A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FOUR YEARS

Four years ago, after watching John Kerry on TV conceding the election, I went into my room, put Barack Obama’s convention speech on repeat, and wept. I’d first watched that speech in Tampa, where friends and I spent a summer outside supermarkets and inside trailer parks registering people to vote. From summer through to fall, we knew we were going to win. We had an endless paper chain of hopeful justifications – another paper endorses the Democrat for the first time in this many elections; another Bush gaffe sure to drag him down; the Tin Man is beating the Scarecrow in a Zogby poll; undecideds always break for the challenger; I canvassed a man today who voted Bush-Dole-Bush be he says it’s time for a change. And that was before the exit polls started coming in. I spent a lot of election day in Philadelphia with college classmates co-ordinating GOTV in a basement, but at one point I stumbled upon a TV somewhere just in time to see Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speculating on how John Kerry had carried his state. By the time we were driving back to my parents’ house, there was a steady stream of exit polling, sweet and plentiful like Halloween candy, and I made some snarky comment to a friend about the foolishness of cynical leftists that doubt the essentially good judgment of the American people. Within an hour, the real results were coming in, and our beloved Florida – which we’d sworn we wouldn’t let be lost again by a fraction of a percentage point – went for Bush by five points.

I turned on Obama’s speech when Kerry conceded because at that point Barack Obama symbolized for me the long-term vision towards which electing John Kerry (of the eponymous “butimvotingforhimanyway” website) was a small but pivotal step. I wore a John Kerry button in the final days of the election (four years earlier, I kept my Bill Bradley sticker on all through the recount), but it was Barack Obama’s T-shirts that I ordered (in bulk to save money, and two sizes too small to get people to go in on them with me) from Illinois. I wrote a column at the time in the school paper saying that after electing John Kerry we on the left should continue the work of building “a party radical enough to elect Barack Obama president.”

Things haven’t turned out that way. John Kerry lost his presidential race, and four years later, Barack Obama is about to win his.

Of course, this is a testament for one to the fact that Barack Obama is not as progressive as I and others hoped he might prove to be, or convinced ourselves he was, four years ago. The Obama of The Audacity of Hope has trimmed his sails quite a bit since Dreams From My Father. As much as we may have declared ourselves prepared to be disappointed, it was a let down to see how Obama landed in DC, whether it’s the times he seemed to be acting from political expediency or the times he seemed to be driven by an earnest commitment to disassociating himself from those he sees as ideologues of the left. I would have been shocked in 2004 to hear that Barack Obama would run a presidential campaign in 2008 – and more shocked to hear that he’d be running to the right of John Edwards.

That said, Barack Obama is the most progressive Democratic nominee in my lifetime (so far). He’s run a campaign defining himself first against George Bush conservatism and all it’s wrought, and second against the inertia of Washington and the smallness of our politics, but hardly ever against progressivism or its constituents. He’s vocally defended the need to negotiate with our enemies and the fairness of taxing the rich. He came out early on against California’s marriage ban when the Democratic consultant class would have said to duck and call it a state issue. Maybe most tellingly, when the explosion of Jeremiah Wright coverage posed a maybe mortal threat to his candidacy, he offered a reasoned and provocative speech on race that called on White Americans to understand the roots of Black anger at dreams deferred (then, when Wright basically dared Obama to denounce him, he did so).

I always assumed America’s first Black president would be many years in the distance, and that he would look more like Harold Ford – or Bill Cosby for that matter – than Barack Obama. I thought he’d be someone who made a show of talking down to Black people all the time, issued hair-trigger condemnations of Sister Souljahs, and compensated for the perception of otherness with an outspoken conservatism on crime, welfare, and immigration. Instead, we’re about to put a community organizer in the White House who doesn’t apologize for wanting to spread the wealth around.

