Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Both presidential nominees and the American people failed to follow the typical script for the first presidential debate on Friday night -- to all their credit. Usually, an hour-and-a-half of policy talk ends up being reduced to a four-word slam, a grimace, a gaffe, a gesture. This time, the debate about the debate, the analysis of ninety minutes of foreign and domestic policy talk, ended up being about the ninety minutes of foreign and domestic policy talk.
This news was particularly welcome because both candidates’ behavior was disappointing in the two weeks leading up to the debate. During the week of the financial meltdown, as Washington insiders ranging from the former Wall Street titan Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to the crusading liberal Congressman Barney Frank cooperated with each other seeking a bailout, the candidates acted ridiculous. Here was a leadership opportunity for both Barack Obama and John McCain. Either of them could have risen to the challenge, offering a thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis of the problem – and proposing a creative solution to the troubles of both Wall Street and Main Street. Instead, both offered simplistic, idiotic, demagogic postures scapegoating Wall Street -- and the other guy.
Both needed to start with some risky, bipartisan criticism. Democratic Senators such as Chris Dodd and Charles Schumer, who happily took millions from lobbyists and bankers to protect Wall Street’s and the two Freddies’ interests, are as responsible for the lax federal oversight as the most ideological anti-big-government Bushies. Had either candidate pointed out the sinners in his own party as well as in the other party, had either then worked with the financial whiz kids surrounding each campaign to present a bold solution, the American people would have cheered enthusiastically. Instead, both abdicated, allowing the leadership and statesmanship to come from the White House, the Federal Reserve Bank, and Capitol Hill.
By week two, when both helped improve the bailout package, Senator McCain stood out as a particular bumbler. Attempting to appear bipartisan, he announced he was suspending his campaign and wanted to cancel the debate to avoid playing politics at a time like this. Obama wisely held his ground, insisting on showing up for what could have been a ninety-minute televised freebie on all the major networks. There was no reason why McCain could not take time at 9 PM on a Friday to address the American people. American democracy puts a premium on sticking to its quadrennial presidential electoral timetable. If Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt could run for reelection during the Civil War and World War II respectively, John McCain could show up to debate. Fortunately, for his sake and for history, McCain came to his senses, hid behind the figleaf of “progress” on the bailout talks, and showed up.
The results were impressive. While neither delivered a memorable line or a knock-out punch, both acquitted themselves honorably. John McCain was dominant, especially in the second, foreign-policy-oriented, half. He showed he was vigorous and fast on his feet, not at all the plodding septuagenarian he appeared to be during the summer. Barack Obama was equally impressive, refusing to concede or be cowed by McCain’s body blows. In fighting the older, more experienced foreign policy expert to a draw in the debate devoted to foreign policy, Obama repeated John Kennedy’s accomplishment in simply sharing the stage and appearing to be the equal of his better-known and more experienced rival Richard Nixon in 1960 (although in that case, Kennedy and Nixon actually were peers; it was just Nixon’s eight years as Vice President that set the two apart so dramatically).
The American people gained by watching such a substantive discussion by two clearly talented candidates during a crisis. It was instructive to see where the candidates agreed as much as where they disagreed. Both candidates’ horror at the thought of a nuclear Iran, their criticism of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, their concern over the excesses of Wall Street, demonstrated a common “Main Street” sensibility. The two candidates’ clashes, particularly about the Iraq war, revealed that the American people have a clear and significant choice to make in November. Here, McCain was particularly strong, having been vindicated by the surge. Obama faltered, trying to repudiate the Iraq invasion without disrespecting the troops.
The first debate may not have ensured a victory for either candidate but it may have helped Americans realize that regardless of who wins in November, the new president will be smart, sincere, and ready to lead.
And if we think over the history of debates, the moments are frequently one-liners, and sometimes mere gestures. Ronald Reagan dismissed Jimmy Carter with just four words in 1980 – “there you go again” – and took a few more to dispatch Walter Mondale four years later, when the aging president promised not to make an issue of the Democratic challenger’s (younger) age. On the down side, Gerald Ford rhetorically liberated Eastern Europe with an ill-considered phrase in 1976 – thus reinforcing the Saturday Night Live-fed stereotype that this Yale-educated lawyer was a dummy. And Al Gore may have lost the presidency in the excruciatingly close 2000 race because of a few unfortunate winces and sighs that seemed to demonstrate a condescending attitude toward his rival George W. Bush. Of course, Papa Bush in 1992 was partially defeated by a sidelong glance – at his watch – during a debate, supposedly telegraphing impatience with the proceedings and disrespect for the American people.
So I, like most of my fellow Americans, will watch these debates on two levels. I will really, really try to follow the sometimes extremely technical exchanges. This will be particularly important this year because both candidates have responded to the recent financial meltdown with superficialities and demagoguery. I would love to hear a more detailed and substantive discussion between them, so I can learn about how they understand the Wall Street chaos and what they plan to do about it. Moreover, having just written a book on the importance of moderation, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” I will be hoping to hear signs of centrism (in fact, student volunteers from McGill will be monitoring the debates on our website www.moderometer.com to assess how moderate the various statements are).
Still, like a young kid watching a pitcher’s duel on a long summer afternoon, I and most other viewers will be enduring the back and forths, waiting for the big moment. But unlike in baseball, we may not even realize the import of a particular gesture, clash, gaffe or put down, until later, When President Ford misspoke in 1976 about the relative freedom of Eastern Europe, few people watching reacted initially. In fact, afterwards, most people surveyed said Ford had won that debate against Carter. But some savvy reporters seized on the gaffe – and the networks starting replaying that one particular snippet. In the Gerald Ford Presidential Library there are studies showing how with each turn of the news cycle – the “controversy” grew and Ford’s standing plummeted. Twenty-fours hours after the debate, the polls reversed and most Americans surveyed now perceived Jimmy Carter as the victor and Ford as the loser.
And that is the other duality most of us watching debates experience. We watch with our own eyes, listening with our own ears, assessing with our own particular balance sheets. But we will also be watching through the eyes of the media, seeing how reporters react and spin, knowing that their assessments will be so crucial in determining not just who wins the debates, but who wins the election.
The explanation Senator Clinton’s office gave for the shift was petulant and ignorant. Apparently, Clinton felt blindsided by news of Palin’s appearance. Palin’s “attendance was news to us, and this was never billed to us as a partisan political event,” Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Philippe Reines, told the New York Times. “Senator Clinton will therefore not be attending.” Upset by the controversy, a day later the organizers declared that no elected officials would attend, to keep the event"nonpartisan." But as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama showed in their joint appearance on September 11, sometimes political rivals have to stop opposing each other, even during election season. Imagine how powerful a message the American people would have sent to Iran had their two leading women politicians stood together during the presidential campaign against Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear-hungry mullahocracy.
