Poetry vs. fear

The Obama-McCain contest will hold up a mirror to America's soul.

Published May 13, 2008 10:41AM (EDT)

The coming presidential election will present America with the starkest political choice it has faced in a generation. On one side, we have Barack Obama -- the first black candidate to make it to the finals, a staunch liberal who opposes the Bush administration's Iraq war and its massive giveaway to the rich. On the other, we have John McCain, a onetime maverick who expeditiously crawled back into the far-right bosom of the GOP and is running as Son of Bush.

It's the collision of an irresistible force with an immovable object. Obama, combined with Bush's disastrous legacy, is the irresistible force. Obama is a consummately skilled and pragmatic politician who has inspired millions of young voters, owns the black vote, and has demonstrated he can appeal to independents and swing voters outside the traditional Democratic constituency. Forget the recent polls showing that some Hillary Clinton supporters won't vote for him -- once Clinton gracefully bows out of the race, her supporters will close ranks around Obama. Anyone who seriously thinks a significant number of them are going to vote for McCain is delusional. The Democrats will go into November united and energized.

And, of course, they will benefit enormously from the train-wreck presidency of George W. Bush. According to a CNN poll, Bush is the most unpopular president in modern American history: a staggering 71 percent of Americans disapprove of how he is handling the job, the first time any president's disapproval rating has reached into the 70s. Support for Bush's signature achievement, the war in Iraq, is also at an all-time low, with 68 percent opposed to it. Things are no better for the Republicans on the domestic front, with voters battered by record-high gas prices and a tanking economy. On the issues, there is simply no ray of hope anywhere for the GOP.

But the GOP does have one immense, immovable object on its side: tradition. McCain may be the second coming of Bush, but he's familiar. He's white, he's white-haired, he talks tough on national security, and he regurgitates all the time-tested GOP sound bites about liberal wimps, ineffectual do-gooders, tax cuts for hard-working Americans, keeping big government off our backs, family values, the greatness of America, and so on. In short, he's an assembly-line Karl Rove Republican, retooled to make him more attractive to the party's troglodytic base. And assembly-line Republicans have tended to beat Democrats in recent elections.

Moreover, McCain isn't running against just any Democrat but against a black liberal named Barack Hussein Obama. Obama's name may be the most potent weapon in the GOP's armory. If you want to believe that America is a governable country of informed citizens and not a nation of ignorant, Fox News-watching sheep, the single most depressing fact to come out of the Bush years is that vast numbers of Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. According to a 2003 Washington Post poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans believed that. And in a poll taken last September, 33 percent of Americans still believed it -- presumably the same 30-odd percent of Americans who will vote for a Republican even if he is running on a platform of sacrificing all the nation's firstborn children to Beelzebub.

Call it the Dumbshit Factor, the Nobody Home Problem, the Absentee Ballots from Mars Issue. Whatever you call it, it's the Republicans' built-in advantage this fall. If you're not in the "reality-based community" infamously derided by a senior Bush official, then you won't care if Iraq is a quagmire and the Middle East is a powder keg and the country is falling apart and the economy is on the verge of a depression and gas is $4.30 a gallon. You won't care because you won't know, or if you know you'll blame it all on liberals, feminazis, evil bureaucrats and gays. As you watch Fox News from your Barcalounger orbiting somewhere beyond the confines of space, time and logic, you will vote for the old white guy with the Anglo-Saxon name, not a Muslim terrorist sympathizer who helped his cousin attack America.

But the outer-space contingent only represents about a quarter of voters, a figure easily balanced out by yellow-dog Democrats, whose numbers have been swollen by hordes of young Obama fans. The real fight, as everyone knows, is over the remaining voters in crucial states like Ohio and Florida -- the independents, the swing voters, the blue-collar Catholics, the less-educated working class, the older women, the NASCAR dads, the suburban moms. The people that Clinton, who has been courting them so assiduously she is in danger of growing a sympathetic beer belly, notoriously called "hardworking Americans, white Americans."

It comes down to whether these "hardworking white Americans" want more of the same. Because Obama is black, liberal and doesn't come across as one of them, the conventional wisdom holds that they will vote for McCain, who boasts an even paler pigmentation than Bush's. Obama's failure to win over blue-collar Democrats, highlighted in recent primaries, has raised questions about whether he will fail in the general election to win over independents and swing voters, who share many qualities with moderate Democrats.

The overriding question here is simple: Who are we? This election represents a giant mirror, a chance to find out who we are as a people. The issue is whether America is still the scared, reactionary, sclerotic, profoundly creaky nation that it has been for the last eight years, or whether it's ready to shrug off the Bush era and begin anew. It comes down to whether America is old or young.

I'm betting on youth.

There are times when people cling to the familiar, even when it's not in their interest to do so. That happened in 2004, when the American people sized up Bush and decided they liked him more than John Kerry. Those pessimistic about Obama's chances cite this election, which took place well after it had become clear that Iraq was not going to be the cakewalk that the Bush administration claimed, as evidence that the country is simply so innately conservative that the Republicans have a built-in electoral advantage. The fact that Obama is black makes these pessimists even more gloomy.

