Alter: The Country is Heading Leftward

John McCain's "Joe the Plumber" would no doubt like to have a beer with Sarah Palin's "Joe Six-Pack." In truth, Joe Wurzelbacher isn't a licensed plumber and Joe Six-Pack is a horrible cliché, but no matter. They're cultural kin to the iconic "Average Joe" who was part of Richard Nixon's "Silent Majority" in the early 1970s and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the 1980s. But conservative majorities come and go. If the polls are to be believed, today's hard-strapped Joes have more in common politically with Joe Biden. And millions of them are preparing to do something that they never thought they'd do in a million years—vote for a black guy with the middle name Hussein for president of the United States.

Even if Joe stays Republican, Barack Obama will still likely win. That's because he has built a huge base of non-Joes—better-educated, younger whites, as well as women and minorities. These voters are the future of the electorate and they're progressive. If they turn out in the numbers expected, they could restructure American politics for a generation.

For all the statistical permutations, analyzing the makeup of the American electorate for the past half-century is fairly simple. About 40 percent of voters are reliable Democrats (whether they call themselves liberals or not), 40 percent are conservative Republicans (a term starting to lose its coherence), and the shape of our politics is determined by the 20 percent in the middle, mostly independents.

Since about 1980, we've been living in a center-right America, but we're center-center now, and likely headed left. Even if McCain pulls an upset, the Democratic Congress would nudge him leftward on issues like alternative energy and taxes (and his health-care plan would be DOA). Should Obama win, he will press hard for his ambitious agenda, even, aides say, at the risk of being a one-term president. Then it would all be about execution.

If Obama moves "smart left" next year, he will have succeeded in rewriting the American social contract—the obligations of the government to the people on the economy, energy, health care and education. But if we see a revival of the dumb left with old-fashioned capitulation to interest groups and a series of rookie mistakes on foreign policy, even a big Democratic victory next month would be a speed bump on the Ronald Reagan highway.

Most voters are neither Limbaugh dittoheads nor ACORN activists. They're pragmatic centrists who decided they liked Obama when he reminded them more of Will Smith than Jesse Jackson. They liked that he tried to calm their fears rather than express their anger. But this election is about something deeper than temperament. When people are scared, whether it's after 9/11 or heading into a recession, they turn to government for protection. Cultural issues like gay marriage and resentment of elites fade. Even though voters don't trust Washington any more than Wall Street, it's their only option.

The question for the new president then becomes not whether he's moving too fast but too slow. The test becomes whether he can use the powers of government to act on behalf of the American people. That is a fundamentally liberal idea.

Obama is lucky. Had Wall Street collapsed in 2009 instead of 2008, he would have had a much harder time shifting the political center of gravity. The critically important fact for Obama's agenda is that a conservative Republican (President Bush) is the one who has essentially nationalized banks with more than a trillion dollars in public money. That discredits the GOP argument on spending but also on the proper role of government, which is essentially what separates liberals and conservatives on domestic issues. If Obama offers a big, budget-busting program next year, it will more likely be seen as fair than irresponsible.

At every campaign stop last week, McCain derided Obama's statement to Joe the Plumber that we should be "spreading the wealth around." In the old center-right world, such an idea would be offensive to many voters because it sounds socialistic—grabbing money from taxpayers and putting it in someone else's pocket. But the cold war is over (taking the sting out of cries of socialism), and a lot has changed in the past month. Using taxpayer dollars to bail out colossally greedy and incompetent bankers is "spreading the wealth around," too. Voters are beginning to figure that if banks facing bankruptcy deserve the government's help, maybe people facing bankruptcy do as well.

Jon Meacham is right that by the standards of a European-style welfare state, we will always be a relatively conservative country. But closer to home, the norm has not been consistently conservative over the course of the 20th century. If anything, the nation was more often center-left. Democrats controlled the House of Representatives—the "People's House"—for six straight decades between 1930 and 1994 (with only a short exception). While many were Southern conservatives on race, the huge chunks of progressive legislation they swallowed over many years could choke an elephant.

