After two years and a quarter-billion dollars worth of ads, the pulverizing election has become a steel-cage match pitting rivals against each other—and not Immigrants versus Natives, Americans versus Foreigners or Whites versus Blacks.
No, John McCain and Barack Obama have made the race’s final weeks an ideological proxy war between two presidential icons who still loom larger than them: Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.
McCain promises to “follow in [Reagan’s] tradition and in his footsteps” while vilifying Obama as a 1930s-era “socialist” looking to “redistribute wealth.” Obama counters by invoking Roosevelt’s speeches and depicting the financial meltdown as “the final verdict” on McCain’s “failed philosophy” (i.e., Reaganism).
Mind you, neither personifies these predecessors. Obama’s moderate record is not FDR’s quasi-socialism, and McCain has renounced some of his Reagan-inspired dogma.
Both also ignore inconsistencies. Obama criticizes the “failed philosophy” of Reagan conservatism while infusing some of his own prescriptions with such conservatism. McCain attacks Obama’s “socialism” after voting for the bank bailout bill—the most aggressive stroke of socialism in contemporary American history.
But all that is less important right now than the duo’s binary framing. They both effectively say a vote for McCain is a vote to continue Reagan’s trickle-down tax cuts and free-market fundamentalism, and a vote for Obama is a vote to resurrect Roosevelt’s regulations and redistributions. And because this choice has been made so clear—because we know what we’re voting on—whoever wins will have a huge mandate to implement the ideology he thematically represented.
That’s why conservatives are so worried.
They see the cause and effect: As McCain doubles down on the right’s economic catechism, Obama is surging. Even in traditional Gipper territory like Colorado and Virginia, the Rooseveltian Socialist is running ahead of Reagan Reincarnate.
Conservatives’ response is a pre-emptive “ah, nah, can’t hear you!” They contend that no matter how big progressives may win on Election Day, this is nonetheless a center-right nation. Indeed, a LexisNexis search shows this poll-tested term—“center-right nation”—is lately among the Punditburo’s most ubiquitous Orwellian buzzwords. From a Newsweek cover story by conservative dittohead Jon Meacham to a Wall Street Journal screed by former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan to a Politico.com diatribe by former Rudy Giuliani aide John Avlon, the “center-right nation” phrase is being parroted with the propagandistic discipline of Cuba’s Ministry of Information.
The proof of this center-right nation? Republicans cite polls showing more Americans call themselves conservative than liberal. While that data point certainly measures brand name, those same surveys undermine the right’s larger argument because they show majorities support progressive positions on most economic issues.
Nevertheless, if Obama wins, expect more frantic talk from the fringe about how electing a black man billed as an Islamic Karl Marx obviously means our country is more conservative than ever. We’ll also be treated to hysterical assertions like those from former Bush aide Peter Wehner, who this week told The Washington Post that “it is a mistake to assume that significant GOP losses, should they occur, are a referendum on conservatism.”
But with the Bush era finely tuning America’s BS detector, repetition and revisionism can no longer cloak reality.
“As the Republican ticket continues to run against the very idea of progressive politics, they are sowing the seeds of the post-election realignment narrative,” writes The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, adding that a McCain loss in such an ideologically polarized contest means “Democrats can justifiably claim that conservatism itself has been rejected.”
That would be the very mandate for the “direct, vigorous action” Roosevelt described in his 1933 inaugural address. Should a President Obama try to capitalize on it, he will have nothing to fear but fear itself.
David Sirota is a best-selling author whose newest book, “The Uprising,” was released in June. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network, both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at www.credoaction.com/sirota.