In 1992 and in 2008, a young charismatic Democrat won the White House with a message of "hope" and "change" after years of Republican rule. Saying they wanted to change the culture in Washington, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each had an ambitious first-term agenda that included comprehensive health care reform (even though both proposals fell far short of what's really needed.) Despite overtures to bipartisanship, they faced a barrage of obstruction from the GOP -- who blamed the president when nothing got done. In 1994 and in 2010, Republicans took control of Congress -- with a crop of right-wingers hell-bent on starving the public sector.
We all know what Clinton then did to secure his re-election. He brought on consultant Dick Morris, who advised him that "swing voters" wanted to keep a Republican Congress -- so he pursued a strategy of triangulation. The first Democratic president in my lifetime boasted the "era of big government is over," and ended the federal government's 60-year safety net for poor people. Clinton co-opted the Republicans on so many issues, that Bob Dole had nothing to campaign on. He easily won re-election, but Republicans kept Congress -- and liberals were depressed.
But here's where the story changes. When Bill Clinton betrayed progressives on issues like welfare repeal, he was sacrificing principle for political expediency -- but it was also the "popular" thing to do. While despicable, at least a Machiavellian mind could argue he co-opted Republicans to take the issue off the table -- robbing them the opportunity of a wedge issue. When Obama caved on the Bush tax cuts, he did something despicable and unpopular.
What's remarkable about these moves are not just that they are "liberal," and would please the president's base -- when he should be worried about moderate "swing" voters. But they are also politically popular, a wise move as he faces re-election in November. More than 50 percent of Americans now support gay marriage, and a whopping 64 percent supported his move on immigrant youth -- to the point that it's put Mitt Romney in an awkward situation.
Obama's re-election team now understands that pleasing progressives will help his re-election, which could not be a more welcome contrast with Bill Clinton's re-election strategy in 1996.
For the past four decades, Democrats and progressives have been haunted by the ghost of George McGovern, which has poisoned every political discussion. Don't be "too liberal," we are warned, because we might lose those voters in the "middle" -- because after all, America is a "center-right" country. Not only does this temper the enthusiasm of progressives, but it also excuses every time a Democratic politician betrays us on a policy matter. The message is also extremely demoralizing -- it tells the Left that we are "small" and "powerless," so we should sit down, shut up and let the "grownups" who know what they're doing just govern this nation.
But here's the catch. We are not a center-right country, and Obama has learned that to side with progressives is now the popular thing to do. As he faces re-elction, Obama will not co-opt Republican issues to win the Bubba vote in Missouri and West Virginia -- but has realized that America's new political base is the fast-growing Latino vote in swing states like Colorado and Nevada, the secular "creative class" in Virginia and North Carolina's Research Triangle and young people who have not bothered to vote since 2008. That is the political center.
And it bodes well for progressives, empowering us as we push the president in his second term.