Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fairy Tale vs. Folklore
The Clintons continue to raise the vileness bar in the campaign for the Democratic nomination. Yesterday Bill went on Al Sharpton's radio show--maybe he was thinking, "At least I'm still classier than this guy"--to clarify his remark about Obama's campaign being a fairy tale (Bill: I was only referring to his view about Iraq. Bill's spin is, um, bullshit.), while an "unnamed advisor" made this snide remark about Obama's supporters. Given that the remark was to The Guardian, my guess is that the advisor's name is Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton courtier of long standing who wrote for that publication, among others, until joining the Hillary campaign late last year. It's insulting and absurd.

Obama's attackers, famous and unknown alike, paint him as an opportunistic self-promoter of modest accomplishment who lacks gravitas and toughness, and his supporters as easily swayed naifs who swoon for the man, and/or fail to grasp just how evil the Republicans are, and/or are working out their own racial guilt--hence the "imaginary black friend" smear. Obviously I think this is wrong on all counts, but the last charge strikes me not so much as totally groundless as a misunderstanding of how the American political psyche works. We aren't revisiting the civil rights movement with Obama, but we probably are connecting back to that movement as the most ennobling American accomplishment at least since the victory in World War II. Obama stands before us as the embodiment of the country's capacity for self-correction. That's not a small deal. Add in that he's a self-made man who advanced on merits--the Harvard Law Review does not work on the quota system, and if "racial guilt" was truly the fuel for Obama's career, I'm guessing there was a more "authentic" (i.e. not half-white, not cosmopolitan individual who'd really risen from inner-city poverty rather than the more or less middle-class upbringing Obama experienced in Hawaii ) African-American in Illinois political circles who could have benefitted--and after two terms of George W. Bush, meritocracy probably has its appeal too.

But there's another aspect of Obama's candidacy, also tied to Bush's years of misrule, that is worth considering:

The Democratic Party should have represented that half of the country that was appalled by Bushism. But the Democrats abjectly failed. Cowed by patriotic fervor and Beltway thinking, the Democrats fell in line behind Bush and his demented war. Only when it was clear to all but the most benighted neoconservative ideologues that Iraq was an unmitigated disaster did mainstream Democrats like Clinton and Edwards speak out.

A price had to be paid for this collapse, and the price was anger -- anger not just at Bush and his policies, but at the timid Democrats who went along with those policies. This anger is cleansing. Those establishment pundits who sanctimoniously tut-tutted about how Democratic voters were "unhinged" by "Bush hatred" failed to recognize that when a cancerous entity invades your body, the healthy response is to attack it. Anger is a patriotic response to Bush's profoundly un-American policies, and to the Democrats who failed to oppose them. It is the white blood cells coming to rescue an endangered organism.
Barack Obama's unique appeal is that he allows voters -- Democrats, independents and fed-up Republicans alike -- to simultaneously express their anger and transcend it. As a political outsider, as a black man, as someone who was opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, Obama is the antithesis of both Bushism and the mainstream Bush-lite Democratic stance on Iraq. Yet Obama's entire message is one of reconciliation and unity, the belief that even the most implacable foes can come together. And it's his race that seals the deal. As a mixed-race black man appealing to whites without using traditional racial guilt codes, he is the living proof of his own credo. By voting for a black man, whites are voting for hope and change in the future -- but they are simultaneously making a statement that hope and change are happening right now, within their own minds, hearts and souls. They are leaping across the racial divide without a safety net.
Of course, "hope" is just a word. And while emotional catharsis is important, in the end what really matters is performance. But on the issues, there are no decisive differences among the three candidates. Those Obama critics who argue that his bipartisan rhetoric means he is the second coming of Joe Lieberman have seriously misread him. Obama is a classic liberal Democrat, whose message of inclusion and unity is at once sincere and tactically shrewd: He knows that a confrontational, partisan black man, even one who refuses to play the racial guilt card, has no chance of being elected president. At the same time, he clearly believes that conciliation is better than enmity. In this regard, ironically, he resembles the husband of his most formidable adversary, who also ran successfully on a "new Democrat" platform of hope and inclusion.

Last weekend in New Hampshire, Sen. Clinton threw everything at the wall, including the prospect of a terrorist attack and the strong hint that Obama and Edwards were spreading "false hope." Given that, I've been thinking about the old question about whether people vote their hopes or their fears, and whether they're more influenced by the unfinished business of the past or the unknowns of the future. Oversimplifications? Of course. But I think we're learning a lot about what this country is right now through this election, and maybe for that alone it's a good thing the contests aren't decided yet.

(Horserace Post-script: Obama's picked up a few interesting endorsements this week. The other day he got John Kerry, who's probably not useful for moving voters but has great fund-raising connections and the most comprehensive database in the party from '04. I wonder if Kerry's nod to Obama is a slap at Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chair who's strongly pro-Clinton, to the point that, were I Kerry, I'd have some nagging doubt that McAuliffe was all that broken up to see a non-incumbent race this year. Yesterday he got the nod from Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano--a very popular figure in her home state whose appeal crosses party lines and might help inoculate against a women's sympathy vote out west for Clinton. And two red-state Democratic Senators, Tim Johnson and Ben Nelson, are now on record for Obama. Which of the two do you think they'd rather see as national Democratic standard-bearer?)

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