During this campaign season New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich has established himself as someone worth reading. Last month I took off from Leibovich’s article on degrees of disloyalty among the friends of Bill and Hillary Clinton for a Dantesque consideration of Clintons’ Inferno. Today Leibovich returns with six theses on the the strengthening of Barack Obama’s candidacy via his primary contests with Hillary Clinton.
Leibovich’s six theses are timely and plausible. They nevertheless address an easier question than one that logically precedes it. How did Obama emerge from the pack of Democratic candidates first to challenge and then to vanquish Senator Clinton? Answering that question calls for another set of theses that are in my opinion more interesting and perhaps more debatable than Leibovich’s. In the spirit of Leibovich’s article, here are my six theses on Obama’s emergence as the Democratic nominee for president.
1. The original thesis of the Obama candidacy was that, in a multiparty field, he could stake a claim as the Ivory Soap candidate on the issue of Iraq. His opposition to the war was purer than the rest of the Democratic field’s. Having been an Illinois state legislator at the time the roll was called in the United States Senate, he had not cast a vote to authorize it. Free of the encumbrance of responsibility at the time of the Senate vote, he could present himself to Democrats as a visionary opponent of a misguided war. That his presentation of his position on the war was not entirely accurate, as Peter Wehner demonstrated in “Obama’s war,” is beside the point.
2. The secondary thesis of the Obama campaign is that there was a substantial desire among Democrats to move on from the Clinton era. After Obama’s Iowa breakthrough and his New Hampshire loss, this theme had legs.
3. Obama emerged as a messianc figure come to redeem the time. He is a quasi-religious figure for non-believers, playing to the same market that made films such as “Ghost” and “The Sixth Sense” such enormous successes. It is an element of the Obama campaign that many observers have noted and that I explored in “The return of Sister Flute.”
4. Obama’s claim to represent a new poltics ending partisanship and division is as pure a product of the Bush era as Jimmy Carter’s “I will never lie to you” was of the Nixon era. That the products both have a lot of buyers does not mean they have any substance, but they built or build on genuine insight into the will to believe among a significant part of the electorate.
5. Obama’s race is an asset. Americans want to prove their racial good will. A black candidate whose race is incidental to his campaign and whose political skills are manifest is able to take advantage of a great moral yearning that lies deep within the American psyche. Shelby Steele, who has eloquently explored this theme in reference to Obama, refers to it as “the idealism that race is but a negligible human difference.”
6. There is no substitute for organization in a competitive race. Making use of his ample financial resources, Obama developed an impressive field organization to crush Hillary Clinton in the caucus states. Obama’s lead among Clinton in pledged delegates is entirely attributable to his deicisive advantage over her in caucus states. This is a particularly old-fashioned thesis to derive from a campaign predicated on a theme of new politcs. D.H. Lawrence’s literary lesson can be put to good use here: Trust the tale, not the teller.
The first three of these theses have a somewhat limited applicability to the contest among Democrats. The second three also provide a solid basis for Obama’s candidacy in the general election campaign.
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