I'm with Pat Lang for the most part, though I'm much more critical of Obama than he is, probably because I have no investment in the candidate. I think he over-emphasizes racism as a point of resistance to Obama, but his evaluation of McCain and Palin are painfully accurate. They are, singly and together, disasters. Unlike other bloggers and a number of commenters on this blog, I think McCain is a revolting politician, a man of bad temper, questionable ethics, and reprehensible positions. Palin is worse. They are bad for the nation, not because of their marriages and family lives, knowledge of the internet, age or religion, but because their world views are fearful, ignorant and destructive. Their philosophy of government is authoritarian, no matter the window dressing of fighting corruption. I can admire their personal drive and dedication without thereby declaring their political objectives to be anything but inhumane. I can decry derogatory attacks on them on account of their gender, age, sociological backgrounds, etc., yet remain opposed to their political intensions. That the systems they work within force them into more moderate paths is the virtue of the institutions created to defend liberal democracy, not some insight into their alleged hidden moderate beliefs. They are talented politicians, after all, and know how to seem when in the public eye.
I can do this with a single phrase - They are Republicans and I oppose what the Republican Party, through its words and its deeds, stands for. That should be the first and last thing out of the mouth of every Democrat, yet is the formulation you just don't hear from Obama or the DNC. It's all about Hope™, Change™, and Bi/Postpartisan™ yadda-yadda. No one needs to explain to me or millions of other Democrats that the political opposition are, well, opponents; what requires explanation is how and why our own party has made itself into a different kind of opponent, one that is ineffectual against the Republicans but manages to insult and alienate its own constituencies with breathtaking precision.
I think there are two issues to examine, Obama's failure as a Democratic candidate and the aimlessness of the Democratic Party. The latter is the larger problem, without which the former would not exist. At root, neither are able to escape Reagan's shadow. This post I will focus on Obama, and save examining the party for the next round.
Obama has explicitly modeled himself on the popular backwards-looking image of Reagan - the positive, constructive, above-party guy who did spectacle well and inspired people to support him with a flash of his smile and the thrill of his oratory. He cites Reagan as an exemplar of the mode of politics he wants to engage in - telegenic, above the fray, sweeping political change and ignoring the critics. Even if he had not been trying so hard to dismiss Bill Clinton in order to minimize Hillary, Obama would still have been engaged in Reagan worship. Thus, the entire packaging of himself as a movement, swallowing hook line and sinker the hagiography of Saint Ronnie.
Charles Krauthammer is a hack and writes some of the most despicable commentary in American politics, but he wrote something truthful on Friday. He talked about the packaging of Obama (my emphasis throughout):
The Berlin speech was meant to invoke memories of JFK, but even more so of Reagan, to try to make a claim in images that could not be done in words - I'm just like the Great Communicator and you should respond to me in a comparable way.
But Palin is not just a problem for Obama. She is also a symptom of what ails him. Before Palin, Obama was the ultimate celebrity candidate. For no presidential nominee in living memory had the gap between adulation and achievement been so great. Which is why McCain's Paris Hilton ads struck such a nerve. Obama's meteoric rise was based not on issues ... but on narrative, on eloquence, on charisma.
The unease at the Denver convention, the feeling of buyer's remorse, was the Democrats' realization that the arc of Obama's celebrity had peaked -- and had now entered a period of its steepest decline. That Palin could so instantly steal the celebrity spotlight is a reflection of that decline.
[Krauthammer discusses key speeches by Obama, then says] The problem is that Obama began believing in his own magical powers -- the chants, the swoons, the "we are the ones" self-infatuation. Like Ronald Reagan, he was leading a movement, but one entirely driven by personality. Reagan's revolution was rooted in concrete political ideas (supply-side economics, welfare-state deregulation, national strength) that transcended one man. For Obama's movement, the man is the transcendence.
Which gave the Obama campaign a cult-like tinge. With every primary and every repetition of the high-flown, self-referential rhetoric, the campaign's insubstantiality became clear. By the time it was repeated yet again on the night of the last primary (#3), the tropes were tired and flat. To top himself, Obama had to reach. Hence his triumphal declaration that history would note that night, his victory, his ascension, as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
Clang. But Obama heard only the cheers of the invited crowd. Not yet seeing how the pseudo-messianism was wearing thin, he did Berlin (#4) and finally jumped the shark. That grandiloquent proclamation of universalist puffery popped the bubble. The grandiosity had become bizarre.
