News & Politics

Obama Can Win; If He Does, Let's Hope His Sunny Bipartisan Talk Is Just Rhetoric

Flowery talk of hope and reconciliation has enormous appeal, but what we need is a fighter.
It's impossible to know if America is "ready to elect a black man" -- a generic "black man," that is -- but there's every reason to believe that it's more than ready to elect Barack Obama if he were to win the Dem nomination.

That's a real possibility -- Obama's sitting in a very strong spot going into New Hampshire. It looks like he's had an impressive "bounce" coming out of Iowa -- polls taken before the caucus still had Clinton with a lead in New Hampshire, but several polls conducted afterwards have Obama up by an average of seven points over Clinton, with Edwards trailing by 18.

What's more, Clinton and Edwards have little choice but to play into the Obama narrative. She's attacked from the right, and Edwards, who has criticized Obama from the left, now talks about being in a "conviction alliance" with Obama (he's trying to kill off Hillary and make it a two-person race), and those approaches allow Obama to sit back, talk about hope and change and look like the new kind of "post-partisan" candidate he claims to be, regardless of whether that claim is grounded in fact.

According to the conventional wisdom, if Obama does end up getting the nomination, his ethnicity and "exotic" middle name would be a major hurdle to winning in November. But that narrative only looks at one side of the coin.

There's been a relentless focus on the question of race. Is America ready? Would the South go for a (half) African American with a name that rhymes with "Osama"? Will people, fearful of being seen as a racist, tell pollsters they'd vote for a man of color and then go against him once they get into the confines of the voting booth? Will the Big Lie that he's a Muslim get e-mailed around to enough "low-information" voters that a whole gaggle of people freak out, get off the couch and head to the polls to beat him?

Yes to all of that -- one should never underestimate the role of race in American politics. But the analysis misses a larger dynamic, which is that anybody the Dems nominate will be Swift-Boated mercilessly, their strong points turned into weaknesses and their humanity reduced to angry caricatures. Al Gore became a liar, John Kerry, a decorated war hero, became a wimp and the next nominee will be similarly transformed into a hideous reflection of him- or herself. As Paul Waldman of MediaMatters put it, "If the Democrats were to dig up the corpse of George Patton and run him in an election, the Republicans would say he was soft on defense and hated America."

In building a base of voters who don't like partisan politics and who may be more likely to dismiss those attacks as being just more of the same Washington "bickering," Obama may end up being, to a degree, insulated from those kind of assaults in a way other, more "traditional" Democratic candidates aren't.

The focus on race also looks at just one side of the ledger -- at an unbalanced equation. Getting far less attention is that Obama has a story, a narrative, that has the potential to bring a whole group of people who haven't been politically engaged in the past into the political world for the first time.

The reason that side is getting short shrift is simple: the political discourse in America is shaped by white, middle aged male pundits who live in the burbs and tend to think of the American "voter" as a white, middle-aged white guy from the burbs. But America is chock-a-block with minorities and women and urbanites and liberals and young people, and most of those groups have voted at historically low levels because they never saw a national candidate who looked anything like them or who had shared their experiences in any meaningful way.

That's not to say that we won't be treated to a bevy of ugly messages if Obama ends up heading the ticket -- some coded messages, some explicit -- designed to appeal to America's uglier, racist side. We certainly will (and already have in the primaries). And if Obama were to become the nominee, he would almost certainly lose in deeply "red" states; in the Bible Belt. But those states aren't in play for Democrats anyway. In his book Whistling past Dixie, political scientist Tom Schaller showed that Democrats don't need those states to win nationally. The book caused a lot of controversy over the question of whether Dems should write off the deep South in the near term, but nobody could shake Schaller's numbers and argue that they couldn't. It's the "purple" states that matter in a national race, and, if Obama's win in Iowa was any indication, he has the potential to dominate in those races.

In Iowa, he blew away the field among voters who identified themselves as independents. He beat Clinton among unmarried voters, 43-24; with first-time caucus-goers, 41-29; among young people aged 17-29 he slaughtered his opponents, with four times Edwards' second place support. He beat Edwards among voters who prioritized the ability to "bring about change" by 51-20.

