Obama’s Contagious Hope, Hillary’s Contagion

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Yesterday I read a funny piece by a Joel Stein in the L.A. Times explaining how he was actually a little embarrassed by his Obamamania. Sometimes I too watch Obama’s speeches, listen to the crowds chanting “Yes We Can” and think that there is something incredibly innocent and over-the-top about it all. And when I show Obama’s South Carolina speech and explain its importance to my co-workers here in Spain, they just think this confirms their idea of America’s strange cheerleading culture.

But what you have to understand here about Obama’s contagious hope is not that it may be impossible to achieve, but that millions of Americans are coming together with Obama to say that they are fed up with the nation’s politics. And more importantly, they are coming together to say that they want the country to be a better place for all. It is a remarkably powerful message and reflection that our nation is not rotten.

On the other side, I just read this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan called, “Can Hillary Lose with Grace” that did a good job of explaining why Hillary is not the person to make this country a better place:

Can Mrs. Clinton Lose?
By PEGGY NOONAN
February 8, 2008; Page W14

If Hillary Clinton loses, does she know how to lose? What will that be, if she loses? Will she just say, “I concede” and go on vacation at a friend’s house on an island, and then go back to the Senate and wait?

Is it possible she could be so normal? Politicians lose battles, it’s part of what they do, win and lose. But she does not know how to lose. Can she lose with grace? But she does grace the way George W. Bush does nuance.

She often talks about how tough she is. She has fought “the Republican attack machine” that has tried to “stop” her, “end” her, and she knows “how to fight them.” She is preoccupied to an unusual degree with toughness. A man so preoccupied would seem weak. But a woman obsessed with how tough she is just may be lethal.

Does her sense of toughness mean that every battle in which she engages must be fought tooth and claw, door to door? Can she recognize the line between burly combat and destructive, never-say-die warfare? I wonder if she is thinking: What will it mean if I win ugly? What if I lose ugly? What will be the implications for my future, the party’s future? What will black America, having seen what we did in South Carolina, think forever of me and the party if I do low things to stop this guy on the way to victory? Can I stop, see the lay of the land, imitate grace, withdraw, wait, come back with a roar down the road? Life is long. I am not old. Or is that a reverie she could never have? What does it mean if she could never have it?

We know she is smart. Is she wise? If it comes to it, down the road, can she give a nice speech, thank her supporters, wish Barack Obama well, and vow to campaign for him?

It either gets very ugly now, or we will see unanticipated–and I suspect professionally saving–grace.

I ruminate in this way because something is happening. Mrs. Clinton is losing this thing. It’s not one big primary, it’s a rolling loss, a daily one, an inch-by-inch deflation. The trends and indices are not in her favor. She is having trouble raising big money, she’s funding her campaign with her own wealth, her moral standing within her own party and among her own followers has been dragged down, and the legacy of Clintonism tarnished by what Bill Clinton did in South Carolina. Unfavorable primaries lie ahead. She doesn’t have the excitement, the great whoosh of feeling that accompanies a winning campaign. The guy from Chicago who was unknown a year ago continues to gain purchase, to move forward. For a soft little innocent, he’s played a tough and knowing inside/outside game.
The day she admitted she’d written herself a check for $5 million, Obama’s people crowed they’d just raised $3 million. But then his staff is happy. They’re all getting paid.

Political professionals are leery of saying, publicly, that she is losing, because they said it before New Hampshire and turned out to be wrong. Some of them signaled their personal weariness with Clintonism at that time, and fear now, as they report, to look as if they are carrying an agenda. One part of the Clinton mystique maintains: Deep down journalists think she’s a political Rasputin who will not be dispatched. Prince Yusupov served him cupcakes laced with cyanide, emptied a revolver, clubbed him, tied him up and threw him in a frozen river. When he floated to the surface they found he’d tried to claw his way from under the ice. That is how reporters see Hillary.

And that is a grim and over-the-top analogy, which I must withdraw. What I really mean is they see her as the Glenn Close character in “Fatal Attraction”: “I won’t be ignored, Dan!”

* * *

Mr. Obama’s achievement on Super Tuesday was solid and reinforced trend lines. The popular vote was a draw, the delegate count a rough draw, but he won 13 states, and when you look at the map he captured the middle of the country from Illinois straight across to Idaho, with a second band, in the northern Midwest, of Minnesota and North Dakota. He won Missouri and Connecticut, in Mrs. Clinton’s backyard. He won the Democrats of the red states.

On the wires Wednesday her staff was all but conceding she is not going to win the next primaries. Her superdelegates are coming under pressure that is about to become unrelenting. It was easy for party hacks to cleave to Mrs Clinton when she was inevitable. Now Mr. Obama’s people are reportedly calling them saying, Your state voted for me and so did your congressional district. Are you going to jeopardize your career and buck the wishes of the people back home?

Mrs. Clinton is stoking the idea that Mr. Obama is too soft to withstand the dread Republican attack machine. (I nod in tribute to all Democrats who have succeeded in removing the phrase “Republican and Democratic attack machines” from the political lexicon. Both parties have them.) But Mr. Obama will not be easy for Republicans to attack. He will be hard to get at, hard to address. There are many reasons, but a primary one is that the fact of his race will freeze them. No one, no candidate, no party, no heavy-breathing consultant, will want to cross any line–lines that have never been drawn, that are sure to be shifting and not always visible–in approaching the first major-party African-American nominee for president of the United States.

* * *

He is the brilliant young black man as American dream. No consultant, no matter how opportunistic and hungry, will think it easy–or professionally desirable–to take him down in a low manner. If anything, they’ve learned from the Clintons in South Carolina what that gets you. (I add that yes, there are always freelance mental cases, who exist on both sides and are empowered by modern technology. They’ll make their YouTubes. But the mad are ever with us, and this year their work will likely stay subterranean.)