There’s a lot to be said about how this happened. One piece, as can’t be said often enough, is that conservatives were given the car and the keys for eight years to drive the thing off a cliff. Another is that Americans are more progressive on the issues than most pundits think, and this year more than ever there’s an opening for a progressive who tells a compelling story about America and offers confidence and optimism rather than apologies. But another piece of the story is that Barack Obama has realized the promise (speaking of disappointing election days) of Howard Dean’s campaign: a presidential campaign grounded in organizing (but he realized that in Real Life, unlike the internet, you can’t substitute supporters in California for supporters in Iowa). Obama and company started not with identifying supporters, but with identifying volunteers who would find supporters. They inspired, built, and trained a network of leaders ready to push themselves, people in all corners of their lives, and strangers drawn together by a common sense of promise.

Let’s see what it can do.

WHOSE CHOICE?

Dahlia Lithwick notes the mendacity of choice language on abortion from anti-choice politicians like McCain and Palin:

In announcing that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant last week, GOP vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin used this puzzling locution: “We’re proud of Bristol’s decision to have her baby.” Pundits were quick to point out that Bristol’s “decision” must have been at least somewhat constrained by her mom’s position–as articulated in November 2006–that she would oppose an abortion for her daughters, even if they had been raped…So what exactly, one wonders, was young Bristol permitted to decide?

These rhetorical somersaults are, as Lithwick notes, the same ones John McCain employed in talking about a hypothetical Meghan McCain pregnancy eight years ago. There’s no mystery here: Americans like choice more than they like abortion. Republicans know this, so they dress up their hard-line anti-choice positions as though they were just about choosing against abortion, while never conceding that there should be a choice at all (in my college days the student anti-choice group was called Choose Life At Yale; they published an ad comparing voting for John Kerry – who also advocates choosing life but is pro-choice – to voting for Jefferson Davis). And the media too often plays along, as when the New York Times profiled women in an abortion clinic making painful choices that weighed medical, religious, economic, and social factors; the Times held up these women, who were doing exactly what the pro-choice movement defends women’s right to do, as representing a middle ground in the abortion debate.

I’d add that watching Palin’s gymnastics on choice is probably the most interesting part of the 2006 gubernatorial debate re-aired on C-SPAN over the weekend. For someone who wants the government to criminalize a woman’s choices about her future, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is awfully “personal.” She answers the first question on choice – about whether as a public official she would attend a public event to publicly support legislation banning abortion – by saying that she’s pro-life and “I don’t try to hide it and I’m not ashamed of it.” When asked whether a rape victim should be able to choose abortion, she objects that it wouldn’t “be up to me as an individual” whether that woman was forced to carry the fetus for nine months – leaving unsaid that if she had her way, it wouldn’t be up to the woman as an individual either. But Palin makes clear that she’d force the rape victim to carry the fetus by specifying only the life of the mother as acceptable grounds for abortion. Then she answers the follow-up question by saying rape is “a very private matter also, but personally, I would choose life.” The hypocrisy here is glaring: if Sarah Palin indeed wants that woman’s choice to be private, she should oppose government outlawing it. But she doesn’t.

So it should come as no surprise a minute later when she addresses euthanasia with the same rhetorical sleight of hand: “This is a very personal and private and sensitive issue and I do respect others’ opinions on it, but personally I do believe that no, government should not be sanctioning or assisting taking life.”

QUICK THOUGHTS ON OBAMA’S SPEECH

To choose a favorite talking head buzz phrase, I think Barack Obama did what he had to do tonight. And he did it quite well.

First, closing a convention that erred too far on the side of nice (that means you, Mark Warner), Barack Obama came out swinging against John McCain, and I think he managed to do it in a way that’s hard to characterize as “nasty” or “shrill” or “too angry,” unless you’re one of the people who characterizes Democrats that way for a living. He crossed that threshold John Kerry or Al Gore never quite did, where you take on political opponents with a toughness that suggests you could take on enemies as President. And he maintained his sense of humor while doing it.

Second, Obama also addressed the imaginary lack of specificity in his policy proposals (the only thing more imaginary may be the desire among voters to hear specifics of policy proposals) by laying out a series of them (including improvements to the bankruptcy law that his running mate helped worsen). He had to do it; it’s good that he did. But it’s an especially silly expectation coming from a press corps that lets John McCain continue praising himself for having championed policies he currently opposes. It’s a good sign that the speech gets compared to a State of the Union address (or is that too presumptuous!).