Of course, Palin’s planned appearance was not simply altruistic and of course it had partisan aims. Politicians never stop prospecting for votes, especially during tough elections. And Palin’s willingness to protest against Ahmadinejad was part of her quest for legitimacy in foreign policy as well as a play for Jewish votes. Hillary Clinton’s initial decision to attend the rally also was partisan as was her decision to boycott this important round in the popular fight against Iran. It is not surprising that Clinton recoiled at the thought of helping Palin’s quest in any way, but it is disappointing that Clinton succumbed to those feelings, given the seriousness of the Iranian threat.
The organizers did not need the rally to be nonpartisan but bipartisan. A nonpartisan rally limits the guest list to apolitical people such as the writer Elie Wiesel, who is planning to lend his powerful moral voice to the effort. But the organizers initially understood that in the United States, power resides with partisan politicians. The rally would have been most effective had it been bipartisan – with influential representatives from both sides of the aisle. It is surprising that Senator Clinton and then the organizers failed to understand that distinction between bipartisan and nonpartisan. It is also unrealistic for Senator Clinton to walk around pretending that Sarah Palin has not become America’s newest political superstar.
The comic sensation of the week is a skit from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler imitating Palin and Clinton, respectively. The skit imagines the two of them uniting to battle sexism. On Monday, life could have outdone art. In fact, in addition to denouncing Ahmadinejad, Senator Hillary Clinton could have helped remind Americans of the many things that unite them, even during this campaign. Instead, Hillary Clinton played the partisan – and diminished her own moral standing in the process.
The candidates of 2008 seem to agree about one thing -- we need a change. Sen. Barack Obama is campaigning for "Change We Can Believe In," having defeated John Edwards, who cried "Join the Campaign to Change America," and Hillary Clinton, who insisted that she was "Ready for Change." Now, Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain, has warned "the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second crowd: Change is coming."
A promise to bring about "change" seems to be the most obvious campaign pledge: After all, most presidential campaigns are romantic quests promising salvation. And post-1960s Democrats have spoken of comprehensive change with particular zeal.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter rode a wave of Watergate disgust, promising "A Leader, for a Change." Eight years later, fighting Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984, Walter Mondale lost while proclaiming that "America Needs a Change." In an early example of the GOP shrewdly co-opting Democratic strategies, a retired Reagan gave his successor George H.W. Bush the slogan "We Are the Change" in 1988 and again in 1992. In the latter year, however, more Americans believed Bill Clinton, who proclaimed: "It's Time to Change America."
Before the 1960s, the word change was less popular -- and slogans were less existential. One of the most famous 19th-century slogans brusquely demanded, "Turn the Rascals Out," as reformers opposed Ulysses S. Grant's corrupt administration in 1872. Pro-administration Republicans simply responded: "Grant Us Another Term." During Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, the slogan was more subtle, but still less global than today. In 1936, supporters of Kansas governor Alfred M. Landon opposed FDR's New Deal by shouting, "Let's Get Another Deck." Successful insurgents understand that calls to change work best when there's hope for improvement. In 1960, John F. Kennedy rejected the complacent Eisenhower years, vowing, "We Can Do Better."
Of course, some presidents have resisted calls for change. Fighting for reelection while fighting the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln modestly told his fellow Republicans in 1864 that it was "Not best to swap horses while crossing the river" of fraternal conflict. The phrase caught on as the incumbent's rallying cry: "Don't swap horses in midstream." In 1900, William McKinley's reelection plea, "Let Well Enough Alone," was even less grandiose. Nevertheless, from 1896 to 1900, McKinley boosted his electoral and popular vote totals, suggesting that you don't always need a good slogan to secure a great victory.
On this score, the two candidates – and their parties – pose an interesting contrast. Barack Obama and the Democrats seem to risk forgetting the lessons of 9/11. Democrats barely mentioned terrorism or 9/11 during their convention. Moreover, their disgust with George W. Bush’s policy has soured too many on the entire War against Terror while misleading them that Bush somehow triggered the troubles. Democrats must remember that al Qaida declared war on America during Bill Clinton’s enlightened reign, when America was actively seeking peace in the Middle East.
Republicans, on the other hand, cannot use the continuing threat of terrorism as an excuse to justify ignoring America’s economic, energy, and health crises. It is frustrating to watch as Republicans fail to encourage serious alternatives to oil, considering the estimated $700 billion America pumps annually into many oil-saturated, terrorist-friendly regimes. Welcome steps toward energy independence would change the geopolitical conditions that have financed terrorists.
Much of this debate centers on the tactical divide between relying on hard power versus soft power. Obama Democrats tend to trust soft power; McCaniac Republicans tend to reverse Winston Churchill's maxim, and frequently trust "war, war" over "Jaw, Jaw." Of course, an effective foreign policy requires a deft mix of soft and hard power, trusting diplomacy but being willing and ready to use force if necessary.
More broadly, this anniversary should compel both candidates to remember what unites them as Americans – in opposing terror and facing other challenges as well. Political campaigns emphasize the differences between candidates, creating a series of false contrasts. Just because John McCain is passionately anti-terror, Barack Obama is not pro-terror. Just because Barack Obama is in favor of preserving civil liberties even amid the terrorist threat, John McCain is not against civil liberties.
Even amid the presidential campaign tensions, both candidates should make sure to affirm their and their country’s consensus against terror and for civil liberties. Barack Obama should give a speech detailing where he agrees with George W. Bush’s anti-terror strategy – before highlighting the disagreements. John McCain should identify what constitutional limitations he accepts when fighting terrorism – before justifying the emergency measures he feels the war warrants. Such statements would shrink the partisan battlefield, emphasizing the consensus Americans share with their two presumptive nominees in abhorring terror and cherishing the Constitution.
Sarah Palin’s rhetorical tour de force on Wednesday night energized the once-listless Republican convention – and may have spurred John McCain to give one of the best speeches of his life as well. McCain is not a natural. Unlike his Democratic rival, McCain is far better in informal back-and-forths with voters than with grand addresses in large settings. But it was clear that McCain felt vindicated by Palin’s success – after a week of naysaying that questioned his judgment along with her suitability – and pretty jazzed too. McCain also feels vindicated by his call for the surge against Iraq and his decades of fighting corruption, and based his appeal on his record not just of serving, but of being right and righteous.
