Congratulations, President-Elect Obama

Like many conservative writers, my good opinion of Barack Obama diminished somewhat over the course of the campaign. Part of this was the inevitable hardening of the partisan arteries that takes place during a Presidential year, but part of it was that Obama's particular gifts - his combination of charisma and thoughtfulness, and his ability to project sympathy for positions he does not himself hold - created unreasonable initial expectations for the kind of actual compromises he might make with conservatives. You start with the fact that he seems to understand your side of the argument, and the next thing you know you're imagining scenarios in which he moves the Democratic Party to the center on abortion, or comes out against race-based affirmative action, or offers some other grand, conciliatory gesture that you'd like to see American liberalism make.

None of this was ever terribly plausible, of course, given Obama's actual record - and it was especially implausible in a year when running as a "generic Democrat" has such obvious upsides. Obama moved to the center on issues where Democrats more or less have to be move to the center - making hawkish gestures on foreign policy, promising middle-class tax cuts, etc. - but there was never any way that he was going to live up to the hopes of the various conservatives who said favorable things about him in the early going (unless they engaged in outright self-deception, as some did). Unlike previous Democratic nominees, Obama was operating in an environment where his side had the upper hand on almost every issue, and there was actually more risk than reward involved in straying too far off the liberal reservation. And the campaign he ran reflected that reality, rather than living up to its initial promise to transcend the left-right divide.

So I was disappointed in Barack Obama, but I also realize that his campaign wasn't addressed to me: It was addressed to the constituents of a potential center-left majority, and that's the majority he won tonight. Whether this majority holds together will depend on how he governs, but for the moment he has achieved something that no Democratic politician has achieved in a generation: He's carved out a mandate to take America at least some distance in a leftward direction, and he has left the conservative opposition demoralized, disorganized, and arguably self-destructing. Obviously, this achievement was made possible by the blunders of his predecessor, the floundering of the McCain campaign, and the good fortune of running against the incumbent party during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. But great politicians are almost always lucky politicians, and Obama's good fortune does not diminish the magnitude of his triumph tonight, and the credit that he and his campaign deserve for the race they've run.

And then, of course, there's the fact that Obama has just been elected President of a nation in which he could have been bought and sold as a slave just seven generations ago. I don't think there are any words adequate to the occasion of America electing its first black President, so I'll just say this: This may be a bleak day for the Republican Party and for conservatism, but come what may in the years ahead, it's a great day for our country. Barack Obama deserves congratulations, tonight, but so does the nation he's about to govern: We've come a long, long way.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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