But the Bush-Kerry election has only limited applicability to the Obama-McCain contest. First, by 2004, the full dimensions of Bush's incompetence had not yet become clear to swing voters. His heckuva job in response to Hurricane Katrina took place in 2005, and Iraq's descent into sectarian hell got much worse after the 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque. And, decisively, the economy today is far worse than it was four years ago.

The real difference, however, is that the fear mongering that worked four years ago won't work any more. Post-9/11 trauma, which led Americans to give Bush a blank check, was still potent in 2004. Today, Americans have had four more years to get over it. GOP operatives will repeat the Swift Boat smears and soft-on-terror charges that were so effective against Kerry. But you can only cry "terrorism" so long before people tune you out -- especially when the centerpiece of your anti-terror strategy is continuing a war opposed by 70 percent of the population.

The race factor, too, is overblown. Obama's relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright reveals that the Illinois senator's closet does indeed contain some predictable racial skeletons, and the GOP will try to paint him as a conventional Angry Black Man, an identity that is the kiss of political death. That tactic may hurt Obama with some white voters, who dislike traditional racial signifiers of black victimhood and white guilt. But Obama's entire persona and campaign represents a decisive rejection of those concepts. And because Americans as a whole simply aren't that racist any more, the guilt-by-association tactic will have only limited success. In fact, I would venture to predict that the number of Americans who will vote for Obama because he's black -- out of admiration for his achievements and character, to prove to themselves they're not prejudiced, to prove to the world that America is not prejudiced, to effect a historic change -- will be greater than the number of Americans who will vote against him for the same reason.

Obama's biggest problem isn't the black color of his skin, but the cool temperature of his personality. As a long profile in the Sunday New York Times made clear, Obama is supremely calculating and pragmatic -- excellent qualities for a politician, but less attractive ones in a messiah. His remarkable autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," is a portrait of a man who painstakingly constructed his racial identity, who decided to embrace his blackness at the same time that he decided to embrace all other ethnic and racial identities. This is a highly unusual, self-conscious road to racial transcendence, and some may find it artificial. Obama's coolness, his intellectual detachment, could put off voters who see those qualities as signs that he is inauthentic. But because Obama seems to have the ability to connect with people, and comes across as comfortable in his own skin, his cool personality shouldn't be an Achilles' heel.

And no one should underestimate Obama's formidable political skills, especially as an inspiring orator preaching national unity. Those skills have been temporarily shelved: Hillary Clinton's dogged, at times lamentably retrograde campaign, which forced him to get down from the pulpit and fight house to house, showed his weakest side. As an intellectual and rhetorician, Obama is more effective delivering set pieces than making small talk over diner gravy. But once Clinton exits the scene, Obama will be able to ascend the mountain once again, appealing to Americans' better angels. Against Obama's uplifting message, McCain's upcoming fear-and-smear campaign will feel like the croaking of an old, miserable frog.

And if McCain wants to mix it up with Obama on actual issues, let him. The majority of the American people aren't on McCain's side. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans on eight of ten key issues, from Iraq to the economy to health care to education to abortion. Republicans lead on only two issues, national security and taxes. It's true that the poll shows McCain outperforming both the GOP and Obama, but that finding can be expected to change once Obama is the official Democratic nominee.

Momentum in politics can be as impossible to quantify as the irrational exuberance of the stock market. Obama's campaign has been all about momentum, about the suspension of pragmatic disbelief, the desire for something transcendent -- what Alfred Lord Tennyson described as the hope "that men might rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things." Of course, it's dangerous to invoke poetry when analyzing politics. But Obama's campaign has shown that poetry can be a powerful force even in this most cynical realm. Who could have dreamed, in the age of Bush, an era that Karl Rove hoped would lay the foundations for a thousand-year Republican Reich, that a young mixed-race black man would come out of nowhere to defeat the formidable Hillary Clinton, who was regarded as all but a shoo-in, and become the Democratic nominee for president?

Obama's story appeals to something green and growing in the American psyche. McCain, by contrast, is locked into an ossified politics that's as old and creaky as he is. McCain will bluster about how Obama doesn't share middle America's values, how he's out of touch, too liberal, too inexperienced, too soft on terror, too elitist, too un-American. The Los Angeles Times cited a GOP operative who said "strategists have proposed an ad picturing a series of Democratic politicians, all but one -- Obama -- wearing a U.S. flag pin." The tag line: "What's he got against the American flag?"

It's a time-tested line, and it will play with some swing voters and independents. But not enough of them. For it is essentially reactionary, fearful, and negative, and that song has been sung. Fear works for Obama, too -- because Americans are more afraid of going back to the days of Bush than they are of taking a chance on something new. Confronted with a choice between saying no and saying yes, Americans are going to say yes -- and in the process, show themselves and the world that America is still a place capable of reinventing itself.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Democratic Party George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton John Mccain R-ariz. Race