Ron Radosh

Obama's Victory and Path Forward

Yesterday’s election was historic.  Barack Obama won with the overwhelming support of a majority of our countrymen, including the largest amount of white support for any candidate since 1976.

Who could not be moved by how far our nation has progressed in forty years? In graduate school many years ago, I organized and led picket lines around F.W. Woolworth’s in support of the civil rights movement’s national boycott, when that now no longer existing massive chain store would not let black Americans in with equal service in the segregated states. There was so much opposition to our peaceful march in Iowa City, Iowa that few white students showed up to join us; they were afraid of the shouting crowds who stood and watched booing and threatening violence.

Now, what was impossible has been attained. As the TV cameras showed Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey standing in the crowd at Grant Park with tears in their eyes, we saw what it  meant not only for them, but for thousands of African-Americans of that generation.

To give Obama our best wishes for success does not mean that we won’t have differences with him or oppose some of his policies. That is to be expected. But I think conservatives in particular must be ready to reconsider their attacks on Obama as a stealth Marxist, who will seek to use a hidden agenda to bring America towards socialism. The names he is considering for Treasury Secretary, for example, include top notch people like Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and even Warren Buffett—men who are nowhere near anyone’s kind of socialist.

To the contrary, looking towards the future, Republicans should consider the direction advocated by people like David Frum, David Brooks, Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, all of whom have called at different times for a new pragmatic conservatism that speaks to the pressing issues of economic inequality, government involvement when necessary to help the economy grow, and  answering the pressing needs of disaffected working-class people. In Slate, Jim Manzi  advocates programs that can raise competitiveness while lowering inequality, programs that will help those left out to participate and benefit from a market economy.

 It also might mean, to quote the words of Alvaro Vargas Llosa in TNR.com, joining those conservatives who rebelled  “against what they see as the populist, insular mentality of the dominant wing of the GOP.” Vargas Llosa makes a cogent case that any new program espoused by conservatives must understand that the votes they lost from working-class voters occurred not because these people favored European style socialism, but because they longed for an economic security that they saw rapidly vanishing.

Vargas Llosa ends by warning his readers that Obama had best not take his victory to mean that the voters want a vast FDR type expansion of big government, since that would undermine our nation’s ability to compete internationally. His hope is that Obama, whose success is self-made, and who does not espouse identity politics, will “not succumb to the siren song of his own party’s socialist wing.”

That last thought, of course, is what we do not as yet know. In the same pages of TNR.com, John B. Judis  goes through the election returns showing how his and Ruy Teixeira’s prediction a few years back, about how an “emerging Democratic majority” was inevitable given new demographics, has been proven true. The returns are indeed, as he writes, “the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 90’s, was held in abeyance by September 11, and had resumed in the 2006 election.”

But Judis also argues for what he calls a “hard” realignment, in which the Democrats will do precisely the opposite of what Vargas Llosa hopes for. He argues that an enduring Democratic majority will be permanent if it is based  on massive spending for programs for rebuilding our physical infrastructure and on national health insurance.  Judis argues that Democrats not take the advice of those like William Galston who advocate incremental and feasible measures the nation at large supports, and instead move boldly ahead on a left-wing agenda. Judis, I think, might take this advice:”If Obama governs to the center, it will be the dawn of a Democrat majority,” said Kieran Mahoney, a Republican consultant whose firm includes Steve Schmidt, John McCain‘s senior adviser. “If he follows the Bush ‘base’ strategy, it will be a similarly short-lived ascendancy.”

The question, then, is what will be President Elect Obama’s priorities.  The next few days, as he announces his Cabinet choices, should give us a clue.