It could be a start -- a clear national rejection of the extreme right-wing brew that has saturated the executive branch for nearly eight years.
What's emerging for Election Day is a common front against the dumbed-down demagoguery that's now epitomized and led by John McCain and Sarah Palin.
A large margin of victory over the McCain-Palin ticket, repudiating what it stands for, is needed -- and absolutely insufficient. It's a start along a long uphill climb to get this country onto a course that approximates sanity.
McCain's only real hope is to achieve the election equivalent of drawing an inside straight -- capturing the electoral votes of some key swing states by slim margins. His small window of possible victory is near closing. Progressives should help to slam it shut.
Like it or not, the scale of a national rejection of McCain-Palin and Bush would be measured -- in terms of state power and perceived political momentum -- along a continuum that ranges from squeaker to landslide. It's in the interests of progressives for the scale to be closer to landslide than squeaker.
As McCain's strategists aim to thread an electoral-vote needle, it cannot be said with certainty that they will fail. Who can credibly declare that an aggregate of anti-democratic factors -- such as purged voting rolls, onerous requirements for voter ID, imposed obstacles to voting that target people of color, inequities in distribution of voting machines, not counting some votes as they are cast, anti-Obama racism and other factors -- could not combine to bring a "victory" resulting in a President McCain and a Vice President Palin come Jan. 20, 2009?
Under these circumstances, the wider the real margin for Obama over McCain, the less likely that McCain can claim sufficient electoral votes to become president.
Progressives are mostly on board with the Obama campaign, even though -- on paper, with his name removed -- few of his positions deserve the "progressive" label. We shouldn't deceive ourselves into seeing Obama as someone he's not. Yet an Obama presidency offers the possibilities that persistent organizing and coalition-building at the grassroots could be effective at moving national policy in a progressive direction. In contrast, a McCain presidency offers possibilities that are extremely grim.
Some progressives, as a matter of principle, have come to a different conclusion. They're eager to cast their votes for a presidential candidate (Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney) who can't win.
Of course people's votes are entirely their own, to do with as they see fit. But the right to do something is distinct from the wisdom of doing it.
Last week, a mass email from the Nader for President 2008 campaign began by telling supporters: "Ralph Nader is at 5 percent in The Show Me State -- Missouri. And he's moving up. That's according to the most recent CNN/Time Missouri poll." The celebratory tone of the message was notable. Nader was polling at 5 percent in a crucial swing state -- where polls showed that McCain and Obama were in a dead heat. No wonder, on the same day as the email message, McCain spoke at rallies in suburbs of St. Louis and Kansas City.
Nader's potential effect on the election may be too small to increase the chances of a McCain victory. But from all indications, even if McCain and Obama were tied in polls across the country, the Nader campaign would be proceeding as it is now. What does that tell us about the logic of pressing forward with a vanguard approach even if it might serve the interests of right-wing forces that most progressives are straining to roll back in this election?
From the 1960s through the '90s, Ralph Nader had an unparalleled record of fighting for progressive reform. But the 2008 campaign of Nader and running-mate Matt Gonzalez has a frozen-in-time quality. Their campaign makes an electoral argument that focuses largely on Democrats, not Republicans. Much of Nader's pitch for votes is centering on the charge that Democrats are as corporate and compromised as ever -- and in many ways he's right. But he ignores the reality that Republican leaders keep getting worse and more right-wing; they are clearly more dangerous than many assumed a decade ago.
The historical trend is clear: Bush-Cheney have been further right and more reckless than even Newt Gingrich, who was further right than Ronald Reagan, who was further right than his Republican predecessors. And Palin speaks for herself.
My former co-author Jeff Cohen puts it this way: "Focusing on Democratic corruption is not the problem. The problem is developing an electoral strategy that fails to acknowledge how increasingly extremist Republicans are. It reminds me of that George Carlin joke: 'Here's a partial score from the West Coast -- Dodgers 5.' An electoral strategy has to assess the current positions of both teams."
At this point, is an Obama victory a cinch? Maybe not. Consider this New York Times reporting published on Oct. 24: "Pollsters say there has never been a year when polling has been so problematic, given the uncertainty of who is going to vote in what is shaping up as an electorate larger than ever. While most national polls give Mr. Obama a relatively comfortable lead, in many statewide polls, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain are much more closely matched. Even a small shift in the national number could deliver some of the closer states into the McCain camp, making an Electoral College victory at least possible."
In fact, it's possible that Obama could win a clear victory in the popular vote while McCain manages to claim enough electoral votes to move into the White House. Crucial to such an outcome would be Missouri (which, as the Times notes, "has been a bellwether in every White House race during the last century except 1956"). Is taking that risk worth the satisfaction of getting a couple percent of the vote for Ralph Nader for president in 2008?
The Nader campaign actually seems to be gunning for swing states in the stretch drive of the campaign, as if to maximize the chances that the Nader-Gonzalez ticket could be a factor in how the electoral votes end up being divided. Last week the Nader campaign announced that, beginning on Oct. 28, "Mr. Nader will make his final rounds campaigning in traditional swing states Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania."
All year, the Nader campaign has been asking rhetorical questions such as (in the words of an Oct. 22 press advisory): "Why is it that so-called liberals and progressives continue to support Democratic candidates like Obama whose campaign slogans and rhetoric do not match their stated positions and voting records?"
And: "Why do we progressives continue to delude ourselves that we stand for core, liberal values and then work for candidates who demonstrate that they have no commitment to these values?"
This fall, the answers to these largely valid questions revolve around a truth that trumps many others: A McCain-Palin administration would be such a disaster that we want to do what we can to prevent it.
When I've spoken to dozens of audiences during the two months since the Democratic National Convention (where I was an elected Obama delegate), there's been an overwhelmingly positive response when I make a simple statement about Obama and the prospects of an Obama presidency: "The best way to avoid becoming disillusioned is to not have illusions in the first place."
Looking past the election, progressives will need to mobilize for a comprehensive agenda including economic justice, guaranteed health care for all, civil liberties, environmental protection and demilitarization.
The forces arrayed against far-reaching progressive change are massive and unrelenting. If an Obama victory is declared next week, those forces will be regrouping in front of our eyes -- with right-wing elements looking for backup from corporate and pro-war Democrats. How much leverage these forces exercise on an Obama presidency would heavily depend on the extent to which progressives are willing and able to put up a fight.
It's a fight we should welcome.