Monday, January 07, 2008

Feeling Obama

For the past couple of days, I have wanted to write something about the outcome of the Iowa caucus, but too many new bits and pieces of interesting news surfaced every time I had a moment to sit in front of my computer. I suppose I was also distracted by collective mea culpea of the mainstream media which professed shock at Barack Obama's decisive victory and at Hillary Clinton's equally decisive loss. One funny note that went unreported last Thursday night and Friday morning -- the only candidate to make as much headway in Iowa and nationally in the last six weeks as Barack Obama has been John Edwards, and most of what passes for "analysis" of his candidacy is devoted either to (a) his looks and/or hair or (b) his "fake" populism. John Edwards, like every other candidate, has his flaws and contradictions. But that doesn't mean his progress among Democrats nationally and his second place showing over Clinton should be discounted, much less ignored.

Clearly, though, Edwards' progress isn't the real story right now. Obama's surge and the temporary spectacular crash and burn of Hillary's presidential candidacy is, of course, the bigger news. Neither development has surprised me. Almost a year ago, I wrote that Hillary Clinton would not get the Democratic nomination, and I have never backed off that position. What surprised me then, surprised me six months later, and surprised me up until last Thursday night is that anyone with a feel for American politics believed she even had a chance to win the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency. Hillary has been an absolutely dreadful candidate -- robotic, uninspiring, self-impressed and strangely unable to connect with Democratic voters who are looking for anyone and anything to take the White House back from Republican control. Combine the warmth, personality and charm of Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry and what do you get? Hillary Clinton. If you're a Democrat, ask yourself this: did you ever really like any of those candidates? Feel like you could relate to them? Get inspired enough to raise hell on behalf of any of them?

Didn't think so. Being the class valedictorian is a wonderful credential as long as your next goal is to get into an elite college, graduate or professional school, or, perhaps, land a prestigious academic appointment. Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry and now Clinton are all very book smart people, no doubt about that. But being smart won't get you very far in politics if you cannot communicate what you know to people who are looking to you for guidance, confidence and inspiration. Campaign politics, in some ways, is analogous to teaching or playing music. Whatever I know as a political scientist or drummer won't mean much to people if I can't get them to listen and think about what I've said, or tap their foot and smile by listening to any music I might help create. I've had half a mind to send Hillary's advisors a bumper sticker I picked up at a local record store in D.C. -- "Drum Machines Have No Soul." You can program them to do some interesting things, but somewhere down the line no one will ever feel inspired to pick up a pair of sticks and make music because of a computer-programmed drum track. Listening to Ringo, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, John Bonham, Roy Haynes and (don't laugh) pre-pop star Phil Collins made me reach for anything and start hitting and tapping something.

Obama's emergence as the person to beat in the 2008 presidential campaign -- and that's what he is right now, not just the Democratic candidate to beat -- is based on what musicians call feel. Obama inspires people -- old people, young people, professionals, tradespeople, men, women, African-Americans, white people . . . really everyone who is looking for something to lift them out the desultory state of current affairs. Hillary can spend as much money as she wants on image consultants, focus groups, tracking polls, makeovers . . . whatever she and her campaign staff believe will endear her to a public that cannot warm up to her. That isn't going to happen. I know many formally trained musicians who know everything there is to know about music theory, composition, harmony, are great sight-readers . . . anything you could want an A-student to be, but can't play a lick of music because they just don't feel "it." And that "it" is the mysterious factor that pulls us to so many things -- a friend, a spouse, an artist, a wine -- that can't always be charted out in academic terms. Give Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Page the same guitar, tell them to play the same notes and chords and you won't get anything remotely similar. Two approaches, two sensibilities, two different lives and two very different sets of ears. The differences aren't based on what they know -- it's what they feel, and how they've chosen to communicate that knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is just a feeling about how things work or how they should, what's important, what's not, and how to make informed decisions.

Strangely enough, the rap on Obama in the mainstream media is that he's a little too clever, a little too precocious, a little too smooth and a little too handsome to take seriously as a possible president. In other words, Obama's the anti-Hillary. He gets by on charm and charisma; she's the perpetual A-student taking an extra course on Toxicity in Bird Feeders just so she'll be able to impress people with her knowledge of such an arcane subject. He tells the teacher he doesn't write well and would like an oral exam, gets one because who could say no to Barack Obama, and promptly makes his examiners' desks fall over. She earned her way onto the Honor Roll by working twice as hard as the boy next to her, who may well have been Obama.

I don't think that's remotely fair. Obama is a very smart guy. Not just book smart, which he is, but life smart. Far more people can relate to him than Hillary Clinton, whose efforts to "humanize" herself -- the crying jag, for example, on television this afternoon after a reporter asked her if the criticism she faces on the campaign trail is hard on her -- inevitably backfire for the same reasons they always have. Any effort to take consciously new positions raises the standard criticism of any Clinton -- parsing and compromising to win votes. And any effort to change is viewed as insincere and not reflective of who she really is. Up until Iowa, Hillary was the candidate of experience. Since last Thursday, and especially over the weekend in New Hampshire, Hillary has undergone the kind of metamorphosis usually restricted to people featured on Fashion 911 and Extreme Makeover. Now she is the candidate of "change," . . . until next week, when she will be the candidate of something else.

Barack Obama will win the New Hampshire primary tomorrow because people there want him to win. Republicans are petrified of Obamania because, whether they realize it or not, their American Idol-inspired search for the heir to Ronald Reagan is the junior senator from Illinois. But there is one major difference that trumps all the others between them: Obama is a lot, lot, lot smarter, as smart as any of his Democratic rivals and definitely smarter than any of the Republicans running for their party's nomination. Hillary's pre-"change" effort on competence and experience sounded eerily like Michael Dukakis's disastrous, "This election is not about ideology; it's about competence" line from his 1988 Democratic nomination acceptance speech. The election ended right there. To some extent, elections are always about ideology, or what passes for ideology in US politics. Not real specific ideas, but more abstract feelings about right and wrong. Take Iraq. No one really wants to be there, and no one has a clue about how to end US involvement there other than to pack up and go, and that smacks too much of defeatism for most Americans to embrace.

The Hillary-tanic began to capsize in Iowa, and will sink further towards the bottom if she loses tomorrow in New Hampshire. By next week, she will have spent almost $75 million getting elected to something since 2006, when she spent $37 million to win re-election to the Senate.
Her presidential campaign war chest is $80 million. That is an awful lot of money spent to learn that knowledge is only as good as your ability to communicate it, and that, unless you can persuade people that the vibe is rolling in your favor, you're just another talking suit without a soul.

1 comment:

David Kaib said...

Thankfully, the dynamics that drove the Democratic primary process from 1980-2004 have taken a holiday. It is true - why is it that the lesson these people learned from 1980 forward is don't be too liberal, and not dump the competence-not-ideology theme?