While much of his acceptance speech was unexceptional, neither as soaring as Obama’s nor as fun as Pallin’s, McCain ended with a rousing call to Americans to fight for what’s right. Starting with a powerful recounting of his experiences as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam, saying that he learned from the traumas he endured to live for his country not just for himself, McCain called on his fellow Americans to learn the same lesson. Culminating with a patriotic haiku shouted above the cheers of his fellow Republicans, McCain cried: “Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight for what’s right for our country. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people.” Using the kind of rhetoric that usually sets foreign teeth on edge but Americans love, McCain ended saying: “We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.”
McCain’s speech, though less entertaining and memorable than Palin’s, offered an important balance to his running mate’s rhetoric. Underneath all Palin’s charm was an ugly, divisive call for Republicans to revive the Culture Wars of the last few decades. Her us versus them message, though gift-wrapped beautifully, may help Republicans win in 2008 but is not what America needs. Politically, it helped compensate for George W. Bush’s historic lows in the polls, and the perception that Republicans have no fresh solutions to the problems that have appeared on their watch. But it was the equivalent of the lawyer with a guilty client pounding the table passionately to compensate for the weakness of his case.
McCain’s speech reinforced the message that Republicans are patriots who serve, especially in the military, and Democrats are doubters who dodge. But McCain also elegantly saluted Barack Obama and the Democrats as “fellow Americans,” saying: “that’s an association that means more to me than any other.” McCain also called for an end to the “partisan rancor” that characterizes so much of contemporary politics. He used his running mate to emphasize his maverick status as a Washington outsider – and as someone not responsible for the Bush administration’s failures.
The election remains too close to call and will inevitably be fought passionately, and at times, viciously. But perhaps, just this once, Americans can be proud that they have such talented people vying to be their leaders. Perhaps, just this once, we can follow John McCain’s cue, and appreciate the common ideals that unite these leaders and their fellow citizens, even amid the hurly burly and hoopla of a presidential campaign.
Without trying to minimize the current tribulations of the hurricane-Gustav-tossed regions, and well-aware of the ongoing trauma of Katrina, it is nevertheless easy to mock the sick synergies between hysterical television reporters and posturing politicians on display this holiday weekend. Network anchors often seem downright disappointed when their exaggerated predictions of unprecedented storm damage so frequently are not met; and there are few scenes more cringe-inducing than a convention-hall filled with maudlin politicians trying to outdo each other sentimentally.
Moreover, the strategy worked. So far, the coverage of McCain and the Republicans has been rapturous. President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney ended up with golden excuses for keeping their low popularity ratings and toxic embrace of the McCain campaign thousands of miles away. And Cindy McCain was spared the humiliation of having her speech compared with Michelle Obama’s silky-smooth superb speech last week.
Less cynically, there is something unsettling about changing procedures in one of the northern-most states when a storm is affecting some of the southern-most states. In politics as in entertainment, the usual instinct is to insist that “the show must go on.” One of American democracy’s glories is that presidential elections have kept to their quadrennial cycle in good times and in bad, during civil war and world wars. Sticking to the routine despite disasters, be they natural or man-made, has great appeal. To start fiddling with the fundamentals of the American political system such as the party conventions unnerves the body politic.
Despite all these concerns, there is something profoundly moving about dramatically changing procedures in one of the northern-most states when a storm is affecting some of the southern-most states. McCain’s sacrifice – and losing four days of television coverage during such a tight race is a sacrifice – helps remind Americans that politics is about more than partisanship. McCain’s gesture – and the hundreds of thousands of dollars Republicans have been donating to flood relief at the convention – affirm that these disparate states remain united, that this country of 300 million people still has a sense of community.
One of the great secrets to American success has been American nationalism, this near magical ability to feel a sense of connection across this vast, diverse, continental empire. There is something delightfully old-fashioned about turning the Republican National Convention into what one Fox News anchor called yet another Labor Day telethon. Before pummeling each other politically, before even choosing a future leader, Americans sometimes need to stop what they are doing, roll up their sleeves, and work together to solve a problem. When people from all over the country gathering in Minneapolis feel the pain of their fellow citizens in New Orleans, America shows that it still works.
We need a politics that can accommodate that kind of communal cooperation even amid partisan combat. We need politicians who can build that sense of community and respond to national crises as national leaders, seeking what is best for our nation, not just for their party.
In fairness, Barack Obama and the Democrats have been equally gracious during this difficult, confusing weekend. But given that John McCain and the Republicans sacrificed more this week, they deserve all the more credit. This campaign has not always produced the kind of high-minded politics both Obama and McCain each have promised, at their respective bests. But this moment of inter-regional sensitivity, national sensibility, and human generosity should be remembered as a highlight, not only of this campaign but of this era, when our focus on individual differences and elite cynicism about nationalism tends to overlook the powerful positive forces keeping Americans together, forging the American nation.
Palin drew a line between those who serve in the army – and those who don’t, between those who live in the bicoastal bubble – and those who live in what she made clear was the real America. To appreciate her performance at its best, remember the angry harsh attacks Marilyn Quayle and Pat Buchanan launched in 1992. Palin was equally sharp but far less shrill. Lines about a candidate who has authored two memoirs about his life but authored no major law, about a small town mayor being like a community organizer – but with responsibility were zingers aimed directly at Barack Obama, delivered with a smile. In her ability to plunge the stiletto so deftly, and so delightfully, Sarah Palin channeled the great hero of depressed Republicans, Ronald Reagan.
Tonight was definitely a big win for Sarah Palin, for John McCain, and the GOP. Of course, the real question is – is this good for Am erica? Does America need another round of culture wars, even if delivered with a smile?I for one don’t think so and hope that this election will be fought about the problems we need to solve rather than the anxieties demagogues can stir.
The moment when Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended the state-by-state roll call vote she had demanded, moving for the 2008 Democratic Convention to nominate Senator Barack Obama by acclamation, was extraordinary. Network cameras, inevitably, zeroed in on African-Americans, young and old, beaming, as tears poured down their cheeks. For the first time in American history, a major political party had nominated a black man to be president. Critics have ample time left to bash Obama for various shortcomings. But this week, anyone who cares about justice, equality, democracy and the American dream can rejoice that Barack Obama was nominated to lead the Democratic Party, once the voice of America’s ugliest racists.
