For well over a year, I've had this recurring nightmare that the 2012 election would be a repeat of 1996 -- when Bill Clinton won re-election by adopting Republican policies and throwing progressives under a bus, leaving us absolutely nothing to hope for. When Barack Obama caved on the Bush tax cuts right in December 2010, and during the embarrassing debt ceiling fight in 2011, it certainly felt like history was indeed repeating itself. But a funny thing happened on the way to Obama's re-election. The progressive issues he ran on in 2008 were still popular, and not delivering would be a liability. So now the president has come out for marriage equality, and last week signed an executive order halting the deportation of DREAM Act-eligible youth -- which I would have thought unthinkable one year ago. Despite being "liberal" moves that please his base, everyone agrees that it was the politically smart thing to do for his re-election. Whereas Bill Clinton spent much of 1996 signing Welfare Repeal and the Defense of Marriage Act, Obama's actions will not only help his prospects in November -- but give progressives something to hope for in 2013.
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.
The aftermath of the 2010 election offered much of the same story. In what will go down as the low point of his presidency, Barack Obama capitulated on extending the Bush tax cuts -- and lamely argued that while the American public did not support keeping these tax cuts, he would do so anyway because the Republicans wouldn't budge. Democrats in Congress were furious, but Obama protested that this was the "public option fight all over again." The message was clear -- the Left was no longer a relevant part of his administration, and he would cut deals without them.
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.
Which is where Obama is today. Facing an "enthusiasm gap" among progressives and diligent advocacy from gay people and Latinos, the president made two bold moves in the past month. On May 9th, he endorsed marriage equality -- having shunned the opportunity to do so for years. And on June 15, eighteen months after the DREAM Act was filibustered in the Senate, he issued an executive order halting the deportation of DREAM-Act eligible youth. He did this after his administration had deported more undocumented immigrants than George Bush -- but it was well received.
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.
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.