With Mr. Obama the campaign will be about issues. “He’ll raise your taxes.” He will, and I suspect Americans may vote for him anyway. But the race won’t go low.

Mrs. Clinton would be easier for Republicans. With her cavalcade of scandals, they’d be delighted to go at her. They’d get medals for it. Consultants would get rich on it.

The Democrats have it exactly wrong. Hillary is the easier candidate, Mr. Obama the tougher. Hillary brings negative; it’s fair to hit her back with negative. Mr. Obama brings hope, and speaks of a better way. He’s not Bambi, he’s bulletproof.

The biggest problem for the Republicans will be that no matter what they say that is not issue oriented–“He’s too young, he’s never run anything, he’s not fully baked”–the mainstream media will tag them as dealing in racial overtones, or undertones. You can bet on this. Go to the bank on it.

The Democrats continue not to recognize what they have in this guy. Believe me, Republican professionals know. They can tell.

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3 Comments

Filed under Essays, Obama 08

3 responses to “Obama’s Contagious Hope, Hillary’s Contagion

  1. Randy Bergmann

    Eric,
    Here’s another typically insightful piece from my favorite columnist, David Brooks of the NYTimes, analyzing Billary’s and Obama’s core constituencies. I think you fit the Obama mold quite nicely.

  2. Randy Bergmann

    Eric,
    Sorry. I forgot to cut and paste. Here’s the piece from Brooks, headed “Questions for Dr. Retail.

    QUESTION: Dr. Retail, now that the Democratic presidential race has entered its long, bloody slog phase, I figured it was time to get a fresh perspective. Can you explain to me what it’s all about?
    DR. RETAIL: Why do you bother me with simple problems? Listen, the essential competition in many consumer sectors is between commodity providers and experience providers, the companies that just deliver product and the companies that deliver a sensation, too. There’s Safeway, and then there is Whole Foods. There’s the PC, and then there’s the Mac. There are Holiday Inns, and there are W Hotels. There’s Walgreens, and there’s The Body Shop.

    Hillary Clinton is a classic commodity provider. She caters to the less-educated, less-pretentious consumer. As Ron Brownstein of The National Journal pointed out on Wednesday, she won the non-college-educated voters by 22 points in California, 32 points in Massachusetts and 54 points in Arkansas. She offers voters no frills, just commodities: tax credits, federal subsidies and scholarships. She’s got good programs at good prices.

    Barack Obama is an experience provider. He attracts the educated consumer. In the last Pew Research national survey, he led among people with college degrees by 22 points. Educated people get all emotional when they shop and vote. They want an uplifting experience so they can persuade themselves that they’re not engaging in a grubby self-interested transaction. They fall for all that zero-carbon footprint, locally grown, community-enhancing Third Place hype. They want cultural signifiers that enrich their lives with meaning.

    Obama offers to defeat cynicism with hope. Apparently he’s going to turn politics into a form of sharing. Have you noticed that he’s actually carried into his rallies by a flock of cherubs while the heavens open up with the Hallelujah Chorus? I wonder how he does that.

    QUESTION: But why would Democratic votes break down so starkly along educational lines?

    DR. RETAIL: The consumer marketplace has been bifurcating for years! It’s happening because the educated and uneducated lead different sorts of lives. Educated people are not only growing richer than less-educated people, but their lifestyles are diverging as well. A generation ago, educated families and less-educated families looked the same, but now high school graduates divorce at twice the rate of college graduates. High school grads are much more likely to have kids out of wedlock. High school grads are much more likely to be obese. They’re much more likely to smoke and to die younger.

    Their attitudes are different. High school grads are much less optimistic than college grads. They express less social trust. They feel less safe in public. They report having fewer friends and lower aspirations. The less educated speak the dialect of struggle; the more educated, the dialect of self-fulfillment.

    Did you hear the message of Clinton’s speech Tuesday night? It’s a rotten world out there. Regular folks are getting the shaft. They need someone who’ll fight tougher, work harder and put loyalty over independence.

    Then did you see the Hopemeister’s speech? His schtick makes sense if you’ve got a basic level of security in your life, if you’re looking up, not down. Meanwhile, Obama’s people are so taken with their messiah that soon they’ll be selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings. There’s a “Yes We Can” video floating around YouTube in which a bunch of celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and the guy from the Black Eyed Peas are singing the words to an Obama speech in escalating states of righteousness and ecstasy. If that video doesn’t creep out normal working-class voters, then nothing will.

    QUESTION: Your cynicism is really interfering with my vibe. I don’t think you’re feeling the fierce urgency of now.

    DR. RETAIL: Believe me, those of us who bill by the hour completely feel the fierce urgency of now. As John Edwards would say, this is personal with me.

    QUESTION: So does this mean the Democrats are fundamentally divided?

    DR. RETAIL: Why do you political people always think in either/or terms? No. Safeway and Whole Foods people shop in each other’s stores. They just feel less at home.

    QUESTION: So who’s going to win?

    DR. RETAIL: Observe the marketplace. The next states on the primary calendar have tons of college-educated Obamaphile voters. Maryland is 5th among the 50 states, Virginia is 6th. But later on, we get the Hillary-friendly states. Ohio is 40th in college education. Pennsylvania is 32nd.

    But it’ll still be tied after all that. The superdelegates will pick the nominee — the party honchos, the deal-makers, the donors, the machine. Swinging those people takes a level of cynicism even Dr. Retail can’t pretend to understand. That’s Tammany Hall. That’s the court at Versailles under Louis XIV.

  3. eric

    Yep, that’s pretty good, Randy!!!

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