Third, Obama talked about his own story, not in the linear way he has in the past and others have at this convention, but by explicitly comparing experiences in his life to experiences of Americans he’s met. Of course it’s sad that he has a higher bar to clear here than would a White candidate. That said, he did a compelling job connecting Americans’ stories and his own and explaining how they inform where he’ll take the country.

And the uplift was there too.

As for the disappointment, of course some of the self-consciously non-that-kind-of-Democrat stuff (are we reinventing government again?) is bothersome.

And in a speech that was more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Democratic nominees, there was some needless defensiveness. If you’re going to talk about the importance of fatherhood, why say it’s something we “admit”? Aren’t you undercuttng yourself? Why say “Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend America,” as though you concede that that’s the perception – and why respond to the criticism you brought up by naming presidents from forty years ago? Obama seems unable to help himself from rehearsing potential counterarguments in a way that doesn’t really help him – as in “Some people will say that this is just a cover for the same liberal etc…” And I think Obama made himself seem a little smaller when he followed talking about the struggles his family has overcome by protesting that he’s not a celebrity. Finally, while he effectively seized the high ground on patriotism, it seems overly restrictive for Obama to say he won’t suggest that McCain takes his policy positions with any eye to political expediency – I hope he doesn’t really mean that part, which would seem to leave John Kerry’s “Senator McCain v. Candidate McCain” line of attack off limits.

A CAMPAIGN ABOUT CHANGE VERSUS A CAMPAIGN ABOUT MCCAIN?

Reading Michael Crowley’s Mark Salter profile in TNR, you wonder how real McCainiacs can really keep a straight face while arguing that the Obama campaign is the one driven by a cult of personality built around a narcissist who feels he’s owed the presidency. Salter is apparently livid that Obama has stolen McCain’s themes of having matured out of a colorful childhood and been bettered by patriotism and commitment to public service. Did Mark Salter make it through his top perch in John McCain’s 2000 campaign without ever listening to a George W. Bush speech? Salter even jokes

“I often regret that we didn’t copyright ‘serving a cause greater than your self-interest,'” he cracks.

And Barack Obama is supposed to have an arrogance problem? Crowley also resurrects Mark Salter’s tirade against a college graduating class whose student speaker had the temerity to criticize McCain before he spoke:

Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

This isn’t some out of control staffer – this is the guy who survives every McCainland shake-up, ghost-writes everything, conceived, crafts, and protects the McCain mythology, etc. But his comments are striking in part because they echo the ethos that emanates from so much of McCain’s campaign: this sense that John McCain deserves the presidency, even if America isn’t good enough to deserve John McCain.

Who else would put up an internet ad about how the candidate as an elite boarding school student learned the honor code and committed to turn in other boys if they were cheating – and he’s applied those values ever since? Or one that just consists of speechifying by their guy and quotes from Teddy Roosevelt? Can you imagine if Barack Obama tried to pull that? Meanwhile McCain’s campaign brings up his POW experience at every conceivable opportunity while demanding he be recognized as too modest to talk about it – and how dare Wes Clark question whether it qualifies him to be president? (Remember the attacks on John Kerry for talking too much about his purple hearts)

Today Obama is predictably under attack from conservatives for the ostensible arrogance of giving a speech to a big crowd outside the United States. In that speech, Obama talks about his personal story and what he loves about America – echoing, though understandably not repeating his statement in his convention speech that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This is the most common intersection of autobiography and patriotism in an Obama speech: America is a great country which has made so much possible for me. With McCain, the formulation is more often: I love America, and I’ve sacrificed for America my whole life.

McCain is of course entitled to tout his military service, which is certainly more admirable than what he’s done in the United States Senate. And his campaign’s steady emphasis on McCain’s story and character I’m sure is driven in part by recognition that more people cast their votes on such things – ethos rather than logos in Paul Waldman’s formulation. But – aside from Crowley’s observation that McCain’s character appeal seems more attuned to what voters wanted in 2000 than in 2008 – I have to hope that it’s not just we “base voters” who find his campaign’s sense of entitlement grating.