Yes, we can appreciate the extent of America’s turnaround on race by exploring the Democrats’ shameful history. America’s progressive party today – which boasts of being the world’s oldest continuous democratic political party – was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the prince of American paradox, whose slaves waited on him as he wrote the magical words that would eventually free them: “all men are created equal.” By contrast, the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln, founded in the 1850s to abolish slavery.
Thus, before the Civil War, as the party of the South, of a weak central government, and of Jeffersonian liberty, the Democratic Party defended Southern plantation owners’ freedom to own slaves. After the Civil War, Democrats celebrated the “Lost Cause,” misremembering the attempt to keep human beings enslaved as a noble fight against Big Government and for private prerogative. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful Southern Senators who opposed federal laws banning lynching.
In the 1960s, the Democratic Party was the party of the powerful Southern Senators who opposed the Civil Rights Movement. Some tried torpedoing the now legendary 1964 Civil Rights Act by adding a sweeping amendment promising women equality too. These Southern racists assumed their fellow sexists in the North would never accept such an absurdity. The strategy backfired. The 1964 Act has benefited women and African-Americans.
Of course, by the 1930s, thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic Party was becoming the party of the forgotten, the oppressed, the left behind. For three decades, Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, tried propping up the collapsing coalition between Northern Democratic liberals, including blacks, and the recalcitrant Southern racists. When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he understood that the Democrats would lose the white South for decades – resulting in today’s diversity-obsessed party, now led by the son of a white woman who married a black African.
Barack Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. True, Obama’s biggest problem has been being too green – inexperienced – not too black. True, he is of a new post-Baby Boom generation, freed of Jesse Jackson’s anger, Al Sharpton’s antics, Louis Farakkhan’s hatred. But whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed, subgroup bursts through a glass ceiling, it is an individual and group achievement. A popular if unprovable story about America’s first Jewish Cabinet member, Oscar Straus, recalls that when President Theodore Roosevelt met leaders of the American Jewish community celebrating the appointment, he told them what they wanted to hear. TR insisted: “I chose Oscar Straus because he was the best man for the job.” Then, the legendary banker Jacob Schiff, now old and deaf, thanked the President, saying that when President Roosevelt told him it was time to have a Jew in the Cabinet, Oscar Straus was the obvious choice.
And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom loving people everywhere honor his individual achievement – along with the welcome breakthrough for people of color and oppressed minorities everywhere. We toast apostles of freedom like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose love of liberty laid the groundwork to free their country from the great contradiction of slavery. We recall the millions who suffered through slavery, and the 600,000 who died in the Civil War to end America’s original sin. We can finally bury “Jim Crow,” the horrific system Southerners then improvised to imprison freed blacks in a maze of local laws keeping them second class citizens. We mock the slavery-loving nineteenth-century Southerners like Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and the “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever,” twentieth-century racists like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who tried their hardest to put off this day. We mourn that martyrs like...
Watching Bill Clinton’s performance Wednesday night removed any doubts about this admittedly ungenerous interpretation of Mrs. Clinton, who had made an impressive comeback in her own historic presidential quest. The ex-President was characteristically charming, charismatic, compelling – and completely self-absorbed. He gave the Democrats exactly what they wanted – an enthusiastic, eloquent endorsement of Barack Obama that was far more specific and substantive than his wife’s vague okay the night before. But this Clinton catharsis was a con because, like a compulsive flirt who everyone knows will succumb eventually, the drama was all self-made – and damaging.
By acting so ungracious for months, by being so petulant about Obama, the whippersnapper who dared seized the mantle both Clintons decided Hillary had earned, Clinton created the crisis his endorsement resolved. Thus the convention – and this particularly historic day -- ended up being far more about the Clintons than it ever should have been. By working himself so relentlessly and effectively into the Democratic story line, Clinton repaired much of the damage he had caused to his own reputation during the campaign, and made himself relevant in the 2008 Convention. But it came at great cost to Obama and the Democratic campaign. Far too much time and energy was expended in Clinton-crisis-management. Every moment reporters spent speculating about the joint will-he-or won’t-he and will-she-or-won’t-she endorsement questions was one less moment spent boosting the Democrats’ candidate, Barack Obama.
Moreover, ultimately, despite Bill Clinton’s clever, skillful endorsement, both Clintons made Barack Obama look weak. One Fox News commentator suggested that had the Clintons been the winners, they would have imposed a deal on Obama. They would have pushed supporters to cover the defeated rival’s campaign debt on the condition that he maintain a low profile at the convention and follow their script to a tee. Instead, as always with the Clintons, too much of this convention was all about them, rather than about Barack Obama and his historic but now somewhat distracted push for the presidency.
Instead, Hillary Clinton mostly provided a laundry list. She ticked off various programs she advocated, particular policies she liked, and specific individuals she met on the campaign trail. She did what she needed to do, getting in a few good shots against George W. Bush and John McCain, urging her disappointed supporters to vote for Barack Obama. In fairness, she was also commanding, charismatic, and quite moving when she linked her campaign to women’s historic aspirations for equality. But even when she spoke about women’s rights – and quoted Harriet Tubman so effectively – she offered no vision of what women could do for America as women, she triggered no thoughts deeper than “it’s our turn,” and “our time has come.”
The speech again illustrated one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the nomination failed in the first place. There was no overriding idea propelling her candidacy forward, nothing deeper than “it’s MY turn,” and “MY time has come.” Observers can argue about whether Barack Obama is an old-fashioned liberal or a post-baby-boomer synthesizer transcending the black-white, red-blue divisions of yesteryear. But at least there is something substantive behind his various stands, some broader, deeper, thought-provoking and soul-expanding message.
Hillary’s speech was that of the diligent grade grubber not the romantic poet, of the hardworking ant not the soaring eagle. It was in keeping with her history as Bill Clinton’s dutiful behind-the-scenes supporter rather than a Clintonesque riffer who can at once charm and inspire, making Americans feel good about themselves while being challenged to think about how to better their nation.
And speaking of duty, Hillary Clinton fulfilled her obligation to Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. In fact, she was far more gracious – and far less destructive – than Reagan was in 1976 or Kennedy was in 1980. Still, it was quite obvious that she was following the party script not speaking from her heart. She had specific compliments for Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, Obama’s life-mate and running mate, but was quite vague when it came to Obama himself. Hillary Clinton endorsed Barack Obama generically as a fellow Democrat not specifically as a candidate.