Obama's Altitude Sickness
Krauthammer points to the reason why Reagan, who was not nearly as popular as his idolators would have you believe, was able to so thoroughly dominate the political sphere. He had a foundation. He was a hard-line ideologue who had honed his political talents for decades and who was backed by what is still one of the best funded, most ideologically compact and politically determined groups in current Western politics - the Movement Conservatives. Regardless of what liberals may think of Reagan's political objectives (that they were crack-pot, inhumane, self-destructive, anti-American, etc.), Reagan offered something concrete to every constituency who supported him. Conservative judical appointments and breaking the barriers between church and state for the theocons, pumping up not just the military but the necessity of US hegemonic power for the neocons, deregulation and supply-side economics for the rest of the cons and crooks in the corporate suites. And he delivered. Even when he was forced to make strategic retreats, the rhetoric did not abate and the overall objectives were never abandoned. He was relentless in pusuit of his vision of how the world should be.
The backing from the Movement Conservatives is important. No matter how charismatic this actor, he was the head of a movement that preceded him and had an independent existence apart from him. It's still with us today. Reagan became the embodiment of this operation, not the operation itself. The Obama campaign's exuberant highs were based on nothing more than a cult of personality, which was at base little more than the frantic wish of his supporters to see themselves an ennobled by their support of him. The attacks aimed at his opponents - personal, vituperative, slanderous - probably tell us more about the insides of his supporters' heads than anything else, places awash in guilt over their very real racism, glee at being able to openly express their deep seated misogyny, accompanied by a big dollop of class resentment. Obama's own exhortation that his supporters should not think of themselves as anything but "Obamacans" is as clear a statement of the movement as anything else I've seen. The alpha and the omega of the campaign is the adulation of the man at the center.
It inverts the power structure that put Reagan where he was and put the nation on the road to disaster. An established, well-funded national operation that controlled major propaganda outlets, deliberately tapping into resentment and fear about changing socio-political institutions and structures, and has as its goal infesting the entire government from President to dog-catcher with its anti-democratic minions, selected a 100% loyal and massively effective partisan to be its face and drum up popular support. I'm sorry, but the Chicago Combine at its greatest expanse of powers, even if backed with every penny George Soros & Co. have ever earned, cannot compare.
When I look at the collapse of Obama, the Movie! (a fall well under way during the primaries), what I see is the level of support an ordinary Democrat might garner in a ho-hum year. The One, The Precious, is gone. Palin robbed him of the celebrity, the quality of being shiny and new, and what we see is Obama as an unadorned Democrat. His high points now are when the actual heroes of the party, Bill & Hillary, come out and offer reasons for us to vote as Democrats for the ticket.
The proper Democratic figure to compare to Reagan is Bill Clinton, particularly as Bill is actually more popular than Reagan with the general public. He did this by copying Reagan's substance, which was to identify constituencies and fight for them, and letting the style chips fall where they did. It helps that Big Dog is one of the most talented political speakers alive, able to convey complex political realities in direct, simple language, but oratory alone can be upstaged. He is beyond the shadow of Reagan because of his focus on what Reagan championed and how to push through liberal counter-measures in a way that doused the fires of resentment. His success was limited because he did not have the party and movement apparatus at his disposal that Reagan commanded and because the Right targeted him (quite correctly) as a very dangerous opponent.
Oddly enough, with the loss of celebrity, Obama ends up being the generic Democrat from central casting, promoted by a party actively jettisoning everything that makes it distinct. We have no signature issues for the campaign, only hopey-changey, we're not Bush (which worked so well for Kerry, as I remember...), don't vote for the guy who's stupid and out of touch (which worked so well for Carter, Mondale, Dukakis and Gore, as I remember...), we're all to blame for this Washington gridlock because Washington is the problem, etc., etc. There is nothing that looks, sounds or feels uniquely Democratic.
They are still running against the shadow of Reagan.