I landed in Des Moines, Iowa, late on Jan. 1, 2008, with the awful feeling I was playing catch-up on the biggest political story of my lifetime: the surging candidacy of Barack Obama to be our first African-American president. In hindsight, I can see a lot of things clearly. It wasn’t a good sign for Hillary Clinton, the supposed front-runner, that while Obama volunteers were boasting of all the new young voters they’d added to the process, the Clinton folks were bragging that they’d stocked up on snow shovels to get their elderly supporters out of their homes and to the caucus sites. The night before the vote, in our hotel lobby, we ran into former President Bill Clinton, who was not yet the irascible finger-wagger he’d become after a few of his wife’s losses. I asked him what would happen Thursday, and he shrugged. He said he didn’t know, it depended on who turned out, but he didn’t sound optimistic.
It didn’t snow Jan. 3; the shiny new Clinton shovels stayed in the garage. But the shiny new voters electrified by the Obama campaign came out, for real. The caucus site I covered more than doubled its 2004 turnout; Obama crushed Clinton and John Edwards there and in the rest of the state. The race was far from over, of course; Clinton’s resurrection in New Hampshire would reanimate a Democratic rivalry for the ages. But that Iowa surprise contained all the makings of Obama’s eventual primary victory, and I didn’t see it coming till it was upon us. Even after Iowa, I didn’t fully grasp the Obama phenomenon. What did I almost miss, and why did I almost miss it?
‘Tis the time of year to take stock, and I thought it was worth looking at what I got wrong, and right, in this amazing 12 months. It was a huge thrill and something of a blur for me. As the first presidential race I covered with a blog as well as frequent television appearances, it certainly gave me more chances than ever before to get things wrong, and right. Consider this my accountability moment and also a way of clearing my thinking for the epic four years ahead.
But before I list all the things I got wrong, and some of them were whoppers, here are a few things I got right. I promise it won’t take too long.
Hillary Clinton didn’t destroy Obama or the Democratic Party; in fact, she made him a better candidate. She didn’t march on to Denver, demand that the superdelegates back her, caucus the PUMAs to reject Obama on the floor of the convention, or run against McCain and Obama as an independent. Remember those paranoid scenarios? I had to go on “Hardball” Wednesday, June 4, the day after the final two Democratic primaries, and my friends David Corn and Chris Matthews were hyperventilating because Clinton had failed to drop out. She had split the day’s contests, taking South Dakota while Obama won Montana, but Obama had effectively clinched the nomination. I told Corn and Matthews calmly, over and over, that she wouldn’t destroy the party, that she’d do the right thing. Unfortunately, the transcript is no longer online, but it mainly went like this:
Corn: It was all about Hillary, all about Eve. What she said was, “I still have a decision to make.” She really doesn‘t. The one decision she has is whether she will blow apart the party by contesting Obama‘s claim on the nomination.
Walsh: And she will not do that.
Corn: Or going ahead and getting beyond. She said she had a decision to make. Where is the decision? There is no decision here if she will be gracious and do the right thing.
Walsh: Of course she‘s going to be gracious. David, do you really think she‘s going to blow up the party?
Corn: Wait a second: “Write to me and tell me what you think I should do.” What type of false hope is that?
Walsh: What is wrong with listening to your supporters?
Corn: What is the decision here? This decision is either to support Barack Obama and do what she said already, work for the Democratic nominee, or to try to play games.
Walsh: Everybody knows she will do that.
And, of course, she did: A few hours later, she announced her concession event in Washington that was also planned as a thank you to her supporters — and held on a Saturday to make it easier for them to get off work and attend.
Similarly, I argued more than once that the 50-state primary battle was good for Democrats, a practical version of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy even if it made the good doctor green around the gills watching. Obama has said it himself more than once. The weekend before the election, I took the time to compare two Obama speeches given in Columbus, Ohio, nine months apart, and found that the later speech featured a much more dialed-in, solutions-focused, populist Obama — who’d borrowed at least some of his new stump speech from working-class Hillary. Clinton’s unlikely appeal to working-class Democrats (which should never have been taken for granted, since she spent many years being caricatured as the ugly face of elitist liberal feminism) helped Obama chart the electoral course that would win Nov. 4.