Of course, the whole scene must have been excruciating for her, and she deserves credit for handling it so well. In fact, watching her, it was striking how far she had evolved from the brittle, insecure, angry woman she was when she debuted on the national stage in 1992. Hillary Clinton seems to be having a great time as her own woman, as her own politician – her opening riff about the pride she took in her various roles mentioned “mother” but skipped over “wife.” If she could only find a little more poetry in her prose-laden politics, if she could only learn to bring the various pieces of her policy jigsaw puzzle together into a compelling package, she could be an even more formidable politician – and a greater threat to both of the current candidates.
In a lovely address that was more about setting a tone than solving problems, Mrs. Obama offered her more conventional biography of South-Side-Chicago-girl-made-good as a way of Americanizing her husband’s famously unconventional biography. Michelle Obama began by repeatedly emphasizing her humble origins, her parents’ values, her up-from-the-bootstraps life story. Standing by the podium radiant and – thank you Joe Biden – not just articulate but eloquent -- Michelle Obama was implicitly saying to Mr. and Mrs. America, “I’m just like you. I began in a small room in an undistinguished neighborhood, and look how far I have come.” And then, rhetorically embracing her husband, blurring her story with his, she proclaimed: “And you know, what struck me when I first met Barack was that even though he had this funny name, even though he’d grown up all the way across the continent in Hawaii, his family was so much like mine. He was raised by grandparents who were working class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves.”
Taking the American dream as their common lodestone, she said: “And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
Prior to Michelle Obama’s warm, uplifting speech, Ted Kennedy, the perpetual crown prince of the Democratic Party, made his emotional plea for a Barack Obama presidency. Slower and bloated, but still passionate, Kennedy deputized the young Illinois senator as the heir to Camelot. Speaking of dreams, and channeling his own extraordinary, fiery, and heartbreaking “the dream will never die” consolation speech at the 1980 convention after losing the Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy proclaimed: “The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on.”
In the one false note in an otherwise powerful opening, the video tribute to Senator Kennedy spent a lot of time filming him as he steered various younger Kennedys on a majestic sailing ship. It seemed pretty clear that this schooner was part of the Kennedy fleet and not a one-time rental. In a week when Democrats were busy mocking Senator John McCain’s many houses, a quiet scene at home – or at the office -- might have been politically wiser.
Of course, the beauty of the American Dream is that it allows our politicians to be far wealthier than ordinary Americans –as so many are. The Obamas have to emphasize their humble origins because, having converted Barack Obama’s newfound celebrity into newfound riches, they do not want to lose their once-common touch. American Dream rhetoric soothes have-nots with hopes of joining the haves, taking the sting out of class differences. The Kennedys have long been a family humanized by both heartbreaking tragedies and soaring liberal idealism despite their vast wealth. McCain erred by appearing doddering and out of touch, relying on his staff to count his and his wife’s houses.
While Americans are not always tolerant of the ways of the wealthy -- as John Kerry discovered when he was mocked for windsurfing in 2004 – Americans frequently put up with loaded pols. Perhaps less acceptable are overloaded intellectual credentials. In his botched, sexist introduction of his wife during his debut as Vice Presidential nominee on Saturday, Senator Joe Biden seemed to mock his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, for being a braniac – or at least awkwardly try insulating her from those charges. He said: “Ladies and gentlemen, my wife, Jill, who you'll meet soon, is drop-dead gorgeous. My wife, Jill, who you'll meet soon, she also has her doctorate degree, which is a problem. But all kidding aside, my Jill, my Jill, my wife, Jill, and I are honored to join Barack and Michelle on this journey, because that's what it is.”
The true American journey, which catapulted the Obamas, the Bidens, the McCains and the Kennedys to the stratosphere, acknowledges difference while seeking equality of opportunity. Great wealth is acceptable – but so should be great intellectual achievements, which certainly helped Michelle and Barack Obama get where they are today.
It was one of the interesting anomalies of the 2008 Democratic race. There were three Washington veterans with decades of experience who went absolutely nowhere during the campaign. Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson failed to get any traction, despite decades of governing and countless days and nights of hobnobbing with Beltway insiders. The three frontrunners, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had far better claims to outsider status – Edwards served only one term in the Senate, Clinton was just starting her second term, and Barack Obama was the most famous Senate freshman in decades.
Biden was a particular embarrassment on the campaign trail, shaming himself and his institution with his awkward, seemingly condescending remarks describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” After winning 9,000 votes and finishing fifth in Iowa, Biden left the race, proving how little American voters are impressed by a three-decade Senatorial resume. Obama’s ability to forgive Biden’s gaffe suggests a personal grace and generosity that is nice to see in politics; but this choice may fuel questions about Obama’s political and policy judgment.
Beyond this stunning – and recent -- political failure, Biden’s supposed foreign policy experience may alienate both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will note that, unlike Obama, Biden voted for the war in Iraq - -just as Hillary Clinton and John McCain did. Thus, in the future, Obama will have to be a little more cautious when he mocks McCain’s judgment about initially supporting the war. At the same time, conservatives will note Biden’s failure to support the surge. This suggests that for all the media hype about Biden’s brilliance in overseas matters, he is just a conventional, finger-to-the-wind type, buffeted by the political trends of the moment. Holding fifty-plus Senate hearings and appearing repeatedly on Sunday morning television shows reveals a mastery of the Washington game not the intricacies of foreign affairs.
At the same time, centrists will mourn the fact that Joe Biden is neither a fresh face nor a bridge-builder. He lacks Obama’s outsider credentials and McCain’s track record in seeking bipartisan solutions. Biden is a good Democratic soldier, who has consistently stayed within party boundaries and helped create today’s destructive, angry, overly-charged Washington quagmire. In fact – and this we are told is part of his appeal – Biden knows how to throw hard political punches, as demonstrated by his partisanship during the Robert Bork and Samuel Alito hearings.
To be fair, Biden seems to be a decent man who has demonstrated tremendous personal grit over the years. The poignant story of the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter in an automobile accident shortly before he entered the Senate, his ability to raise his two boys on his own and eventually start a new family, his comeback from two brain aneurysms, and his record of thirty years in Washington without a major scandal – or it seems, a big payday – are all extremely admirable. But virtue does not always guarantee votes – as George H.W. Bush learned when Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992.
In fact, speaking of Clinton, Obama would have done much better had he learned from Clinton in 1992. That year, amid doubts about Clinton’s youth and inexperience, Clinton showed great moxie in refusing to nominate an elder statesman to compensate for his supposed weaknesses. Instead, Clinton thrilled voters by choosing another young Southern politician, Al Gore. This vice-presidential choice reinforced Clinton’s message of change; Obama’s choice, unfortunately, muddied the waters, suggesting that, at the end of the day, 2008 is going to be another conventional campaign and Obama may be just another conventional politician, like his new best friend, Joe Biden.