And I think it's difficult for white people, this author included, to understand just what his candidacy symbolizes for people of color. For a year we heard that the African American community was divided over whether he was "black enough" for them to fully embrace as one of their own. In the wake of Iowa, at least according to anecdotal evidence, black and brown America were profoundly moved to see Obama, this powerful African American orator, winning over cornfed Iowa.

It's impossible to predict how that might play out come November. But any analysis that just looks at the Democratic and independent crackers who'll bail on a black man with a funny name and doesn't factor in the millions that might be inspired by his iconic candidacy (not to mention his personal charisma) underestimates Obama's potential.

Last week, Obama blew up a long-standing piece of conventional wisdom about the youth vote. His campaign had been saying for months that he'd excite boatloads of young people whose youthful energy would propel him to a decisive win. For decades, that's been the desperate cry of a campaign that had no shot -- those promises have been made many times, and on every occasion young people's "excitement" didn't translate into young people's votes. But something different happened this time. According to Young Voter PAC, a group that encourages young people to get politically engaged, Iowa's "youth turnout rate rose to 13% in 2008 compared to 4% in 2004 and 3% in 2000." 22 percent of Democratic participants were young people, up from 17 percent in 2004. Entrance polls showed that the lion's share were there for Barack Obama -- while Hillary got twice Obama's support among the over-65, he trounced her, 5 to 1, among those under the age of 30.

The youth vote, thanks in part to Bush's ruinous presidency, has grown dramatically in each of the last three elections. But there's still a lot of potential in that demographic -- in 2004, even after an enormous 11-point increase over 2000, less than half of young voters aged 18-24 bothered to go to the polls -- the lowest turn-out for any age group.

Fewer than half of Latino voters voted in 2004 and despite the fact that 3 million more blacks came out in 2004 than in the previous cycle, they still trailed the participation rate for whites, 67-60. What happens if 65 or 70 percent of those voters turn out in 2008 (long lines in GOP states be damned)?

Not only did he pull off an impressive win in lilly-white rural Iowa, but he won all but one income bracket, and, more impressively, he won the women's vote, 35-30, despite a mad dash for the ladies by the Clinton campaign (several media reports claimed that older women went for Clinton while younger women favored Obama). He won the liberal and the moderate vote; the urban and suburban vote and tied Clinton for the union vote, which had been expected to go for Edwards.

As Dan Balz wrote in the Washington Post, those results bode well for Obama in New Hampshire:
Compare the states of Iowa and New Hampshire and the landscape looks far less favorable for Clinton. The reality is, this is the state that always set up best for Obama, even when he was struggling here. The demographics and political culture lean more in the direction of Obama than toward Clinton…
In virtually every demographic category where Obama found his greatest strength in Iowa, New Hampshire's electorate has at least as many or more of those voters, based on a comparison of the entrance polls from Thursday's caucuses in Iowa and from the 2004 Democratic primary in Hampshire.
In a country with an abundance of tuned-out voters, Obama -- and, to a degree, Edwards -- both understand the importance of reaching out to voters on an emotional, "gut" level. The Clinton campaign, now running on the idea that she'd be ready to "govern from day one," is reminiscent of both the Kerry and Gore campaigns in that she's offering a laundry list of policy proposals to restore America's "greatness." Just as the 2004 campaign became a contest between John Kerry's wonky 123-point plan for fixing everything under the sun and Bush's warning that scary brown people would kill us all if he didn't win, Obama's answering Clinton's campaign with an appeal to the heart rather than the head.

I should point out that only 300,000 Americans have spoken, and the race is not over. I don't want to add to any sense of "inevitability" that might be building out there. The Clinton campaign is familiar with New Hampshire, thinks it will do well beyond the Granite State, still leads in the national polls (which were conducted before Iowa) and certainly has a chance to turn it around. Her campaign's got the resources, and it's staffed with old pros who know the ins and outs of running a winning campaign. Although the odds are much longer than they were a week ago, John Edwards, Iowa's second-place finisher with the full-throated populist message, can't be counted out entirely either. He did extremely well in Saturday's debate, and anything can happen, especially as the media narrative shifts from Clinton's "inevitability" to voters' hunger for a "reform candidate." The race is fluid.