There was no Bradley effect, and no “black-brown tension” on Election Day. I wrote in January that the big Latino margins for Clinton weren’t a sign of brown-black tension or racism, but evidence that Latino voters just didn’t know Obama as well as they knew Clinton. They liked Hillary, with whom they had a 20-year relationship through her husband and her own eight-year Senate career, but they would happily vote for Obama in the general. Sure enough, come Nov. 4, Latinos liked Obama just fine. They supported him 2-1 over McCain. Obama’s huge gains among the burgeoning Latino electorate were one of the most impressive achievements of this election and may have the most enduring effect on the long-term fortunes of the Democratic Party.
Similarly, predictions that a secret well of white racism would swamp Obama were unfounded. In Salon, in late October, pollster Paul Maslin advised readers to believe the polls that indicated Obama had a comfortable lead. He was right. The polls were accurate. And Obama beat John Kerry’s national total among white voters by 2 points.
Obama wasn’t the über-progressive his lefty supporters claimed. There really wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between him and Hillary on 99 percent of serious issues. His FISA vote in July, and his decision to keep Defense Secretary Robert Gates, prove one of my unprovable but firm beliefs from the primary season: Had he been a U.S. senator, not an Illinois state senator from liberal Hyde Park, Barack Obama would have voted in 2002 for the Authorization for Use of Military Force, just as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry and John Edwards did. At any rate, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, said it best in an open letter to progressives on Dec. 7: Suckers! No, what he really said in “A Message to Obama’s Progressive Critics,” was:
This is not a time for the left wing of our Party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-Elect Obama is making. Some believe the appointments generally aren’t progressive enough. Having worked with former Senator Obama for the last two years, I can tell you, that isn’t the way he thinks and it’s not likely the way he will lead.
It’s fascinating, now that I’ve become a passionate Obama admirer, to find that a lot of his early acolytes on the left are already mad at him. David Corn himself laid out their disappointment recently in a Washington Post Op-Ed, “This Wasn’t Quite the Change We Pictured.” I think you can understand a lot of the political dynamics playing out today by looking back, soberly, at the ups and down of the primary campaign, particularly at how the left projected its own hopes and dreams on Obama. The left believed he was a great progressive savior sent to rescue the country not only from George Bush, but from a boring, centrist, hawkish Clinton restoration. It’s clear they weren’t looking clearly at Obama.
But neither was I. Understanding how and why Obama won will help us understand how and why he governs the way he governs. And now, here are the three biggest things I got wrong, starting with the least important.
I overestimated the impact of Obama’s most shrill and self-righteous supporters and assumed they would turn off other Americans the way they had alienated me. I don’t want to poke a mostly dead hornet’s nest — especially now that a lot of the early zealots are madder at Obama than they are at me. But with hindsight it’s clear I was oversensitive to three cohorts of noisy Obama supporters: mainstream media stars, self-righteous lefties, and fools who threw the word “racism” around carelessly.
The racism slur got old fast, especially in the pages of Salon. Back in 2003, I was guilty, for a time, of underestimating Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s appeal. While I praised his politics, I publicly expressed doubt that he was electable (um, note to self, I might have been right about that one, but that’s ancient history). I was besieged by the online Dean Defense Forces, who used blogs and e-mail and letters to the editor to plead with me, some more nicely than others, to give the good doctor another chance. They called me short-sighted, myopic, politically cynical, even conservative. (You can read about it in my last online self-correction, “My Big Fat Mea Culpa.”)
But the Dean backers did not accuse me of hating former wrestlers, doctors, Vermont politicians or men. I wasn’t called the C-word or the B-word or a hag, harridan or harpie; nor was I called any of the gender-based terms of non-endearment you can find on my blog comments from back in the heat of the primary season.
I defended Hillary Clinton against sexist attacks because the same sexism was being directed at me. The sexism drove me as crazy as the crazy folks yelling racism, especially from the mainstream media. It also bothered me, more than it should have, that the same media stars who’d savaged the Clintons in the 1990s, and would continue brutalizing Hillary Clinton this year, were swooning uncritically over Obama. There was plenty of sexism, which we covered to death, but also a double standard in political coverage, in which everything Clinton did was calculating and venal, and nothing Obama did that could be depicted as old-style politics was ever cast that way. He was Reaganesque; his stylish suits were clearly made of Teflon.
Finally, I watched many old friends on the left depart the realm of reality when it came to proclaiming Obama’s goodness and Clinton’s evil. It was self-congratulatory and narcissistic. They said “Obama” but they meant “me.” Forty years after he wrote the Port Huron Statement, SDS founder Tom Hayden composed another manifesto, cosigned by Barbara Ehrenreich, Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher, that began, with a totalitarian lilt: “All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama.” It went on to state: “We believe that Barack Obama’s very biography reflects the positive potential of the globalization process … By its very existence, the Obama campaign will stimulate a vision of globalization from below.” Really? His “very biography”? His campaign’s “very existence”? Project much, progressives?