In some ways, both of the presumptive nominees are stuck in the same narratives that ended up in their respective party victories; yet this time, only one can win. John McCain spent much of the nomination campaign being eulogized, criticized, and counted out, only to surge when it counted on his way to a surprisingly easy victory. Barack Obama enjoyed a happy hurricane of hype after his Iowa victory, only to watch the predicted cakewalk get complicated as criticisms of him mounted and his opponent fought back tenaciously but ultimately unsuccessfully.
Still, no matter how self-confident he might be, watching the doubting Thomases proliferate cannot be fun for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Whether he wins or loses, this pre-convention period will be remembered as Barack Obama’s lost summer of missed opportunities. Rather than breaking away from McCain in a grand push toward political immortality, Obama is entering the campaign appearing to be just another political mortal, with a surprising number of vulnerabilities.
The modern presidential campaign is a struggle over competing story lines. For the last few weeks, the Republicans have been able to shift the plot-line away from talk about this being the Democrats’ year, to talk about how could the Democrats appear vulnerable in what is supposed to be a Democratic year.
Next week, despite the inevitable Clintonesque distractions, Barack Obama has an opportunity to seize control of the campaign narrative once again. He will start with his vice presidential choice. As George W. Bush acknowledged when he chose Dick Cheney, from the electorally insignificant state of Wyoming, in modern campaigns vice presidents are props. Obama’s choice will help shape the Obama story, as will general perceptions of the management of the convention. But for someone who has come so far so fast on his oratory, the big moment will remain Obama’s acceptance speech. Not one to shy away from the challenge, Obama has upped the ante historically, by choosing to deliver his speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Obama has upped the ante dramatically, by shifting the venue to a 70,000-seat stadium.
When delivering the speech, Obama will not only be competing with Dr. King. He will be competing with himself, trying to outdo his rhetorical brilliance four years ago at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The stakes are high. Given that the Republicans meet right after the Democrats, the Democratic bounce from the Convention could be minimal. Obama has to deliver big time to jumpstart his campaign and remind Americans why so many rushed to nominate him last spring.
The news that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name will be placed in nomination at the Democratic National Convention not only cheered her still-disappointed supporters. It also delighted television network executives saddled with the task of attracting viewers to the Democratic National Exercise in Rubber-Stamping. All of a sudden, the drama of the Obama-Clinton battle may be repeated. All of a sudden, both Bill and Hillary Clinton are back where they love to be, where they need to be – front and center, even if this convention was supposed to be Barack Obama’s star-turn.
The roll call charade will evoke conventions of yesteryear when these quadrennial gatherings actually made a difference and designated an often surprising nominee. But the modern message underlying this traditional ritual will be quite clear. After months in the spotlight, Hillary Clinton virtually disappeared from the public radar screens once Barack Obama eked out his victory over her. But Senator Clinton – and her ex-president husband – want to remind the American people that she won more than 17 million votes, and many of those votes came from enthusiastic women devastated by Hillary’s loss.
Whatever Hillary Clinton loses by appearing too brazen, she gains much more with this power play. Just as fighting to the last primary battle boosted her standing – and illustrated the depth of her support – the successful demand to star in this convention psychodrama underscores just how significant a role she and her husband continue to play in the Democratic Party.
Obama’s is the riskier move here. He cannot appear to be cowed by the Clintons. He has to be magnanimous without being swept up in the Clinton cyclone. Obama cannot play the stolid William Howard Taft to the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt. He cannot allow former-President Bill Clinton to undercut him as Dwight Eisenhower undermined Richard Nixon in 1960, by asking for a week’s time to remember any of Nixon’s Vice-presidential accomplishments. Obama also cannot allow Hillary Clinton to give the kind of soaring consolation speech which steals delegates’ hearts, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976 or Ted Kennedy did in 1980.
Of course, the alluring Obama is no Taft. He is banking on the fact that the renewed excitement and drama will redound to his benefit – after all, the conclusion is pre-determined (warning: spoiler ahead): Obama has enough delegates to win the nomination. Moreover, he is banking on the same constellation of forces that helped him win in the first place. He – not Hillary – is more likely to steal the show – and American hearts – with a dazzling display of eloquence. If Hillary Clinton had those skills, she would be the one doling out convention slots and figuring out how to satisfy her rivals – and would be well on her way to the White House.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, represent the two sides of the political fault line that the Baby Boomers 1960s’ earthquake triggered (John McCain, born in 1936, pre-dated the Baby Boom). Clinton and his buddies were traumatized by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, tormented by the Vietnam War’s draft, yet inspired by their political and cultural revolution’s transformational potential. Others, like George W. Bush, enjoyed the “sex, drugs, and rock n’roll” moment, but, politically, triggered the conservative backlash.
As a Baby Buster, born as America’s birth rate stabilized, Barack Obama was too young even to lie as so many Baby Boomers did about being at Woodstock in 1969 – he was only eight. Rather than being children of the 1960s, we were children of the 1970s. We stewed in the defeatism of Viet Nam, the cynicism of Watergate, the pessimism of Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis rather than the triumphalism of the post-World War II world. Most of us did not experience “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moments teaching us life was so simple; with the divorce revolution fragmenting families all around us, most of us watched Michelle Obama’s favorite show, “The Brady Bunch,” with knowing, pre-post-modernist smirks.
Moreover, thanks to Stagflation, that unique seventies combo of inflation and unemployment, we – and our Depression-era parents – were anomalies in modern America: we grew up doubting the fundamental American idea of progress, doubting we could fulfill the American dream of outdoing our parents and bettering our own lives. In college, many of us felt inadequate for being less radical and influential than our older peers, even as we considered them tiresome and self-righteous.
Surprisingly, after all the Baby Boomers’ experimentation, in our generation, the rebellious ones were the straight ones. For anyone in the left or the center who did not want to be tagged as – heaven forbid – a goody-goody – it was easier to “do it” than to abstain. Even today, when Barack Obama talks about traditional morality and political moderation he risks being mocked by his peers and his usual ideological allies among the “let it all hang out” Boomers.
Of course, demography is not destiny; the generational game – which the Baby Boomers typically overdid – should not be overplayed. Still, it is not surprising that it was Jon Stewart, born in 1962, who has been among the few public figures to champion moderation, blasting the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire for dividing America. And it is not surprising that Obama came to prominence with an un-Boomer-like call for unity and healing.
