Obama, Be Progressive!

Voters want you to go big and go liberal -- and not channel Clinton-style incrementalism.

"What do we do now?"

That's the question Bill McKay ponders in the classic
movie "The Candidate" after he wins office promising "a better way."
America will now ask Democrats the same haunting query following the
historic election.

These are heady times for the party of Jefferson,
Roosevelt and Obama. Only a few years ago, Democrats were almost
relegated to permanent minority status by a Mission Accomplished sign
and a flight suit. But since President Bush's 2004 reelection, they
gained at least 50 House seats, 12 Senate seats, seven state
legislatures and seven governorships. As Republicans used "socialism"
attacks to make the election a referendum on conservatism, Democrats
also registered their biggest presidential triumph since 1964.

So, while the president-elect talks of forming a
bipartisan Cabinet, his victory wasn't the public's cry for milquetoast
government by blue-ribbon commission. As Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change says, Obama's win was an ideological mandate presenting "an opening for transformational, progressive change."

Maximizing this opportunity relies on Democrats
understanding the parable from Spider-Man comics -- the one about great
power coming with "great responsibility." In politics, that latter
phrase is a euphemism for high expectations.

What the party gains in strength, it loses in a Republican
scapegoat that previously justified inaction. On huge issues -- whether
re-regulating Wall Street, reforming trade, solving the healthcare
emergency, or ending the Iraq war -- America envisages enormous
progress in the months ahead, and Democrats will have no one to blame
for failure but themselves. After all, with more than 360 electoral
votes, President Obama cannot credibly claim he lacks the political
capital to legislatively steamroll a humiliated GOP and its remaining
senators. The same goes for Democrats everywhere. Meeting expectations
requires championing far-reaching -- even radical -- initiatives.

That was always 2008's theme. Amid lipsticked pigs, Joe
the Plumber and Super Bowl-size candidate events, the election became a
choice between continued conservative rule and a progressive agenda as
far-reaching as the current crises. And as the defeated John McCain
said, "The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly."

To meet the challenge, Democrats have to abandon their worst habits.

They must, for instance, acknowledge their progressive
mandate, rather than denying it as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
did on Tuesday. "This is not a mandate for a political party or an
ideology," he fearfully told reporters.

They should also retire the Innocent Bystander fable about
being powerless onlookers. Democrats first cited this myth as reason
the Iraq war continued during their congressional majority -- expecting
the country to forget that Congress can halt war funding. Today, Sen.
Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that "there's not much we can do" to amend
the sputtering bank bailout. In 2009, such mendacity will metastasize
from banal dishonesty into grist for scathing comedy-show punch lines.

Democrats need to discard other lies, too -- especially
those about Bill Clinton. To hear the pundits tell it, Clinton's
first-term pitfalls underscore why the next administration should avoid
"governing in a way that is, or seems, skewed to the left," as the
Washington Post's Ruth Marcus most recently asserted. History, of
course, proves the opposite. Recounting Clinton's early years to Politico,
a lobbyist correctly noted that the new president didn't move left --
he pushed conservative policies like NAFTA, thereby demoralizing his
base and helping Republicans take Congress.

Obama rose on a promise to eschew those triangulations,
and he won because America realized invertebracy and sail trimming will
not solve problems. Voters rejected Clinton-style incrementalism in the
primary, then scorned conservatism in the general election, meaning
that the Democrats' best response to Bill McKay's "What do we do now?"
question is a two-word answer: Go big.

That is not merely the better way -- it is the only way.

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