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The Landslide That Doesn't Feel All Liberal

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The young and minority voters who swept Democrats to triumph call this the start of a new day. The many not-young whites who also backed Barack Obama might frame it a bit differently. To them, it's a hopeful return to an older day. Do not dismiss these older Caucasians. Without their considerable support in swing states, Obama would not have won.

This amazing election is being called a liberal landslide, but it doesn't feel liberal. It's at bottom a reaction against the radical philosophy that called itself conservative but ran up deficits, blustered on the world stage, denigrated science, served the rich and ignored the working class.

To many older voters, the middle-class paradise of their youth had turned into an economic purgatory in which workers dodge the falling shards of free markets running amok. They remember when America, if not always loved, was respected for its economic as well as military might. They now see other countries taking care of business as America drains its Treasury to fight two wars, one of which it didn't have to get into.

The overthrow of 2008 was a cry for old-fashioned order. This election has been likened to Democrats' devastating losses in 1968 and 1972 presidential races. While the losing party back then was liberal and the one in 2008 allegedly conservative, the reason for their defeats is similar. The parties in power didn't keep order.

As Rick Pearlstein asserts in his book "Nixonland" Richard Nixon's victories weren't a backlash to Democrat Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Those social programs were popular, and rather than rein them in, Nixon added on.

What prompted voters to send Democrats home were the race riots and the agony of the Vietnam War. Pearlstein describes what made Americans crazy back then:

"Turn on the TV: burning huts in Vietnam. Turn on the TV: burning buildings in Watts. Turn on the TV: one set of young people were comparing another set of young people to Nazis, and Da Nang was equated with Nagasaki."

Turn on the TV in the Bush administration, and what do you see? American soldiers bogged down in a complicated Mideast country, their reason for being there exposed as a lie. A government paralyzed by incompetence days after a category 4 hurricane engulfed a major American city. Factories closing, house values swooning and stock prices collapsing.

In a stroke of brilliance, Obama balanced his liberal voting record and exotic background with a conservative manner. His middle-American cadences and controlled rhetoric spoke of a balanced politics and comforted many older doubters.

And he had help from the left, which managed to not scare the public. In 2008, there were no high-profile Democrats like Robert F. Kennedy, who in 1964 excused the deadly racial rioting as follows: "There's no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes, the law is the enemy."

In this election, the right had to resort to fringe figures for inflammatory leftist remarks. Or it dredged up a formerly violent '60s radical, Bill Ayers, now an educator in Chicago.

The pendulum doesn't care whether it's on the left or right. When it spends too much time on one side, it returns to the other. Only a few years ago, then-Bush mastermind Karl Rove predicted a "permanent Republican majority." No majority is everlasting, and Democrats must know that. But if they use their time in the sun carefully, they'll have a good run.

Obama's every other word was "change." Good luck in effecting it, but remember this: The change a lot of voters wanted was a change back to what they had.

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