Likewise, Chris Bowers, who later become the poster boy for angry lefty Obama supporters after Obama assembled a fairly centrist Cabinet, went to similar lengths last spring praising the brand-new Obama coalition, more for its cultural signifiers and lifestyle grooviness than for its political meaning. Bowers stared into a mirror until he’d hypnotized himself. In an Open Left post last May, he giddily predicted a “cultural shift” in which “the southern Dems and Liebercrat elite will be largely replaced by rising creative class types. Obama has all the markers of a creative class background, from his community organizing, to his Unitarianism [in fact, Obama belonged to a United Church of Christ denomination], to being an academic, to living in Hyde Park to shopping at Whole Foods and drinking PBR. These will be the type of people running the Democratic Party now, and it will be a big cultural shift from the white working class focus of earlier decades.”
What Hayden’s old new left and Bowers’ new new left have in common is a desire for a political formula that leaves out the troublesome white working class. They may be a shrinking share of the electorate, but you write them off entirely at your political, and maybe moral, peril. And it’s striking how, whatever the formula, white college-educated (counter)cultural elites always wind up on top. (And if they don’t, it’s the fault of the racist, benighted white working class rejecting what they should know is best for them.) And people wondered why there were questions about the Obama movement’s elitism?
In the end, of course, Obama’s nastiest lefty supporters might’ve filled my e-mail in box to overflowing, but they didn’t have the reach to turn off millions of potential voters. Nor did most voters care that MSM stars loved Obama and loathed Hillary. I let my anger at the unfairness of the coverage, and autocratic lefty demands that progressives should struggle mightily and cheerfully behind Great Leader Obama, blind me to Obama’s real gifts. Ironically, or maybe not, it took the voices of Obama supporters in the pages of Salon to make me see the silliness of blaming him for the excesses of his worst acolytes. I hope I don’t embarrass them by calling them out here (and I hope I don’t miss anyone wonderful), but Carol Richards, doloresflower, weeping for brunnhilde, lateagain, Uncle Fester, even Klytus all helped me see things I was missing, while I fought old battles against the Clinton-hating MSM and new battles against self-righteous lefties. (The consistent support of Ben Sen, AKA Smith and Stellaa likewise kept me sane.)
I underestimated the American people. I never thought Obama’s race would be the main obstacle to his election. Certainly there were many people who would never vote for a black president, but I believed his appeal as the first serious African-American presidential candidate might win him more votes than it cost him. (John Judis says I was right.) But I did think that a combination of factors — his being a biracial African-American with a Muslim-sounding name, a relatively slight national footprint, and passionate support mainly from college towns and other liberal outposts — would ultimately make him a tough sell for Middle America. As late as early September, I still worried that the war-hero branding of John McCain could make Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience even more troublesome.
And earlier, when Hillary Clinton began to gain steam in the late primaries, I began to doubt whether the so-called Reagan Democrats she was winning back to the party would ever accept Obama. I was offended by Obama supporters who reflexively blamed white racism for Clinton’s late-primary wins, but I was certain it had played some role and would be a bigger factor in November. I was unfair to white working-class voters, as were many Obama zealots, who thought white racism would doom the black Democrat in some Rust Belt states. In the end, blue-collar white Democrats wound up being open to Obama’s retooled, populist economic appeal. I wasn’t entirely prepared for so many of those Clinton voters to overlook the nasty “Who is Barack Obama?” smears of the McCain campaign, and finally, at long last, vote their economic interests, their hopes and not their fears. Obama’s November victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana proved that the emphasis on race as the deciding factor was false. Which leads me to my final big mistake.
I underestimated Obama. Don’t get me wrong. I was blown away by Obama’s 2004 Boston convention speech, just like the rest of the sobbing, beaten-down, gay-friend-having, awesome-God-worshipping, Little League-coaching red- and blue-state Democrats there in the Fleet Center that night. I’d admired Obama since editing Scott Turow’s profile of the Illinois Senate candidate in Salon in 2003. I truly believed he could and maybe would be president some day — but not in 2008.
