Sunday, January 06, 2008


Since this is the fortieth anniversary of '68 we are once again experiencing political deja-vu as the Obama campaign picks up the shade (nephesh) of Robert Kennedy.

The '68 Democratic Convention was a choice between the establishment candidate; Hubert Humphrey and the anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. Coming up the middle was Robert Kennedy. And though he lost the early primaries, the youthful Robert won California before he was assissinated. Unlike McCarthy, Kennedy made change his message, more than being just against the war, Kennedy made the war on poverty regardless of one's skin colour the issue that mobilized his base.

It is interesting forty years later that Obama has mobilized that same enthusiasm and youthful base that both Kennedy and McCarthy benefited from, to now run ahead of the establishment candidate Hillary Humphrey. The picture of Hillary in Iowa in defeat surrounded by the Democratic establishment dead heads, hubby, Madeline Albrecht, etc. all that white hair and those white faces on stage said it all.

Despite her gender, Hillary Clinton blends into the pack of her fifty- and sixty-something white rivals on both sides – all experienced pols who, in varying degree, are held responsible for a country that Americans consistently tell pollsters is headed in the wrong direction.

Whereas Obama appealed in Iowa as he does in New Hampshire to independents, as well as Republicans tired of their party establishment. He mobilized to register new voters as Democrats, these included yes lots of young people but also women, thanks to Oprah. Many of those voting in Iowa caucuses last week did so for the first time, and of those the majority were older women. And they voted Obama not Clinton.

Most importantly Republican voters are moving towards supporting Obama in the primaries. Partially out of an 'anybody but Clinton' reaction but more importantly as a rejection of party politics of the establishment. Obama is seen as the anti-establishment candidate for voters in both parties as well as amongst independents. His populism is wider than the narrow vision of either Huckabee or Edwards, who focus on blue collar fears. Yes his message of hope is hokey, but it is a vision Americans are graving after six years of the politics of fear. His politics of change and of hope echo the Robert Kennedy campaign, as I have said before, and therefore cross class, race, religious, or other ideological blinders that limit his opponents campaigns, Democrat or Republican.

And that is what makes Obama a phenom, his appeal across party lines which makes him a sure winner for the Democrats. Unlike Clinton, whose appeal is limited to the party establishment. And unlike any of the Republican candidates whose message remains stay the course, or whose appeal is to their narrow base of supporters within that moribund party.

Why does Obama appeal to Republicans? Because despite all the fawning over Ronald Reagan, some Republican's remember that their party was founded not by a fiscal conservative, or by the Moral Majority but was once the party of Abe Lincoln. And Obama appeals to his spirit of the people, for the people, by the people.

Conservatives, never mind centrists, are booking passage on the Obama bandwagon. Which isn't surprising: Whomever the GOP nominates appears doomed in November, although the betting here is that the once-moribund John McCain campaign will both win the GOP nomination and give the Dem standard-bearer a good fight.

But the Obama swoon among conservatives is almost breathtaking. Lapsed neo-con Andrew Sullivan practically nominates Obama for sainthood in a recent Atlantic Monthly profile. Peggy Noonan, the former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, notices that Obama, in contrast to Clinton and Dubya, has the Stephen Lewis gift of cogitating while making his extemporaneous observations, rather than defaulting to talking points scripted by his staff. ("What a concept.").

Noonan warns the rather sound-alike Democratic and Republican hopefuls about "the quiet longing" among Dem, GOP and media potentates for an Obama upset. The capital dreads an encore of the (however justified) Hillary Clinton paranoia of the 1990s. It hungers, she says, for a refreshing phenom who might indeed be too wet behind those big ears, but reminds a lot of people of a much earlier Illinoisan with just one term in Congress by way of experience who saved the Republic from ruin in the 1860s.

David Brooks, one of the house conservatives at the allegedly liberal New York Times, wrote Friday that, "Whatever their political affiliations, Americans are going to feel good about the Obama victory, which is a story of youth, possibility and unity through diversity – the primordial themes of the American experience. And Americans are not going to want to see this stopped. When an African-American man is leading a juggernaut to the White House, do you want to be the one to stand up and say No?"

Whew. Bring out the smelling salts.

That Obama, unlike African-American leaders such as Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton, has so little invested in the civil-rights wars of the past is among the factors in his favourable prospects of becoming America's 44th president.

Obama is the son of a Kenyan economist and a Kansas mother with slave-owning ancestors. He chose to be a black American rather than a multiracial one. But Obama is conspicuously impatient with adversarial politics, racial and otherwise. He frames poverty, chronic unemployment, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy not as issues of racial victimhood, but as a betrayal of founding American ideals of fairness that has been no less punishing to Appalachian whites than inner-city blacks. Obama also bluntly chastises his audiences for substituting video games for parenting.

Barack Obama is only the third African American elected to the U.S. senate since Reconstruction, and now is the sole black member of that body. (More than a dozen women serve). For America and that part of the world that still looks to the U.S. for inspiration, the first black chosen to lead a major industrial nation would indeed be a transformative event, and an unprecedented test of 21st-century American values in November.


Winds of Change

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