The backdrop of this election has long been the comprehensive failure of conservative policies during the last eight years, and what “change” for those policies should mean. So it wasn’t style but, in fact, substance that dictated the outcome of the election – an election that gave Obama a larger share of the popular vote than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton ever received.
Obama spoke of “government” in a positive context more than any presidential candidate has in at least 20 years. He embraced an “FDR-style infrastructure building program”. He consistently placed energy independence as his top domestic priority, backing up the rhetoric with a plan of public investment to get it done. He said health care “should be a right for every American” during the town hall debate and he had a positive message of engagement with the rest of the world.
Obama was taking positions supported by the liberal progressive base of the Democratic Party, but that also held considerable support among self-described moderates. Obama never needed to “pivot” significantly towards the centre. His core positions already represented the American common ground. In the election exit poll, voters expressed the desire for government to “do more” by an eight-point margin.
Much will be made of McCain’s “mistakes” in his campaign, but almost every mistake he made was not a personal failing, but were part of a futile but necessary effort to bridge what had become a gulf between conservative base voters and moderate swing voters. After the utter failure of conservatism in every domestic and foreign policy area, there simply was no overlap left between the moderate and conservative camps, no overriding issue that could be the glue to hold together a centre-right coalition.
Then McCain hastily picked a woefully unqualified and uninformed person to be his running mate because he lacked options. He urgently needed someone who could resonate with both base and potential swing voters, and Governor Sarah Palin seemed to offer hope of energising the base while reaching out to undecided women. They delighted conservatives by attacking Obama as a “socialist,” which undermined McCain’s attempt to attract moderates.
McCain’s erratic style may have made these flops seem particularly spectacular, but the deep rift created during the last eight years between conservatism and the rest of America was probably too big for even a polished candidate to overcome.
Obama’s tremendous skills helped navigate the difficult waters of racial politics and fend off an avalanche of smears. But all that did was return the presidential race to its substantive fundamentals, made all the starker as the financial crisis put an exclamation point on the damage already wrought on our economy.
Trying to figure out how to repair the breach between conservatives and moderates is a problem for the conservative movement, not for us. We won – and I don’t mean just the Democrats or the people who voted for Obama. I mean all of us. Every man, woman and child, no matter what colour their skin, no matter their ancestry, no matter their faith or sexual orientation has won something from the election of Obama as the next President of the United States.
The people of America still have a lot of work to do, but they can do it knowing that one of the last borders has finally been crossed. The challenge is to turn the progressive mandate the public has given President-elect Obama into bold action. And that work starts … now.