LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR A MANDATE…. As has been the case for quite a while, Barack Obama lit into John McCain in his acceptance speech last night, but not in personal terms. It highlighted the key distinction of the two campaign styles — McCain has gone after Obama on character, integrity, and patriotism, while Obama has gone after McCain on policy, substance, and vision.

But this is about more than just competing approaches to character assassination, it’s also about laying the groundwork for actually governing. Mark Schmitt had a very sharp take on last night’s address:

Letting the Republicans go after Obama in all the ways we know they will, while leaving McCain’s persona unchallenged is a huge risk. It calls on voters to make a fairly nuanced distinction between the candidate and the agenda.

But there’s another lesson in George W. Bush’s 2004 victory over Kerry by demolishing Kerry’s personal reputation: It left Kerry’s agenda untouched. As Bush discovered from the day after his 2005 inauguration, he had no mandate for conservative policies such as Social Security privatization because he had not run on them.

But if it succeeds, it will have the effect of giving the next president exactly what George W. Bush didn’t have: A mandate. The voters will have rejected not just McCain, but the entire economic and foreign policy agenda of conservatism. And that’s as important as winning the election, perhaps more important.

Well said. In 2004, voters agreed with Kerry, but were persuaded to reject him. They disagreed with Bush, but wanted to invite him to their barbecue. But when it came time to govern, Bush did what he wanted to do, Americans grew frustrated because they hated his agenda, and the president’s popularity tanked. It’s not rocket science — Bush never received, and never actually sought, a mandate for his ideas. Indeed, if he had tried, he would have lost.

But this creates a dynamic in which governing is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. Voters don’t generally like to vote on the issues, but when it comes time for policy changes, the issues are what end up mattering most. If a candidate runs a campaign that hides his or her positions on the issues — as Bush did twice, and McCain is doing now — it’s bound to deeply disappoint the electorate once he or she starts implementing the ideas no one endorsed.

That makes Obama’s pitch a gamble — he’s counting on voters to be grown-ups — but should he win, he’ll have the advantage of a mandate.

As Kevin concluded, Obama’s not only in a position to win, he can win “with a public behind him that’s actively sold on a genuinely liberal agenda. This is why conservatives have so far been apoplectic about his speech tonight: if he continues down this road, and wins, they know that he’ll leave movement conservatism in tatters. He is, at least potentially, the most dangerous politician they’ve ever faced.”

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.