Sunday, November 11, 2007

A New Majority

I just watched Obama's speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner which everyone seems to be raving about. (Andrew Sullivan has the video and a rundown of links here.) I liked what I heard, even if it struck me as a "two steps forward, one step back" affair.

First the two steps forward. To begin with, he finally quit talking about bi-partisanship, and only mentioned bringing Democrats and Republicans together once (how on Earth that formulation makes it past whoever's vetting his speeches is beyond me). Instead he framed his ability to appeal across the center as creating "a new majority", and spoke of Republicans and independents "listening intently" to the Democratic campaign. To my mind, the difference is substantial and I'd like to see him be even more aggressive in how he formulates and deploys it.

Secondly, he really took the gloves off with regard to Hillary Clinton, or at least it seemed that way to me. Matthew Yglesias has written about how Obama's attacks on Clinton need to be spelled out for the 99.9% of voters who haven't begun to pay attention to the campaign yet, which render them essentially ineffective as attacks. His litany of national security bona fides (no Iraq vote, no Kyl-Lieberman vote, and a willingness to speak with leaders we don't like) seemed pretty direct, but then again, I've been paying attention.

He also responded to the meme that he won't be tough enough to stand up to the inevitable GOP swiftboating by pretty much calling out the swiftboaters. This criticism has more to do with the Obama campaign than with Obama himself, though, so I might be exagerrating the importance of this brief passage.

The step back for me was his refusal to scrap the trope of "summoning America to a higher purpose". Blech, blech, and ugh. Most of the catastrophic failures we're busy extricating ourselves from these days are largely the result of having confused geopolitics with messianic evangelism these past seven years. I'm willing to indulge a certain amount of expansive, inspirational imagery as a rhetorical device, but not if it borders on charismatic preaching. By contrast, for instance, when he vamped on the refrain "Our moment is now", I instinctively jotted down "Reagan" (thinking, of course, of "Morning in America"), which is high praise when it comes to rhetoric, regardless of how you might feel about the man's politics. America could probably use some inspiring reminders about all the good things we can still accomplish right about now, but I think the purpose should remain relatively low, somewhere on the nuts and bolts, grease under the fingernails level.

One thing that Obama might learn from Reagan's example is that there's a difference between being polarizing and divisive. Reagan polarized America in the sense that people who disagreed with him disagreed with him pretty strenuously. But it's hard to call a guy who won 60% of the popular vote divisive. (The obvious comparisons are with George W. Bush, who's both extremely polarizing and divisive, and Jimmy Carter, who was divisive without being very polarizing.)

I think that's the weakness of Obama's campaign, at least in the way it's perceived, rightly or wrongly. While attacking Hillary Clinton for being too careful about staking out her positions, he strikes me as being too careful about staking out his constituency. Reagan saw an opportunity to win over blue collar, rank and file Democrats based on social issues and by seizing it he re-wrote the balance of power between the two parties for a decade. I think Obama has the same opportunity but he needs to dial in on exactly who he's aiming for and how to win them over. Granted, he's still running in the Democratic primary, not the general election, so I might be ahead of myself on this. But I don't think I am.

One final observation. If Garance Franke-Ruta finds it noteworthy that Hillary Clinton rises into "...crescendos that, regretably, can only be described as shrill...", I think it's only fair to point out that Obama's crescendos sounded hoarse and strident.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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