John McCain is doing what no progressive political leader has been able to do in at least a generation, if not more: He's creating a New Deal mandate for the next president, should that next president be Barack Obama. Indeed, in tacking to the hard economic right and focusing the presidential debate on "socialism" and "wealth redistribution," McCain is creating a very clear decision for our country: Either we reject his neo-Reaganism and the regressive redistribution machine that I describe in my new newspaper column this week. Or, we vote to preserve the regressive redistribution machine that has created the most economically unequal America since the Great Depression.
What's so weird is that in this economic drama, McCain - not Barack Obama - is really in the starring role.
That's because while Obama has offered up a progressive-though-moderate agenda slightly to the left of Clinton-ish neoliberalism, McCain has gone totally ideological. In doing that, he has polarized the argument and turned the election into a referendum on the economic Darwinism of the conservative movement - a Darwinism that, as my column shows, has built a machine that confiscates middle-class wealth and sends it up the income ladder.
McCain would have us believe that the choice is between either redistributing wealth, or not redistributing wealth - the assumption being that current policies do not redistribute wealth. But more and more Americans know that assumption is absurd, whether they know that because of data showing the middle-class tax burden increasing, reports showing most profitable corporations don't pay taxes, a financial bailout that gives away 5 percent of the economy to firms doling out $70 billion in executive bonuses, or just because they sense the whole plutocratic mess of it all.
And yet, because the personal attacks on Obama's heritage and history have fallen flat, McCain has opted to double-down on a McCarthy-ish throwback argument revolving around right-wing economics - thus making the crucial last few weeks of the campaign about whether America wants to continue this regressive redistribution, or stop it and instead embrace progressive redistribution. It is a choice Obama's consensus message avoided putting in such stark terms (which, as I examined in an earlier column, was probably a tactical necessity for an African American candidate in our racially stereotyping political arena). It is a choice that McCain has forced and that could create a much more powerfully progressive economic mandate than Obama ever dreamed of having as president, should he win.
In some senses, McCain's strange role has historical precedent. The raging anti-communist Richard Nixon went to communist China. Now the raging Reaganite John McCain is playing a key role in forging a progressive economic era.
Thanks to the Arizona's polarizing economic message, millions of Americans will now walk into that voting booth with a very crystal clear question in mind: Do we vote for the deregulatory, free-market fundamentalism of business tax cuts, corporate welfare and everyone-for-themselves health care policies that McCain says is needed right now? Or do we vote against that, and for something McCain insists is very, very different? Yes, many people will cast a ballot thinking they are making a choice between Reaganism and socialism. After all, the latest CBS/New York Times poll shows Americans already see the race in these terms. And therefore, if Obama wins, it will be a huge rejection of Reaganism, a huge declaration that demonizing the Left with the argot of Soviet communism no longer works, and a huge endorsement of 21st century progressive economics, only years (or really, months!) removed from an era where if you even uttered the word "inequality," you were billed as a communist and written out of the debate by the media and political Establishment.
Of course, Obama's campaign platform is much less radical than McCain is claiming. Barack Obama is a lot of things, but he's hardly a socialist. That said, if you reject the myth of presidentialism that says presidents hand down change, and you instead believe that presidents are forced by election mandates to embrace changes they may not otherwise have embraced, then Obama's platform is not as important as the mandate McCain's presentation is constructing, should Obama win under these circumstances. McCain is framing the choice as one between a Republican presidency to the right of Ronald Reagan on economics or a Democratic presidency to the left of Franklin Roosevelt on economics - and if Obama wins, he will have as powerful an economic mandate as FDR received in the 1932 landslide election, because the voting public will be expecting - no, demanding - far-reaching economic change.
If these trends continue - if McCain continues to demonize "socialism" and if polls are accurate in predicting a big win for Obama - then progressives will have a lot to thank McCain for. The intense economic mandate his message is helping to construct would be far more his creation than Obama's, because Obama has shied away from portraying the choice in such stark "redistribution" language. It would also be far more McCain's creation than the Democratic Party's - in fact, considering votes for the bailout and the careful dancing around free trade deals, the mandate would in many ways come in spite of Democratic Party leadership.
Oh sure, there will be Establishment pontificators from Newsweek's John Meacham to the Washington Post's David Broder warning a President Obama that, despite the crystal clear rejection of Reaganism in a Democratic victory, America is still to the right of Reagan. Money, power and status quo will always speak for money, power and the status quo. And had McCain made his central public argument (rather than merely his robo-call argument) in the final weeks of the campaign a Swift Boat-style personal/cultural attacks, an Obama victory would merely have been a rejection of those tactics, rather than a larger economic mandate.
But with McCain's economic message now taking center stage, the evidence of an economic mandate will be overwhelming, both in the public opinion data about where America is on economic issues, and in the way this national election is being framed. At a time Republicans' central argument is to attack Democrats as socialists, it is intellectually dishonest to argue that a national Democratic victory would be anything other than a wholesale rejection of conservative economic doctrine and an embrace of an aggressively progressive economic agenda.
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