Are We A Conservative Country?

Not for the first time--and, I'm sure, not for the last--Paul Krugman wrote what I was thinking this morning:

Four years ago George W. Bush narrowly won the presidential election, and Republicans achieved a 30-seat majority in the House and a 10-seat majority in the Senate. Immediately there was a vast chorus from the commentariat, proclaiming the death of liberalism; America, everyone said, was a conservative nation. I have a whole shelf of books with titles like Building Red America and One-Party Nation.

Maybe the current polls are all wrong. But at the moment they point to an Obama victory by a margin much larger than Bush’s in 2004, plus a Democratic majority of 50 or more in the House and something like 14 in the Senate.

So you know what the morning-after commentary will say--in fact, it’s already started. Yes: it will say that America is, um, a conservative nation.

To be fair, I would concede that America's strong individulaistic streak makes the country inhospitable to government activism, at least relative to Western Europe. But that doesn't mean liberalism can't still thrive here, under the right conditions. We did, after all, pass the New Deal and the Great Society. And today we still cherish the programs those outbursts of liberalism produced.*
 
The question, going forward, is whether this election will lead to another such outburst. Nobody takes the outcome for granted; Barack Obama could still lose. But it seems increasingly likely he'll win. If the margin is large enough, and he brings along enough Democrats in Congress, he'd have the opportunity to pass an ambitious agenda.
 
At that point, critics will likely make two arguments against such ambition. One will be based on resources: There isn't enough money to fund all of Obama's programs, they'll say. I think that's mostly wrong, for reasons I stated previously.
 
The other argument, I suspect, will be about Obama's mandate--or lack thereof. Critics will say the voters backed Obama because of personality and style, not the issues. In other words, the critics will argue, the public didn't really back a liberal agenda.
 
Personality and leadership style always figure prominently in the voters' minds, so the claim will surely have some merit. But it's worth keeping in mind that in each of the three debates, moderators asked Obama to list his top domestic policy priorities as president. He responded the same way each time: (1) Attend to the economy, starting with some kind of stimulus program if (as seems likely) conditions still warrant it (2) Promote energy independence (3) Make health care affordable for everybody.
 
That's some pretty clear signalling, particluarly since he's said more or less the same thing in his speeches. And while I doubt most voters can recite chapter and verse of his specific policy proposals, polls suggest that--overall--they support his approaches.
 
There will be a lot more to say on this subject after the election, if indeed Obama wins. But with skepticism about Obama's agenda already circulating, some of it has to be said now.
 
*Update: Just to be clear, I'm referring here primarily to the big-ticket iniatives, like Medicare and Social Security. The record on smaller initiatives, particularly those that grew out of the War on Poverty, is more mixed. See also Steve Benen and Paul Waldman, plus Matthew Yglesias with an objection to my take. 
 
--Jonathan Cohn