing Majority

Robin Toner's piece "Obama's Test" in The New York Times today investigates one of the most pressing intra-party debates of this primary season:

To achieve the change the country wants, he [Barack Obama] says, “we need a leader who can finally move beyond ...

Robin Toner's piece "Obama's Test" in The New York Times today investigates one of the most pressing intra-party debates of this primary season:

To achieve the change the country wants, he [Barack Obama] says, “we need a leader who can finally move beyond the divisive politics of Washington and bring Democrats, independents and Republicans together to get things done.”

But this promise leads, inevitably, to a question: Can such a [governing] majority be built and led by Mr. Obama, whose voting record was, by one ranking, the most liberal in the Senate last year?

Putting the methodological problems of the National Journal rankings aside, it's an incisive question. For decades, the prevailing Democratic understanding of political realignment presupposes that to attract enough moderate voters to build a majority coalition, parties and campaigns must present themselves as centrists willing to buck liberal orthodoxy when appropriate. It's a naturally defensive position, one amplified in the Clinton years thanks to a hostile press, the Gingrich Republican Revolution, and the Ken Starr fiasco.

But as Toner writes, Obama is rejecting assumptions that the electorate is static. Instead, the country has shifted left, and he's ready to capitalize on it:

Many of Mr. Obama’s supporters say he has recognized this new political climate in a way that Mrs. Clinton has not. They say he is ready for a new, self-assured era in which progressives (few have returned to using the word “liberal”) make no apologies about their goals — universal health care, withdrawing troops from Iraq, ending tax breaks for more affluent Americans — and assume that a broad swath of the public shares them.

Naturally, Clinton backers and New Democrats think Obama is bluffing. “It’s a great promise,” Clinton strategist Mark Penn told Toner. “But are the actions consistent with the words? I don’t see it.” Polling suggests the opposite. Large majorities disapprove not only of President Bush's handling of the war but of his initial decision to invade. By a 7-1 margin, Americans think the government should extend incentives to subsidize the development of renewable energy technologies. Two-thirds say the federal government should guarantee that all Americans have health insurance. Majorities across partisan and ideological lines oppose blanket warrants and more civil liberties.

Obama seems to embrace Thomas Frank's thesis -- there's a majority in this country that shares progressive goals and is open to progressive solutions but is turned off to Democrats by culture war stereotypes. And unlike Clinton, he is looking to adjust. If he's elected, it's the job of progressives to make sure he does so.

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