Everyone seems now to agree that McCain’s wasn’t helped by the speech he gave the night Obama clinched his delegate majority. But it wasn’t just the green background – McCain came off like John Lithgow’s disapproving father figure in Footloose warning America away from the dangers of Barack Obama’s dancing. Or like Gore Vidal’s character (the Democrat) lecturing the debate audience not to fall for the titular Republican in Bob Roberts. It seemed like the best case scenario is you walk away convinced that however exciting it would be to vote Obama, you’d really better vote for McCain (and eat your vegetables). That speech brought home a sense of McCain as the candidate of obligation. Salter’s screeds bring home the sense that we’re doubly obligated to vote for McCain:

First, because voting Obama is a risky indulgence. Second, because after all McCain’s done for us, we owe it to him.

Which came first: the mandate that we have to vote for John McCain, or the low level of enthusiasm (14% in a recent survey) among his supporters?

Which is more arrogant and presumptuous: “We are the ones we have been waiting for” or “The American president America has been waiting for”?

THE GREAT ESCAPE

This Times piece features a silly and all-too common turn of phrase (emphasis mine):

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who joined the Senate in 2005 and thus escaped the Iraq vote that has come to haunt Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry, used the platform of Senate hearings to lacerate the Bush Iraq policy and affirm his own opposition to the war.

Sure, one of the annoying things about being an elected legislator is that along with your deliciously nuanced views on the issues of the day, you need to vote for or against bills you didn’t write yourself to say just what you wanted them to. But is there anyone who knew who Barack Obama was in 2002 who didn’t know his position on invading Iraq?

The man spoke at an anti-war rally and called the proposed invasion “dumb” and an “attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us.” Do Adam Nagourney and Patrick Healy really believe that he was hedging on whether or not the bill for the war should pass?

WWGD?

One of the Times’ blogs highlights this post from a member of the FireDogLake crew on the posthumous revelation that Ford had his doubts about the Bush Iraq strategy:

But when a reporter is in possession of information that is vital to the country, that might change whether we go to war or whom we elect for president, and the only reason for withholding the information is to protect the person interviewed from embarrassing his own party — well, there must be some other principle that applies, don’tcha think?

This argument is less than persuasive for a couple reasons. First, barring time travel, nothing said in July 2004 could have stopped Bush from invading Iraq in March 2003. Unless Scarecrow is predicting a future War in Iraq fought for lack of candor from Gerald Ford about this one. Or expecting Gerald Ford’s criticism of the War in Iraq to keep us out of a war with Iran.

Which brings us to the second problem with this argument: Gerald Ford doesn’t sway swing voters. If the man had endorsed John Kerry, that would’ve been big news. Expressing doubts about the Bush plan for Iraq is just what every respectable conservative neither working for George Bush nor running to succeed him nor named Rush Limbaugh was doing two years ago. That includes Paul Bremer.

Henry Kissinger, who many more folks credit or blame with the foreign policy of the 1960s than Gerald Ford, expressed concerns at least as strong about the Iraq invasion, and he did it before the invasion happened. And yet it happened anyway.

Of course the expectation that ex-Presidents should be elder statesmen in a way that doesn’t include weighing in on the performance of current Presidents is silly. And swallowing criticism of your party’s nominee in the months before the election is less than courageous (here’s looking at you, Christie Todd Whitman). And no story you broke four decades ago is an excuse to cozy up to the President for as long as he remains popular. But did George Bush ride to reelection on the imagined confidence of Gerald Ford? Not so much.

RUSS WON’T RUN

Not a shocker, given that the past year and a half has seen the rise of John Edwards as Un-Hillary lightning rod and intensifying inklings of a run by Barack Obama, who like Feingold vocally opposed the war – and worst of all for Feingold’s chances, his second divorce and lack of a third marriage by the midterms (despite the efforts of the erstwhile Committee to Find Russ Feingold a Date).

That said, Feingold’s popularity in the country’s most representative state, which drew him votes from a quarter of Bush voters two years ago and has stayed strong as he talked about running for president and came out for phased withdrawl from Iraq, equal marriage rights, and censuring Bush, should be a lesson for the field of Democratic presidential contenders, and for the primary voters who’ll choose among them. You remember them: the ones who cleverly voted for John Kerry because he was the most electable.