In his book “Audacity of Hope” and during the 2006 Congressional campaign, Obama emphasized this generational divide. But the Baby Boomer cohort remains too large to risk alienating during a tight presidential contest, so he has done less Boomer-bashing lately. Still, as he demonstrated in defeating Hillary Clinton, born in 1947, Obama is more nimble than many Baby Boomers. He is less starry-eyed and less battle-scarred, thus less doctrinaire, freer of the great Baby Boomer fault line and more anxious for national healing.
Those of us born in the early 1960s have long been upstaged by our louder, more self-righteous, older peers and siblings. Wherever we stand politically, many of us understand that Obama’s syntheses of tradition and innovation, his calls to transcend the usual divides, reflect a collective generational frustration. Many of us are fed up with the older generation’s media-hogging, polarizing, tendencies. Demographers called Boomers the pig–in-the-python because they stuck out demographically. Their attitudes often simply stuck in our craws as we yearned for a less bitter, less zero-sum politics – which is what Obama the birthday boy, at his best, is promising.
Historians are trained to bristle at the term “unprecedented.” We watch journalists hyperventilate and hype stories as we acknowledge we have seen it all before with a world-weary sigh. But Barack Obama’s whirlwind world tour is certainly un... usual. True, senators travel all the time, jetting around the world with more zeal than Phineas Fogg or the Harlem Globetrotters. (Memo to the under-thirty crowd, for Phineas Fogg check out “Around the World in Eighty Days,” for Harlem Globetrotters check out any old geezer who grew up in the Seventies). True, John McCain himself has visited Iraq and just last month made a foreign policy speech in Ottawa, the capital of that country to the north of the United States. But to appreciate the um, out-of-the-box nature of Obama’s trip, consider his trip in broader historical perspective – and check out the amazing coverage he received.
Thinking historically, let us remember that it was not until the twentieth century that a president in office actually traveled abroad. In 1906 Theodore Roosevelt visited Central America to supervise the construction of the Panama Canal. In December, 1918, when Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris for World War I peace negotiations, he stayed abroad for all but ten days of the next six months, returning to Washington in July 1919. More recently, it would have been inconceivable during the 1944 election, at the height of World War II, for the Republican nominee Thomas E. Dewey to drop by Winston Churchill or Josef Stalin for a quick chat while campaigning against Franklin D. Roosevelt. And in October, 1952, Dwight Eisenhower generated coast-to-coast headlines with a simple, dramatic, promise of an intention to travel, proclaiming, “I shall go to Korea.”
The Eisenhower pledge is worth remembering because, like Barack Obama’s Middle East and European tour, it was all about stagecraft more than statesmanship. When the great hero of World War II promised to go to Korea, he was playing to Americans’ hopes that his presence would magically solve the Far Eastern mess. In this case, the alchemy is supposed to have a reverse flow: Democrats are hoping that by not making a mess of it, the drama of overseas travel will burnish Barack Obama’s foreign policy credentials – and boost his standing as a leader.
Midway through the trip, the magic seems to be working. Most important of all, Obama has avoided a major gaffe. But beyond the avoidance of the negative, the level of coverage has been iconic, not just presidential. Even before delivery, his Berlin speech was being compared with John Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall” – two of the most influential presidential addresses in history. The three-network-news anchor honor guard accompanying Obama guaranteed Pope-level coverage. This trip has proved once again that not only is Obama’s candidacy the most exciting political story of the decade, but that the election remains all-Obama-all-the-time; this election is Obama’s to win or lose.
There are two, contradictory, lessons one hopes Obama will draw from his excellent adventures. His foreign policy needs more nuance and more passion. The simplistic sloganeering the campaign trail demands simply does not fit the Middle Eastern realities. Only a fanatic could visit Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel without realizing just how messy and multi-dimensional each conflict is. Seeing each of those situations should be humbling for a potential president, reminding him of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to John Kennedy that the easy decisions are made outside the Oval Office, only the impossible problems end up on the president’s desk.
At the same time, Obama risks being too cool, too detached, especially on core issues such as the fight against terrorism. He says the right thing, as he did after the heinous bulldozer attack in central Jerusalem, just blocks from his hotel; but many listeners are never sure how deeply he cares about the issue. This latest Palestinian terror attack, executed by an East Jerusalem resident with Israeli papers, may give Barack Obama what we could term his John Kennedy-Joschka Fischer wake-up call. John Kennedy only realized the depths of poverty in America when he visited Appalachia during the 1960 West Virginia primary. Joschka Fischer was the German foreign minister who was visiting Israel in June 2002, when a suicide bomber murdered 21 young Israeli revelers outside the Dolphinarium disco. Fischer also had teenager children and had recently jogged right in front of that site. He subsequently referred to that moment as “ the terrible terror attack on the kids in the Dolphinarium” and was much more passionate in denouncing Palestinian terrorism.
Both Kennedy and Fischer were intellectuals in politics. Each was “cool,” and not afraid of nuance, but also not afraid of passion. Obama could do well by emulating both...
Barack Obama and John McCain clashed over foreign policy this week - or did they? While some headlines emphasized the two candidates' differences -proclaiming "McCain Slams Obama on Iraq Surge," the two also agreed on many important fundamentals - as well as key policies. Their points of overlap demonstrate that both are patriots, both are"anti-terror," both seek an American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the previous sentence needs to be written, of course, illustrates the absurd extremes to which so many partisan critics take the polarizing discourse about the candidates.
Characteristically - and in fairness, due to the setting -- Obama's speech at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building in Washington was more sweeping, more visionary, more programmatic. McCain's response at a town hall meeting was more focused, more hands-on, more strategic.
Obama built his speech by remembering America's Cold War containment policy, embracing George Marshall's faith in"judgment," mixing what we now call"hard" and"soft" power. Before finishing with an inspirational return to his history lesson, Obama demonstrated his commitment to righting the wrongs of the Bush years with a deft combination of self-sacrifice, selflessness, muscle-flexing and nation-building -- in the United States and abroad. He sees foreign policy - like domestic policy - as a vehicle for national renewal, for encouraging Americans to work together and build a national sense of mission and community, while defending their nation and improving the world. Less loftily, Obama proclaimed"five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century."
Obviously, the rhetoric of a campaign speech does not necessarily anticipate a president's track record in the Oval Office. But the bulk of Obama's speech would be thoroughly acceptable to most Ronald Reagan Republicans. In particular, both Obama and McCain agreed about the need to beef up the American troop presence in Afghanistan.