When the GOP finally did get full control of Capitol Hill in 1994, what did they do with it? The reign of Tom DeLay was not conservative in any way that Edmund Burke would recognize. He led a band of radical Republicans who actually shut down the Congress to intervene in the case of a brain-dead woman in Florida— a move that will likely be remembered as the high-water mark of theocratic power in the United States.

At the presidential level, two Republicans, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, left almost every major element of the New Deal in place and added their own initiatives that sound right out of the 2008 Democratic Party platform. (Ike's Interstate Highway System was the mother of all infrastructure projects, and Nixon gave us the Environmental Protection Agency.) Every GOP effort to undermine Social Security—the great emblem of domestic liberalism—failed by huge margins between 1936 and 2005. For all his talk, Ronald Reagan failed to reduce the size of government, much less dismantle the welfare state. His acolytes did succeed in the semantic crusade of wrecking the word "liberal," though liberal-bashing is no longer potent politically in any large state except Texas.

The Schlesinger theory of the cycles of history still makes the most sense. Over the past century, we've moved in roughly 30-year cycles, from the Progressive Era to the laissez-faire 1920s to the New Deal to the Reagan years. As it happened, Arthur Schlesinger's timing was a bit off. He dated the last burst of liberalism to the mid-1960s and thus expected a revival in the 1990s. But the conservative era arguably began in 1978 when Rep. William Steiger won approval of a bill that cut the capital-gains tax from 50 percent to 25 percent. We're now exactly 30 years down the road from that.

Does that mean the country is still center-right if we fail to restore confiscatory tax levels? Hardly. Just because Democrats aren't stupid enough anymore to go the Walter Mondale route and promise to raise everyone's taxes doesn't mean they are conceding the ideological argument. In fact, Obama has neutralized or even turned the tax issue to his advantage with positions on taxing the rich that would have once been easily dismissed as class warfare. And with his hawkish comments on bombing Pakistan if necessary to kill Osama bin Laden, we are moving past the time when a credible commitment to defend the United States militarily was the exclusive province of the Republican Party.

History does not repeat itself, but it can have a familiar ring. In the 1920s, Americans essentially believed that the private sector could solve any problem. After the Depression began, Congress was still deeply unpopular, as it is today. But once Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 and proved in his first 100 days that he could dent the problem, the center moved left. While the Depression didn't actually end for another eight years, the American people felt that at least the government was on their side.

Reagan's revolution in 1980 was so striking that it conditioned a whole generation to believe it was permanent. Many scholars even believed the GOP had an "electoral lock" on the presidency—an insurmountable geographical advantage in the Electoral College. Bill Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1996 didn't do much to change the map; he won both times with less than 50 percent of the vote, thanks to the presence of independent Ross Perot in those races.

Perot's agenda—reducing the deficit—became Clinton's. James Carville joked bitterly that he wanted to be reincarnated as the bond market because Wall Street was getting all the loving attention of the Clinton administration. The strategy paid off: the budget was balanced (in part through tax increases begun under President George H.W. Bush) and the economy surged. But Clinton ended up a bit like the character in the poem "Miniver Cheevy" by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Miniver felt he was born too late for King Arthur's Camelot; Clinton felt the same way about the ambitious Camelot of the 1960s.

Now we're confronting a big deficit again—seemingly a recipe for a Democratic president to pull his liberal punches once more. But the political context has changed in ways that would give a President Obama more running room. Instead of a Democratic Congress that's out of gas after 40 years in power, as Clinton faced, Obama would have allies on Capitol Hill determined to prove that they can address problems in a practical way. Instead of an almost religious devotion to the libertarian ideas of Alan Greenspan, we're moving back toward what might be called neo-Keynesian economics. And instead of the unobstructed opposition of a new media powerhouse (talk radio), Obama would have the help of more than 2.5 million small contributors, eager to use the Web to mobilize on behalf of his program.

If he wins, Obama could run aground in a thousand ways next year. He will have to possess all the dexterity he's shown during the campaign, and then some. If he fails to deliver, the country will go back to the center-right. But if he gets a few big things enacted in his first year, Barack Obama would have a fighting chance to move the country to a new place, or at least one we haven't seen for a while. Leftward ho!