The Democrats have gone all the way. They have nominated arguably the most left-wing major party presidential nominee ever, certainly the most left-wing since George McGovern.
Obama’s victory is a repudiation not just of the Clintons personally, but of Clintonism. Bill Clinton won the presidency based on the Democratic Leadership Council model of a new kind of Democratic politics that pivoted toward the center. Obama not only has had no Sister Souljah moment, he initially embraced his Sister Souljah (in the form of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, introduced to the American public in videotaped rants). He has made no creative policy departure on par with Bill Clinton’s advocacy of welfare reform in 1992 — in fact, has made no creative policy departure at all. He is the old wine of McGovernite liberalism poured into the alluring wineskin of “hope” and “unity.”
Democrats have done Republicans the favor of nominating one of the few Democrats this side of Dennis Kucinich who could lose this year. But he still has to be slightly favored over John McCain. Political conditions are grim for Republicans. Their two-term incumbent president is scorned, many of their policies are unpopular, and people have been departing their party in droves, if polling of party ID is to be believed. On top of this, there are Obama’s formidable personal talents. Not just an inspirational speaker, he ran a campaign in the primaries that was well-organized and strategically deft. He is not to be underestimated.
If he wins with the kind of larger Democratic majorities he is likely to see in the House and Senate, he will be in the strongest position of any Democratic president since LBJ in 1964. It will not be a replay of the Clinton presidency: Clinton styled himself a moderate and after 1994 spent the rest of his presidency triangulating off a Republican congressional majority. And the current Democratic Congress is more uniformly liberal than the Democratic Congress of 1993-94. Obama will be in a position to deal conservatism some of its worst setbacks in 40 years.
Standing in the way of this fate is John McCain. He took the fight to Obama in an aggressive and well-crafted (if poorly delivered) speech last night in New Orleans. He has to try to blunt Obama’s nebulous message of change as much as possible, by pointing out that McCain himself is the one who has actually taken political risks for bipartisanship, whereas Obama’s agenda is an antique liberalism. McCain must demonstrate that Obama’s record and biography are at odds with his current political persona as the national Pied Piper of unity.
McCain also has to raise doubts about Obama’s national-security credentials — but must avoid the temptation to run exclusively on the Iraq war and the war on terrorism. He needs, above all, to show that he has a compelling domestic reform agenda, which he has been slowly developing and talked about last night.
All while facing a strong political headwind. Obama will probably shoot up in the polls now that he has secured the nomination. Democrats will unify and the coverage will initially be dominated by the historic nature of his accomplishment as the first African-American nominee of a major party. We can all honor what his nomination says about the openness and dynamism of American society.
But by nominating Obama, the Democrats are betting that Clinton’s triangulation and Bush’s perceived failure have changed the country so much that an uncompromising liberalism is once again politically viable. If McCain presents a competent and reformist conservative alternative, he can prove the Democrats wrong.