I liked Obama instinctively, but I was conscious of the way he’d avoided big controversies in the Senate. Despite his anti-Iraq-war stance before his election, once in office his war-voting record was comparable to that of most Democrats. I assumed he was a decent liberal, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. I didn’t think he was particularly “progressive” or, to be more specific, that he would be reliably and appreciably to Clinton’s left. Also, a confession: I got tired of the gauzy rhetoric I once thrilled to. I came to prefer Hillary Clinton’s jackhammer stump speeches about problems and policy. And while I believed, deep down, he was a liberal, I distrusted his talk of post-partisanship; his praise of Reagan (yes, it was praise; he lauded him for returning optimism, entrepreneurialism and accountability to government; that’s praise, people!); his carefully staking out a less liberal middle ground than Clinton on healthcare reform and Social Security.
And when the going got particularly rough, in those Rust Belt/Appalachian primaries Clinton won, I worried that Obama might never figure out how to appeal to working-class Democrats. He was slow to make the economy central to his pitch; even after he lost the Pennsylvania primary, he stuck to a stump speech that mostly played on lofty, good-government tropes about change and reform. Those platitudes weren’t getting the attention of people worried about losing their jobs or their homes. I underestimated his capacity to adjust his campaign to the times, as he did post-meltdown in September.
From the start Obama was better than I thought he was — and he got even better during the campaign. He was also smarter than I was. He knew how to win, and maybe I didn’t. Specifically, I failed to sufficiently value the attractiveness of his calm, problem-solving demeanor in a crisis. He never became the fighter I wanted him to be, the partisan brawler who’d smack McCain around — but I was apparently wrong to want that, especially from our first black male presidential nominee. Race aside, Obama understood that the public wanted a thoughtful, centered, reassuring leader in these unsettling times. I remember watching the three presidential debates and IM’ing anxiously with my pal Andrew Leonard, both of us thinking sure, Obama was smart and thoughtful, but we wished he’d hit McCain harder on his bailout high jinks, his closeness to Bush, etc. Then the debates would end and the polls would show undecided voters thought Obama had won, and had taken just the right calm, reasoned course.
I will no longer assume I can channel the voters, despite my Irish Catholic working-class cred. I also nearly missed the fact that his political talent is about more than speeches; the organization he ran reflects a deep intelligence about the possibilities of American politics right now, from the nitty-gritty and groundbreaking use of technology and social networking, to the soaring themes of change, to the hunger for a world beyond partisan bickering and polarization.
But now that I’ve come to appreciate and admire Obama for what he’s accomplished, a lot of his earliest supporters are having doubts. Maybe it’s like a later-in-life romance; I can see him for who he is, with a lot less projection than those who had love-at-first-sight experiences. It certainly helps that I supported Obama well aware he would try to govern from the center. For now, I’m fine with that — as long as “the center” is defined accurately and not shoved to the right as it has been for the last 30 years. I also think left-right dualities are fairly meaningless at the moment. Even conservative economists, along with the Bush administration’s financial “leadership,” such as it is, are backing the kind of economic intervention that would have been dismissed as socialism just a year ago. Obama’s post-partisan appeal is perfectly timed for this historical moment, when he can and in fact must make some truly left-wing moves on the economy, but still sell them as best for everyone.
In governing, he’s going to have to make hard choices that he mostly avoided during the campaign. It’s not likely he can satisfy Tom Hayden and neocon Ken Adelman, who both endorsed him. But while some on the left are complaining, and the right is ridiculing him as a “Magic Negro,” polls show the vast majority of the American people have been happy with his orderly, thoughtful transition.
Of course, he can go too far with his bipartisan approach. We all have our deal breakers; mine is civil liberties, and his reversal on FISA was almost one for me. And like so many Obama supporters, I’m appalled at the selection of Saddleback Rev. Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation Jan. 20. Once again, it smacks a little bit of the arrogance I worried I saw in Obama, the sense that his personal appeal can heal deep political divisions — and that if he does something, it must be right. During the presidential campaign, I worried that Obama was wrong about that — that the right would use its nastiest, most divisive us-against-them tactics to defeat him. But even though Obama succeeded politically with his post-partisan appeal, it’s still wrong to honor a smiling bigot like Rick Warren at the expense of gay Americans. It’s wrong, and Obama’s inauguration, the day after this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, will be a little bit less joyous for many of us because of this decision. (Personally, I’ll be saying a nondenominational prayer of thanks for Bayard Rustin while Warren speaks.)
But I believe we’ll get over it. I believe Obama learns from his mistakes; I saw it during the campaign. After this long year, I’ll even allow the slight chance that I’m wrong on this point, that with his gesture to Warren, Obama sees possibilities for political and moral redemption and realignment even when I can’t. And, as I have been so many times this amazing year, I’ll be happy if he proves me wrong.