11/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Potential Progressive Mandate*

I appeared on CNN's Larry King Live last night to discuss both the state of the campaign here in the swing state of Colorado, and the potential for a massive progressive election mandate on Tuesday. You can watch the clip here.

In the final weeks of this campaign, John McCain has been telling America that this is a contest between his own neo-Reaganism and Barack Obama's supposed socialism. And the result is McCain not only losing ground in traditional blue states, but also in traditional red states like Colorado.

Obama, of course, is no socialist - far from it (and I've worked for Congress's only self-described socialist, so I have some firsthand idea of what a socialist is and isn't). And his aides, like Cass Sunstein in today's New Republic, are defensively making that point all over the place. But, as I told Larry King, that doesn't really matter in the shaping of a mandate - what matters is the choice the voters are being told they are making when they walk into the voting booth. And the one thing Republicans have done well in this campaign is portray this election as contest between two differing governing philosophies.

In that success, of course, the Right has set up a McCain defeat not merely as a loss for one candidate in one election, but a larger rejection of conservatism itself. As The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote:

"It might be dangerous for the Republican Party to elevate the stakes for this election to a death match between competing ideologies. If Barack Obama's victory is as decisive as it is shaping up to be, the Democrats can justifiably claim that conservatism itself has been rejected as a political and governing philosophy. In the closing weeks of the campaign, as the Republican ticket continues to run against the very idea of progressive politics, they are sowing the seeds of the post-election realignment narrative...Obama has been talking about the larger GOP governing philosophy for a while now, but until recently, the race hasn't seemed like as much of a referendum on Republicanism; it's been more of a referendum on the Bush years. What changed? The GOP went all in on an ideological war." (emphasis added)

Put another way, progressives may have very substantive concerns with some of Obama's positions on issues like NAFTA, the bailout, etc., and the media may cite polls showing many Americans don't call themselves "liberal" - but because the GOP has framed the election on such extreme ideological grounds, the mandate that would come out of an Obama win would be way more progressive than Obama's own policy platform. It would be as progressive on many issues as the public already is (despite whether people call themselves "liberal" or "conservative").

This is the point of a new Institute for America's Future Op-Ad in today's New York Times. It is the same the point I and Bill Scher made in a series of dispatches last week (here, here, here and here) about how McCain, in making the election a referendum on Reagan conservatism, is creating a larger and more expansive economic mandate for a potential President Obama than Obama ever aspired to create for himself (though granted, Obama has occasionally put the race in ideological terms). In short, John McCain's message during the stretch run is creating a mandate that - if Obama wins - makes America safe if not for full-fledged socialism, then at the very least, for aggressive progressivism.

Whether a President Obama would seize that mandate is an open question - one far less important than the more bottom-up question of whether that mandate would embolden the progressive movement to pressure a President Obama to reach farther than his own more incrementalist impulses may initially lead him to reach.

Our national religion may be presidentialism (ie. the worship of presidents as gods who hand down change to the masses), but American politics has always been the other way around. Electoral mandates create popular pressure and expectations that force presidents to embrace the change they may never have embraced. That McCain is forging this mandate for a President Obama is certainly ironic - but it's also an undeniable reality.

*The word "potential" will be removed if Obama wins on Tuesday. At that point, it WILL be a progressive mandate.