Like most people to the left of center, I'm excited about the potential of Barack Obama. One can't help but be inspired by his personal story, especially after reading Dreams of My Father. And he's bringing people into the political process at a remarkable rate. My sister recently went to a rally in Oakland, CA with 10,000 people. 10,000! In early 2007!
But substantively and politically, the problem is that Obama's appeal is still rooted in a goo-goo approach to politics. Most people who are supporting Obama, going to his rallies, etc. have no idea what he stands for besides opposition to the war in Iraq. As Andrew Ferguson wrote in the Weekly Standard, the issue chapters in The Audacity of Hope -- while undeniably well-written and thoughtful -- are stuffed with equivocation and conclude in vague Democratic boilerplate:
On one practical issue after another, at the end of long, tortured passages of chin-pulling and brow-furrowing, after the unexpected praise for Ronald Reagan and for the genius of the free market, the disdain for identity politics and for the overregulation of small business, there's never a chance that Obama will come down on any side other than the conventionally liberal views of the Democratic party mainstream. It turns out that much of his on-the-one-hand judiciousness is little more than a rhetorical strategy.
Instead, most of Obama's appeal comes down to his call for a new politics that is less cynical and polarized -- a vain hope. Bill Clinton and many other politicians have called for such a change, and none have succeeded. The underlying structural forces that promote polarization are unlikely to relent. And more importantly, polarization is a two-sided phenomenon. Calling for depolarization once you are president is, in practice, a call for the opposition to go along with your initiatives -- as in President Bush's call to "change the tone" (see All the President's Spin for more). It's an absurd promise that no candidate can deliver on (though Bush briefly claimed victory at "changing the tone" when his sky-high post-9/11 approval ratings silenced the Democratic opposition).
And as Ron Brownstein points out in a very smart column in the Los Angeles Times (via Tyler Cowen), Obama's appeal mirrors that of the reformer candidates who have traditionally lost Democratic primaries:
Since the 1960s, Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.
It's not much of an oversimplification to say that the blue-collar Democrats tend to see elections as an arena for defending their interests, and the upscale voters see them as an opportunity to affirm their values. Each group finds candidates who reflect those priorities.
Democratic professionals often describe this sorting as a competition between upscale "wine track" candidates and blue-collar "beer track" contenders. Another way to express the difference is to borrow from historian John Milton Cooper Jr.'s telling comparison of the pugnacious Theodore Roosevelt and the idealistic Woodrow Wilson. Cooper described the long rivalry between Republican Roosevelt and Democrat Wilson as a contest between a warrior and a priest. In modern times, the Democratic presidential race has usually pitted a warrior against a priest.
Warrior candidates stress their ability to deliver on kitchen table concerns and revel in political combat. They tout their experience and flout their scars. Their greatest strength is usually persistence, not eloquence; they don't so much inspire as reassure. Think of Harry Truman in 1948, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and, in a somewhat more diluted fashion, Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.
The priests, whose lineage runs back through McCarthy to Adlai Stevenson, present a very different face. They write books and sometimes verse. They observe the campaign's hurly-burly through a filter of cool, witty detachment. Their campaigns become crusades, fueled as much by inchoate longing for a "new politics" as tangible demands for new policies. In the past quarter of a century, Hart, Bradley and the late neo-liberal Paul Tsongas in 1992 each embodied the priest in Democratic presidential politics.
...Hillary Clinton has firmly positioned herself as a warrior. She wowed the firefighters' convention not through eloquence but passionate declarations of shared commitments. "You were there when we needed you, and I want you to know I will be there when you need me," she insisted. Her campaign already views non-college voters, especially women, as the foundation of her coalition. Her stump speech, centered on a promise to represent "invisible" Americans, targets the economic anxieties of blue-collar families.
Obama's aides resist the collar, but in the early stages, he looks more like a priest. He's written two bestselling books. Like McCarthy, Hart and Howard Dean, he's ignited a brush fire on college campuses. His initial message revolves heavily around eloquent but somewhat amorphous promises of reform and civic renewal. He laments "the smallness of our politics … where power is always trumping principle."
What Obama needs is to get out of the Tsongas/Hart box and engage in a serious debate over policy with Hillary and John Edwards. Soon. It will change his profile and engage downscale voters who don't care so much about process.