Bringing a knife to a gunfight

But if Obama were to win the nomination, those desperate to see real change should hope that Barack Obama's touchy-feely message of hope and healing is nothing more than snappy campaign rhetoric.

Obama's run as the candidate of "change" -- a nebulous slogan with huge appeal given the depth of the hole that Bush has dug over the last seven years. According to his campaign's narrative, Obama would not only change Washington, but he'd do it by bridging the gap between the Right and Left, healing long-festering wounds, bringing a polarized electorate together and uniting the country. In New Hampshire on Friday, Obama made the pitch in what's become a stock applause line in his campaign, saying in commanding style that Americans "can come together and say, 'we are one nation, we are one people and it is time for us to bring about change!'" The crowd went crazy.

Yet the message is as hopelessly naïve in the real world of American politics as it is appealing on the stump, and for a simple reason: it assumes that the GOP -- dominated as it is by "movement conservatives" in the Delay-Rove mold -- and it's corporate backers are interested in engaging in a thoughtful debate over how to make America a better country. If that were the case, then bridging the divide through calm words and negotiation would certainly be better by leaps and bounds than the ugly brand of politics we have today.

But that's not the case. John Edwards' own stock response to Obama's narrative seems quite accurate:
I don't believe you can sit around a table with the drug companies, the insurance companies or the oil corporations, negotiate with them - and then hope they'll just voluntarily give their power away. You can't nice them to death - it doesn't work.
The Republican establishment is fully aware of the fact that they can't win on any substantial issue of public policy on the merits of their arguments alone. There is no broad constituency in America for showering the top 1 percent with tax breaks, handing huge subsidies to energy firms and giant agribusinesses and pharmaceutical firms, starting wars of choice, cutting social services or privatizing broad swaths of the public sector.

So they emphasize social issues and conjure up fear of foreign bogey-men in order to remain relevant. And they marginalize and demonize their opponents, which has been a central thrust of conservative messaging since the days of Spiro Agnew and Joe McCarthy. In logic, it's known as "poisoning the well" -- making one's interlocutor out to be such a heinous beast that anything he or she says will be perceived, without examination, as an assault on our core values.

At heart, there's a fundamental divide between Obama's post-partisan rhetoric, and the hunger among many progressives for a fighter who will stand up to the Right-wing noise machine and effectively slug it out with the GOP. That goes a long way to explaining why Obama, despite an almost perfect biography and the caché of being a Beltway outsider at a time when the insiders are so widely loathed, never seemed to catch on with the left "blogosphere" the way one would have expected him to.

But if Iowa showed anything, it's that it's not wise to underestimate Obama's approach. As every political observer knows, the themes a politician uses on the campaign trail often don't match his or her style of governance once elected. That's rarely considered a good thing, but in this case, people seeking real change should hope that Obama's feel-good language is just campaign spin.

That's because progressives' best hope with Barack Obama would be that he use his message of "hope" and reconciliation to bring millions of new voters into the process for the first time, gather an enormous amount of political capital, and then turn around, take off the gloves and shove that mandate right down the GOP's throat.

Because if it is Obama in the end, there will be a real opportunity for him to lead the kind of political realignment that this country last saw during the "Reagan Revolution" in 1980. Obscured by the focus on how the race factor will play out, the simple fact is that a contest between Obama and any of the likely GOP nominees is going to present a stark contrast -- a visible manifestation of the "two Americas" theme-- and one that would serve Obama very well.

Because if it comes down to Obama, with his young, optimistic and energized followers, against a grumpy old McCain running on his support of the war, or Huckabee, the affable cleric surrounded by dour looking middle-aged evangelicals (and Chuck Norris), or Giuliani, who's mean as a snake and parodies himself every time he answers a healthcare question by invoking 9/11, or a stuffed shirt like Mitt Romney -- all (except Huckabee) angry, all hoping to scare voters into supporting them -- if that were the choice, then Barack Obama's America might just win in a landslide.



Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.