Thursday, October 30, 2008
Party time, part two
I was talking the other day with a friend and longtime blog-reader/ sometime commenter who was surprised to learn that I wasn’t on the Obama Train from the moment it left the station. “What about the Obama/ Bérubé 2020 ticket?” she asked. “Weren’t you planning to team up with him the moment he gave that speech in Boston back in 2004?” Well, no, actually I wasn’t. I thought it was a remarkable speech, and I was thrilled that he was going to trounce poor befuddled Alan Keyes, and I did make up a few Obama/ Bérubé bumper stickers (and what, really, is more mellifluous than “Obama/ Bérubé”? It’s just about the best sounding ticket ever). But once he arrived in the Senate, he managed to cool my ardor pretty quickly. He was on the wrong side of the Schiavo circus to begin with (though I’m glad to see that he’s apologized for that one); he made nice with his new mentor and Sith lord Joe Lieberman; and he didn’t say much about those Alito and Roberts fellows as they made their way onto the Supreme Court. I didn’t expect him to stop the war single-handedly, and I knew that I couldn’t expect a freshman senator to step up and take a leadership position in the party, but hell, I thought, he’s a rising star, he’s been on magazine covers, he could establish himself pretty easily as a hot young prospect in the Feingold/ Dean wing of the party. And he didn’t. So gradually, he dropped off my radar.
Now, anyone who’s been reading me for more than a week or so knows that I don’t do the purity thing. Feingold himself voted to confirm John Ashcroft; the sainted Paul Wellstone voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. There are people out there who will never forgive either vote, but I ain’t one of them. Still, I saw no compelling reason to jump on the Obama bandwagon in 2007. Late that year, Nick informed me enthusiastically that Obama was within striking distance in Iowa. “Meh,” I replied. “Meh?” he said, incredulously. “Meh,” I repeated. “So who are you thinking about instead?” he asked. “I honestly don’t know,” I said. “I like to think good things about Edwards, and I hope he stays in the race long enough to push the rest of them toward universal health care, but I’m not convinced that a guy who was one of the most conservative Democrats in the ‘04 race is really the successor to Eugene Debs, and of course we know his campaign has to go dark after March or something because he’ll be out of money. And Dodd has really taken the lead on civil liberties, so if the primary were today I might even vote for him. Because, you know, we really need more pasty guys with shiny white hair running things. But I’m really and truly undecided.” And Nick was OK with that.
Then, of course, Obama did win Iowa, and Hillary won New Hampshire, and you’d think that I would have declared my allegiance by then. Because what I dreaded above all was a center-right Democratic Party that runs a ten- or eleven-state national campaign, hoping yet again to scratch out a two-for-three in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Call it the FLOP approach. I was a Dean guy in the ‘04 primaries, a paid-up member of the Dean-for-DNC-chair wing of the netroots, and a strong believer in the fifty-state strategy. And I thought Obama would be a better fifty-state candidate, better able to take advantage of the demographic changes in the west/ southwest and better able to help downticket Democrats from Montana to New Mexico. Clinton, for her part, was beginning the Long Slide, insinuating to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that Obama couldn’t be trusted on reproductive rights. Wolfson and Penn became more profoundly annoying with each passing day. And gradually, gradually, I decided that Obama was my only . . . what is the word? Oh yes, my only hope to see the leadership and the national electoral strategy of the Democratic Party wrested from the dead hand of Clintonism at last. Because the ten- or eleven-state FLOP approach was Clintonism distilled: cede vast amounts of territory to Republicans, defend one tiny little corner of American political life, and be sure to throw your leftward friends under the bus at every opportunity.
And so I officially endorsed Obama in late January, thereby catapulting him to his astonishing sweep of eleventyteen thousand consecutive primary victories in February.
I got caught up in it all, no question. A few of my posts at TPM Café made that clear, though they were more about Hillary’s increasingly execrable campaign than about Obama’s transcendent virtues. Like this one and this one and this one and that one. Dang, those were really hard to find! Apparently the new TPM layout has managed to obliterate authors’ archives. Besides, I liked it better when I was writin’ silly stuff over there, like this and this. A lot of TPM readers didn’t go for it, but I confess I really enjoyed writing
Some observers, noting that the Republican field is divided among candidates who hate taxes, Muslims, atheists, Mexicans, gays and lesbians, evolutionary theorists, and versions of their earlier selves, have suggested that the solution lies not in a “Coordinate the Hate” campaign but in a more radical effort, known as the “Rudy Tancromnabee Project,” to combine the brains of three or four candidates using experimental technologies developed by mad scientists. “It sounds crazy, but it just might work,” said Dr. Grover Horowitz of the American Fusion Institute. “If we can come up with a composite ‘unity’ candidate who can hate big government, immigrants, homosexuals, scientists, atheists, and Islamofascists all at the same time and at the same level of intensity, we won’t even need to have a primary.”
Ah, those were good times.
And I started to check myself: were gender politics a factor for me? Was I more comfortable with Obama because he was, you know, a guy? Almost every woman I met back then was supporting Hillary, and their level of identification with her was intense. Back then, academe wasn’t wall-to-wall Obamaniacs; on every campus I visited, there were plenty of smart, accomplished professional women who had dealt with decades of sexist bullshit from their colleagues, and Hillary’s many trials and tribulations spoke to their lives (I did not inquire as to whether they had weaselly womanizing spouses as well). But after checking myself thoroughly in the space-age Genderometer, I decided I was supporting Obama against Clinton not because of either candidate’s gender or race or drinking abilities or athletic skills, but simply because I wanted a new map, a new alignment, a new party.
Though I have to say that the sheer size and enthusiasm of Obama’s rallies did impress me in one respect: they finally gave conservative intellectuals a healthy appreciation of the dangers of fascism. These people weren’t fazed by the theory of the unitary executive, or by Bush’s “signing statements,” or by the Cheney Archipelago of secret detention-and-torture sites. They didn’t mind it much when Bush campaign rallies included chanted loyalty oaths. They scoffed when schoolteachers were arrested for wearing “protect our civil liberties” T-shirts at Bush campaign events. But they were finally alerted—by Obama’s crowds, by his oratory, by his campaign’s sense of graphic design—to the dangers of charismatic leadership and totalitarian rule. And that’s a good thing, I guess. Late to the party, but still.
One last note. Just before I officially endorsed Obama for President, I visited Duquesne University. I talked about this stuff from my forthcoming book. At lunch the next day, a couple of graduate students asked me whether I thought there might be a sudden groundswell of support for Obama, sweeping the nation and changing the dynamics of the race. Wouldn’t that make Democratic politics popular, in a cultural-studies kinda sense? Sure, I said. It would be really interesting. But I just don’t think it’s gonna happen. Super Duper Tuesday is just two weeks off, Hillary leads Obama by double digits in state after state, and I just don’t see how Obama’s going to make up that kind of ground. He’s gonna get crushed in California and New York, and after that, I think it’s just a game of attrition. Deep, heavy sigh.
I mention this just to admit that when it comes to politics, my prognosticatin’ skills are sometimes no better than Mark Penn’s. I’m pleased and relieved to say that I was right about Obama’s potential to run a truly national campaign instead of a FLOP sweat, and the downticket races look pretty good. But when it comes to predicting things other than Super Bowls, I am not so good. So don’t be asking me about next Tuesday.
Tomorrow, I promise, will be exceptionally Arbitrary.