In response, John McCain focused part of his stump speech in New Mexico on Obama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, rather than delivering a more formal foreign policy address. Highlighting the contrast between the young, eloquent, intellectual visionary and the wizened warrior, McCain came out swinging,"I know how to win wars. I know how to win wars," McCain told his Albuquerque audience."And if I'm elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory, I know how to do that." Sharpening his elbows, McCain said:"In wartime, judgment and experience matter. In a time of war, the commander in chief doesn't get a learning curve." And more directly, he mocked his opponent, reading two Obama quotations, one back in January 2007 doubting the surge would work, and a second one a year later, acknowledging that more troops in Iraq led to more stability."My friends, flip-floppers all over the world are enraged," McCain chuckled.
In fact, both candidates are converging, not only about Afghanistan. Both understand that in the wake of the Bush presidency, America needs to experience an economic, diplomatic, and ideological renewal. Obama is more explicit about that - but McCain rides heavily on the fact that he was calling for what became the"surge" while George W. Bush was still blindly defending"Rummy" - Donald Rumsfeld - and pooh-poohing reports of chaos in Baghdad. And even on Iraq, Obama is cautiously, cleverly, and responsibly, narrowing the gap between his policies and McCain's. Obama still talks about giving the military"a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war" - an interesting choice of words considering that the traditional goal of most militaries is to win the war not just end it. Still, analysts noted that Obama's sixteen month timetable, now is set to begin on Inauguration Day - six months from now, and he spoke about a"residual" force remaining. Clearly, as the possibility that he just might become Commander-in-Chief grows, Obama is realizing that his rhetoric and his postures may have serious life-and-death implications.
This convergence in a campaign is good. It is not just the gravitational pull to the center we often see after primaries. It is not just the"oh, boy, I might be president" flight from irresponsibility. It is also precisely what the American people want. A...
The Democrats’ dilemma, namely how to blast President George W. Bush without being accused of bashing America, prompted Sen. Barack Obama to affirm his patriotism in Independence, Mo., last week. Obama correctly insisted that “no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism,” and patriots sometimes have a duty to dissent. But he avoided connecting patriotism to the idea of American nationalism, which is the very concept explaining why we need countries at all.
Discussions about patriotism, meaning love of country, frequently degenerate into absurd competitions to prove who loves his country more, or accusations that one candidate does not love the country enough. We end up focusing on whether candidates wear lapel pins, place their hands on their chests when singing the national anthem, or sing it on key. The conversation about nationalism goes deeper, about the very reason for organizing smaller communities into larger countries and into the vision of just what kind of nation we want to be.
Unfortunately, the great crimes of the 20th century made nationalism a dirty word to many. Defined by disasters like Bosnia’s brutality and Nazism’s horrors, the concept became linked with parochialism, xenophobia, prejudice, extremism, militarism and mass murder. It became trendy to celebrate the European Union as the “post-national” wave of the future. This ignores how Germanic Germans remain, how French the French still are. In fact, nationalism remains the world’s central organizing principle, with 192 nation-states in the United Nations.
Nationalism has unleashed great cruelty. But it has fueled many modern miracles, including America’s great liberal democratic experiment. Without appeals to the national conscience, without a strong sense of a national purpose, Americans might not have stayed united, settled the West, won world wars, explored space, mass-produced prosperity, spread essential rights or created the Internet, which, remember, was invented as a tool for national defense.
When Abraham Lincoln invoked “the mystic chords of memory,” he reminded Americans of the appealing ideals that united them as one nation. When Ronald Reagan saluted John Winthrop’s “shining city upon the hill,” he, too, summoned a mythic national past to push the country toward a better future. At its best, nationalism gets people dreaming and working together and behaving better than they might if they were just thinking selfishly or too locally.
Every day, Americans fulfill national ideals, living, and often quoting, the enduring phrases from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Americans enjoy a deep commitment to human life, unprecedented amounts of liberty and massive opportunities for the pursuit of happiness.
Thomas Jefferson’s five-word affirmation in the Declaration of Independence - that all men are created equal - has become impressively more inclusive over time. Since 1776, the phrase has empowered African-Americans, women, the poor and immigrants, inviting them to enjoy more and more of America’s goodies.
Nationalism focuses on “we the people,” not just the “I”; nationalism is about each nation’s romance with the land and myths about the past. Mining group pride and common goals can elevate not denigrate, include not exclude.
Lincoln’s cautious but egalitarian nationalism helped Northerners evolve beyond their initial racism to make the fight for union a fight against black slavery. Theodore Roosevelt’s romantic, upbeat patriotism helped industrializing Americans create a communal counterbalance to business power and sing a collective song of American altruism. Franklin Roosevelt’s can-do, optimistic communalism reassured and...
Arianna Huffington's slam on centrism - "Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers" -- proves that the struggle for the soul of Barack Obama continues. Moderate voices must stand tall and strong against the partisans pulling him to the left. Obama's meteoric rise to national prominence -- and his victory in the Democratic primaries -- resulted from the lyrical centrism of his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. Without that message of unity, moderation, centrism, civility, and sanity, Obama would be just another junior senator. If Obama forgets the origins of his brief career and lurches left, he risks returning to his Senate seat in the fall of 2008, behind even Hillary Rodham Clinton in the pecking order.
Huffington’s post on this issue rests on a false choice between principled extremism and centrist pandering. Huffington caricatures “tacking to the center” as “watering down th[e] brand,” playing to the “fence sitters,” and “dilut[ing]” Obama’s “own positioning.” Huffington fails to understand that being a moderate does not necessarily mean being a pushover. Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.
Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America's greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.
All these presidents succeeded because they understood that they had to play to the middle. Part of the reason why so many Americans are so angry with the current administration comes from George W. Bush’s disdain for the center. By not reaching out sufficiently, Bush has left many Americans alienated from his policies –and from America’s democracy.
Democracy is ultimately a fragile flower. Presidents – and presidential candidates – have to tend it carefully, remembering that the consent we who are governed grant is implied, and rests on a collective act of good will. Great presidents tap into a broad, mainstream strain of American nationalism that keeps this nation of now over 300 million people united and, on the whole, even-tempered.
Arianna Huffington also erred in claiming that previous Democratic nominees stumbled when they shifted to the center. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton did not lose because they were too centrist; they lost because each lacked an effective message – and allowed their opponents to define them. Huffington also conveniently overlooks the only Democrat to win a presidential election since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton, who repeatedly played to the center, and...