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Obama To Liberals: Trust Me

I just watched the insta-reaction from CNN's focus group.  It seems the audience really liked Clinton's determination to push for universal health care (as do I).  By contrast, they were decidedly annoyed when Obama went after Clinton -- as they were when Obama defended his record.

Personally, I didn't mind the sparring.  It's a debate, not a dinner party -- aren't they supposed to argue with one another? But what really struck me was the way Obama framed his idea of a new politics as a way to achieve explicitly progressive goals -- something he didn't emphasize early in the campaign.

Consider the moment tonight when he defended his statement on Ronald Reagan:

...what I said was is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to.  Because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart. ... I was fighting these fights.  I was fighting these fights.  So -- but I want to be clear. ... What I said had nothing to do with their policies.  I spent a lifetime fighting a lifetime against Ronald Reagan's policies.  But what I did say is that we have to be thinking in the same transformative way about our Democratic agenda.  We've got to appeal to Independents and Republicans in order to build a working majority to move an agenda forward.  That is what I said.

Ignore, for a moment, the stuff about Clinton and Wal-Mart.  Notice, instead, the key phrase there -- "working majority."  It's a theme to which Obama returned later:

What I do want to focus on, though, is how important it is, when you talked about taking on the Republicans, how important it is I think to redraw the political map in this country.  ... the truth is that we as Democrats have not had a working majority in a very long time.  And what I mean by that is a working majority that could push through the kinds of bold initiatives that all of us have proposed.  And one of the reasons that I am running for president is because I believe that I can inspire new people to get involved in the process, that I can reach out to independents and, yes, some Republicans who have also lost trust in their government and want to see something new.

When you look at Bush and Cheney and their record, the one good thing they've done for us is they have given their party a very bad name. That gives us a unique opportunity in this election, and what we can't do, I think, is just to take the playing field as a given.  We want to expand the scope of the electorate so that we can start getting a 60 percent majority, more folks in the House, more folks in the Senate, and I think that's something I can do.

In other words, Obama is not reaching out to conservatives just to get along with them.  He's reaching out to conservatives because he thinks it offers the best chance to enact liberal policies. 

Writing in the American Prospect last month, Mark Schmitt suggested that this was the whole idea behind Obama's campaign -- that "hope" and "bipartisanship" are "a tactic, a method of subverting and breaking the unified conservative power structure."  Statements like the ones Obama made tonight make me think Mark was basically right.

Of course, whether that strategy will actually work is a separate issue.  But that's a topic for another time.

-Jonathan Cohn