For a generation, Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign was cited as an example of how not to run for the White House as a Democrat: Not only did Mondale run on a liberal platform, but he also went so far as to promise to raise Americans’ taxes — a promise that was widely blamed for his defeat.
But Barack Obama’s victory shows that after eight years of Republican failure, the rules have changed.
For all of Obama’s rhetorical efforts to portray himself as a tax-cutting, business-friendly moderate whose highest aspiration was to “bring people together,” he ran on a very progressive agenda, was characterized as a closet socialist “Redistributionist-in-Chief” by McCain and Palin, and above all represented a radically different approach from the conservative ideology that has mostly defined the national agenda since 1981.
For instance, despite Obama’s promises not to raise taxes on those making under $250,000 a year, his platform includes an increase in the capital gains and estate taxes. And, as McCain, Palin, and much of the Republican attack machine pointed out in the last days of the election, Obama himself said his global warming plan would cause electricity rates to “skyrocket.”
But voters didn’t care. Even though 70 percent of voters in the MSNBC exit poll said they thought their taxes will go up under Barack Obama, they still went for him. And in an October poll by the Pew Research Center, voters said they preferred Obama’s approach on the environment and energy by 57-27 and 53-34 margins, respectively. Voters apparently want to free America from reliance on fossil fuels, even if it’s going to cost them.
Obama’s embrace of progressive values went into the social arena as well. Even though he was trying to win swing states that are traditionally regarded as socially conservative, Obama upended conventional Democratic wisdom by running a very explicit pro-choice campaign, featuring unvarnished pro-choice messages in many ads.
The polls provide some evidence why Obama’s decision to run as a mostly unabashed progressive worked. For all of Democrats’ fears about taking liberal stances on social issues, defending choice is still really popular: Recent polls show that about 6 in 10 voters want it to be mostly or always legal.
But the polls don’t tell the whole story. On most issues, voters have favored Democratic policies for decades. The difference is that in the past, Democrats were wary of defending their own most deeply-held values. When Republicans attacked, they hedged or even abandoned their support for the environment, for a fair tax system, or for progressive social values.
When that happened, they left their supporters feeling betrayed and unmotivated and their enemies emboldened. And they alienated swing voters for whom policy positions matter less than personal characteristics like strong leadership and integrity. Because Democratic candidates weren’t willing to stand up for themselves, voters lost faith that they would stand up for them either.
Obama wasn’t perfect on these counts. For instance, he jettisoned his opposition to offshore drilling in the face of Republican attacks this summer. But by in large, he was willing to stick to his guns even when his positions were somewhat unpopular, like when he pledged to take down the Bush administration’s U.S.-Mexico border wall because it is an environmental and human travesty.
To be sure, the failing economy provided Democrats the context they needed. But a candidate with a little backbone gave them the ability to take advantage of that context and convince voters to take a chance on change.
Glenn Hurowitz is the author of Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party.